For anyone who had watched “The Artist,” the feeling that silent films could come back in fashion was little more than wishful thinking. The film was intentionally a pastiche, and it accomplished just that.
But if someone were to update silent movies for the 21st Century, the Spanish silent film “Blancanieves” is a perfect example of what this new genre should resemble. The quivery camera, shortened average shot length, overpowering close-ups, low shots and canted angles mixed with classical and Latin musical intensity is stylish and in your face, but also simple and lively.
Here’s a movie with a simple story and big emotions that might be unbearable if it was told another way. To call it a throwback misses the point. And director and writer Pablo Berger has picked no better place to start this revision than with a simultaneously dark, innocent and whimsical retelling of some of our oldest fairy tale legends.
Although the title is “Blancanieves,” Berger borrows from Cinderella and other Brothers Grimm tales as much as he does Snow White. It begins by introducing famed matador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), who during a daring performance is mauled by a bull and loses the ability to walk. At the same time, Antonio’s wife passes away during childbirth. Antonio’s nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdu) marries him, steals his wealth and separates him from his daughter Carmencita (Sofia Oria).
After Carmencita’s grandmother (Angela Molina) dies, she’s forced to come live with Encarna, who cuts her hair, makes her live in a basement shack and forbids her from laying eyes on her father. As years go by, Carmencita leaves home and follows in her father’s footsteps to become a famous bullfighter, leading a team of six (yes, six, not seven) bullfighting dwarves.
That plot summary covers the gamut of a lot of emotions and themes. “Blancanieves” winks at the camera to a fault in the way it embeds fairy tale references, and the film’s epic, scope tinged in grace notes of humor and tension send the film’s tone in all directions.
Perhaps that’s exactly appropriate of silent cinema. Where any dialogue would feel melodramatic and superfluous beyond belief, “Blancanieves” succeeds by telling a story through minimal measures, and yet in some ways feeling bigger in the process.
Take note of the powerful scene in which Carmencita’s grandmother passes away. The scene is scored to furious Latin guitar picking on a phonograph as the grandmother salsa dances to the rhythm. The music grants the scene a delicate energy, and to see her collapse has a deafening effect. As the phonograph runs out, the symbolism is heavy, but the cinematic tools to express them are elegantly selected.
The cinematography by Kiko de la Rica is often breathtaking. The black and white is hardly old-fashioned, and the bold lighting suggests fantasy and melancholy that “The Artist” certainly couldn’t muster.
If it found the right audience, “Blancanieves” could be a wonderful, moving crowd pleaser. Its story is perhaps not the one that will lead the charge of a new wave of movies, but this is exactly the way a modern silent film should both look and feel.