A very Spanish retelling of the Snow White fairytale, Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves is an enchanting, spellbinding homage to the silent age.
Matador by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Almost a decade since his hit comedy Torremolinos 73, Basque director Pablo Berger is back. The Snow White story, recently given more than one modern spin by Hollywood, seems an unlikely point of departure for groundbreaking Spanish cinema. But make it silent, black-and-white and a tragedy, and Blancanieves is a daring, stunning and utterly absorbing retelling of the tale of the banished heroine and her wicked step-mother. There are poisoned apples and dwarfs, but this is no remake of the Disney 1937 classic, with neither jewel mines nor housekeeping fauna. Instead, Pablo Berger’s fairy tale is a very Andalusian tale of a family ripped apart.
Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is a famous matador who, with his heavily pregnant wife Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta) watching from the stands, is gored in the bullring. While she goes into labour, gives birth to a baby daughter and dies, Antonio is left paralysed and alone, to be nursed back to health by scheming Encarna (Maribel Verdú). Carmencita is cared for by her grandmother Doña Concha (Ángela Molina) while Antonio marries his child-hating nurse. But when Doña Concha dies, Carmen is shipped off to live with them. She is relegated to scullery maid, forbidden from going up to the mansion’s first floor and charged with looking after the chickens. But when one day her pet rooster Pepe ventures upstairs, Carmen discovers her father, wheelchair bound and miserable. A few years later, Antonio dies under suspicious circumstances, and with nothing left to stay for, Carmen (Macarena García) flees, shacking up with a troupe of bullfighting dwarfs before returning to blow the house down.
Fairytale myth number 709, Snow White has some story attributes you just can’t get away from. There’s the wicked stepmother, the poisoned apples, the enchanted mirror, the dwarfs, the glass coffin, Snow White’s unwakable slumber and, of course, the prince who wakes her from it. And despite all its neo-gothic and hyper-Spanish monochrome charms, Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves is a faithful adaptation. There’s less magic – the apple syringed with arsenic and the mirror reconfigured as a gossip magazine with Carmen stealing the front page, but it’s also filled with nostalgic details of a bygone Spain (lace mantillas, bullfighters, majas, folding fans and the dwarfs’ gypsy caravan worthy of Tod Browning’s Freaks), surprises – Carmen falling for one of the dwarfs, and comic animal husbandry – like the dog Jack in The Artist, Pepe the chicken is a shameless stene-scealer.
Not to be outdone by a chicken, Maribel Verdú is marvellous against-type as the cunning step-mother, and Macarena García is utterly believable as the fair-skinned, raven-haired beauty making it in a man’s world. But with an already familiar story and a gluttony of delicious details, you could be forgiven for supposing Blancanieves a simple exercise in style. It is after all a homage to the movies of the silent era. But beyond the trappings of zarzuelas and sevillanas, Pablo Berger’s film is also very Spanish in its politics – the patriarch gagged and bound by a glamorous would-be celebrity, masculinity in crisis as Carmen steps up to the plate to turn the corrida upside-down. And in a move worthy of Almodóvar, the dwarfs aren’t just emasculated bystanders to Snow White’s plight, one of them is even promoted to the male lead. But while Berger seeks to illude a political reading, setting Blancanieves in a time before revolution or dictatorship, it’s a Spain almost pointedly preserved in aspic, a fairytale time, like now, of both bad and good old days.
There’s no escape in this legend from female machinations and the passive submission of a poison-induced sleep – woman is, as ever, both femme fatale and pristine virgin. But still there’s something enjoyably modern about Pablo Berger’s vision of the fairytale – Blancanieves is only named (rather self-referentially) after she hooks up with the travelling dwarfs, and a simple mantilla takes the place of a magic spell – just enough for Encarna to hide her face from the anxious torera. After colourfully anarchic filmed fairytales, such as Jacques Demy’s Peau d’âne, Jean Cocteau’s La Belle Et La Bête or Catherine Breillat’s Barbe Bleue (with its period cautionary tale of female empowerment), Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves is a refreshingly and ravishingly twentieth century take on the Snow White fairytale, and quite possibly the fairest of them all.
Blancanieves is released on 12th June 2013 in the UK