There was nothing explicitly wrong with “The Artist,” a tenderly made homage to the swan song of silent cinema, until it transformed into an Oscar behemoth. Part of the issue with “The Artist” becoming overrated was the notion that its appropriation of silent film language had no immediate parallel. That presumption discounts virtually the entire output of Canadian stalwart Guy Maddin, not to mention the countless movies made in the immediate aftermath of silent cinema’s decay that maintained its essential qualities while widening the gate for the new technology (see: Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Vampyr”). Now comes the marvelous Spanish fairy tale “Blancanieves,” a moving revisionist approach to Snow White, which isn’t about the deteriorating commercial hoopla surrounding silent cinema a la “The Artist” but rather a pure celebration of the medium’s power.
Time was not on its side when “Blancanieves” premiered on the film festival circuit last fall, just months after “The Artist” swept the Oscars. There’s no doubt, however, that director Pablo Berger has made a superior movie, filled with gentle and exciting moments while staying true to its roots in a Brothers Grimm tale by peppering scenes with grotesque imagery. Embraced in its native country of Spain, where it won 10 Goya Awards including Best Film, it finally hits U.S. theaters this week and deserves singling out for recapturing the elegance of silent cinema at a time when most new releases ignore its strengths entirely.
With the legacies of silent greats like F.W. Murnau and Victor Sjöstrom bearing down on it, “Blancanieves” launches into an energetic fable in which accomplished matador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is fatally wounded at the climax of a Seville bullfight, frightening his pregnant wife and forcing her to go into labor. She dies in childbirth but the infant survives, although the newly paralyzed Antonio angrily rejects baby Carmen and leaves the hospital with scheming nurse Encarna (a femme fatale expertly played by Maribel Verdú). The child is raised by the matador’s amiable caretaker (Angela Molina) until her abrupt death several years later, when the now pre-adolescent Carmen is shipped to her father’s mansion, a menacing place lorded over by her naturally evil stepmother, the aforementioned nurse.
“Blancanieves” repeatedly pushes various emotions forward in its use of close-ups and montages almost never reliant on the crutch of title cards, which provide just enough detail to fill in plot gaps. The basic plot is simple enough that it’s easy to get swept up and forget that the movie maintains a rigid stylistic approach to each moment. After Carmen finds her crestfallen father and forms a relationship with him, the movie flashes forward several more years to find her all grown up and still persecuted by the deranged Encarna.
Now, well played by Mararena García, Carmen takes on a ferocity defined by Berger’s focus on a complex range of facial expressions. Yet Berger also finds room for wider shots of the empty landscape surrounding the mansion to draw out Carmen’s solemn world. Her harsh existence gives the expressionistic black-and-white cinematography a nightmarish quality that culminates when one of Encarna’s lackey attacks her in the woods before leaving her for dead, establishing the amusingly irreverent final act.
Rescued by a traveling troupe of little people, the amnesiac Carmen joins their circus routine and discovers a penchant for bullfighting in her blood. That skill — and the various schemers who attempt to stymie its potential — set the stage for a mesmerizing conclusion that turns up the dramatic potential of the material at seemingly every available moment.
This is both the movie’s credit and its chief flaw: Berger seems so wrapped up in the idea of making a grand silent movie in the tradition of his forebears that “Blancanieves” ultimately reeks of derivation, particularly during its heavy-handed finale. The story contains too many neat ingredients to hold down the obvious stabs at manipulation, which are invariably potent but also overwhelmingly dense (only the intense final sequence regains stable ground). Rather than trying to make a great silent film, Berger has crafted a great homage to the many things that silent films can do. If nothing else, “Blancanieves” offers an excellent case for revisiting the early days of cinema — and for recognizing how much has been lost in its absence. While “The Artist” recalled the silent film industry, “Blancanieves” solely pays tribute to the art.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Cohen Media Group opens “Blancanieves” in New York and Los Angeles on Friday. Festival and overseas buzz along with strong reviews may help it perform well over the weekend on two screens, but mainly it seems destined to do well in digital markets.