In 2012, two American films based on the Snow White fairly tale – Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman – came out. Those CGI-infused retellings held little of the power that Blancanieves did, a silent, black-and-white feature with Spanish intertitles, a film in a forest all of its own. It sacrificed the joviality and thrills of the American films for a more poignant dramatic core – and ultimately worked far better.
Spanish director Pablo Berger reframes the classic tale in 1920s Andalusian Spain. The King, Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho), is a prized matador who is gored at the film’s start and left paralyzed to a wheelchair. He takes residence with Encarna, the film’s wicked Queen, played with a convincing glare by Maribel Verdú (Pan’s Labyrinth). Snow White comes in the form of Antonio’s daughter, Carmen (Sofia Oria as a girl, Macarena Garcia as an adult), who Antonio teaches the art of bullfighting in secret. Eventually, Carmen grows up, runs away from Encarna and joins a troupe of bullfighting dwarves.
Berger is a master stylist who relies on the conventions of silent cinema – rapid edits a la Battleship Potemkin and at other times, exquisite expressionist images – to tie the story to classic filmmaking. The fairy tale’s archetypal elements are intact, yet the striking visuals and a magnificent musical score makes this a telling that’s not just refreshing, but also has an enchanting spark of discovery.
Berger is a filmmaker to watch and Blancanieves is a dark and deeply romantic homage to both the Brothers Grimm and 1920s cinema. Its style helps to give audiences the classical feel of a fairy tale.