Opens Fri. April 12 at SIFF Cinema Uptown. Not rated. 104 minutes.
The obvious comparison to Pablo Berger’s inventive retelling of Snow White as a silent-movie melodrama, set in the 1920s bullfighting scene of Seville, is The Artist. Both channel the international language of silents for modern viewers, and both have been embraced by audiences and lavished with awards. Blancanieves comes stateside with 10 Goya Awards, Spain’s answer to the Oscars.
The similarities end there. Berger draws from different inspirations—grand melodrama, flamenco, circus fantasy, and toreador worship—and mixes them with silent-film conventions and contemporary storytelling. Think Blood and Sand by way of Victor Sjöström and Pedro Almodóvar, with a modern, empowered heroine.
That heroine—called “Snowhite” in one mashed-up word—is Carmen (Macarena García), the all-but-abandoned daughter of a crippled bullfighter (Daniel Giménez Cacho). Her social-climbing wicked stepmother Encarna is played by Maribel Verdú (Y Tu Mamá También) with scheming, sadistic glee. There’s also a band of dwarfs with a gypsy bullfighting act and a poisoned apple, but the fairy-tale elements end there. In the enchanted corrida, amnesia-struck Snowhite becomes a matador in her own right, an adored heroine and Prince Charming all at once.
Berger plays the melodrama big, and Verdú vamps it for all she’s worth. Venom drips from Encarna’s smiles. Her eyes burn with excitement as she turns the adorable, eternally optimistic Carmen into a scullery maid and her chauffeur-turned-lover into an obedient dog—complete with leash. No one is going to mistake this self-aware silent film for a period classic, but Berger’s creative energy and inventiveness more than justify the retro appropriation.
Berger’s previous Torremolinos 73, seen at SIFF ’04, mixed Franco-era repression and ’70s pornography with a perfectly sweet romantic comedy. Blancanieves skips the politics for fleeting dreams of corrida glory, yet they’re at the mercy of money and greed. More powerful than Encarna’s wickedness is the predatory grip of a dodgy agent with an exclusive contract. The show is all, which is the tragedy of this tale. Blancanieves ends not with a cheer but a tear.