Blancanieves: Silent Film Still Lives in this Spanish Snow White Tale

A- Silent melodrama

  • Written and directed by Pablo Berger

Could The Artist have started a trend? Less than 18 months after Michel Hazanavicius’ silent comedy hit Bay Area screens, here comes another brand new silent film, also in narrow-screen black and white.

But Pablo Berger’s very Spanish take on Snow White is as different from The Artist as Nosferatu is from The General. The Artist, a comedy about the death of its own medium, looks to Hollywood for its inspiration. Blancanieves looks to the more expressionistic silent film of Europe to tell a story that could not possibly have worked as well with sound and color.

This isn’t your typical Snow White. The movie is more than half over by the time the wicked stepmother decides to kill the heroine. In this version, her father is a famous matador, crippled on the day his wife died giving birth to Carmen. Of course he makes a very bad choice for a second wife, and eventually young Carmen must flee to safety.

Don’t expect nuanced characters here; this is straight-up melodrama. Maribel Verdú gets the best role as the evil nurse who marries the ex-bullfighter and makes everyone miserable. She chews the scenery,  exploits a young child, turns her chauffer into a sex toy, and happily murders her husband. And she does it all with relish. She can even bite into a chicken leg as an act of spiteful vengeance.

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The seven dwarves–also bullfighters in this version and played by actual little people–bring in a level of joy and playfulness. At least three of them have strong, interesting characters, including one who clearly pines for Carmen (now called Snow White after she’s left home) and another who resents her.

In fact, all of the film’s weak moments–the times when the melodrama gets too overwrought and predictable–occur when neither the dwarves nor the stepmother are on screen. But isn’t that the case with all dramatic adaptations of Snow White? The villainess and sidekicks make up for the boring characters we’re supposed to root for.

But even in those weak scenes you’re still dazzled by Berger’s technique. Like the best European silent directors, he finds exciting ways to spin the camera and to visually tell us what he doesn’t show us. A close-up of a phonograph or a dissolve from one face to another communicates plenty.

I mentioned above that this story could not possibly have worked as well with sound and color. Here’s why: Blancanieves skirts on the edge of fantasy, with broad, slightly-overplayed characters and an overt, visually striking cinematic style that wouldn’t work in a more realistic medium. (The obvious, literal fantasy of the original tale and the Disney version have no place here.) The lack of talk, color, and realistic sound effects sets the story in an artificial world, allowing you to accept the more far-flung aspects of the story and style.

Berger has one tool that the real silent filmmakers lacked: sound. Alfonso de Vilallonga’s musical score propels the action and sometimes makes you want to dance. The music, as much as the costumes and the bullfighting, makes this very much a Spanish movie.

I don’t approve of bullfighting, or other forms of animal cruelty. I’m glad to say that, with all the arena scenes in this film, no bull dies in the course of the story. I can’t promise that none were injured making the movie, but if they were, we didn’t see it on screen.

The story is familiar, but Berger provides plenty of surprises. In the end, he stands the whole Prince Charming thing on its head.

Early on, as the melodrama built up, I found myself wondering why I’d agreed to screen this film. By the end, I was totally enchanted.

Blancanieves opens tomorrow at the Embarcadero.