You may feel weary at the prospect of another love-letter to the silent era. You may feel fatigued by the thought of another Snow White movie. Wait, though – nothing should deter you from seeking out this intriguing, gorgeous film. Director Pablo Berger describes his Blancanieves as a “homage to European silent cinema”, but happily, it has the confidence to wear its influences lightly and transform them into something new, magical and utterly distinctive.
Blancanieves is a sharp, heady cocktail of fairytales, Spanish iconography and silent cinema: a black-and-white film with gorgeous musical accompaniment that tells the story of Carmen, whose matador father remarries after her flamenco dancer mother dies in childbirth. But if you’re expecting a straight 1920s-set adaptation of Snow White, you will be wrongfooted right to the bittersweet end. When we finally encounter the dwarves, we find they’re bullfighters, they’re not all sweet, and there aren’t quite seven of them. A celebrity magazine takes the place of a magic mirror, the wicked stepmother indulges in S&M with her chauffeur and the young heroine’s best friend is a neckerchief-wearing rooster called Pépé.
Carmen is no fairytale princess either, but in both her younger (Sofía Oria) and older (Macarena Garciá) incarnations, she is a serious, lonely young woman on a tragic path – both actresses share intense, dark eyes, which Berger makes the utmost of. Maribel Verdú turns in a wickedly funny pantomime performance as her scheming stepmother – although it often feels as if she is in a different, more histrionic, film to everyone else – and Daniel Giménez Cacho is heartbreaking as the destroyed father. Plaudits must also go to the rooster, or rather his handler. There may never have been a cuter cockerel in the cinema.
So why is Blancanieves a silent film? Perhaps it’s because in this version the girl’s parents are both wordless performers, in old-fashioned artforms. Her grandmother teaches her to dance, and her first encounter with bullfighting is via the flickering images of a praxinoscope. Berger also says he was inspired by a screening of Greed with Carl Davis’s orchestral score, and by silent film-makers including Sjöstrom, Herbier, Murnau and our own Anthony Asquith. Whatever the cause, it’s an artistic choice that pays dividends.
This is no pastiche, although I will admit I could have lived without the Instagram-style rough edge to the Academy frame, a bafflingly naff decision considering the film’s visual achivements: sumptuous photography, and impressionistic editing. There’s so much here that recalls the silent era – a clatter of flashcuts, the rustic faces in the crowd, superimpositions, irises and a restrained number of intertitles – but it feels modern too, with lovely soft light washing over the interiors and nimble, intimate handheld camerawork. There’s nothing in Blancanieves’ exquisite cinematography that could not have been achieved in the 1920s, but its strength is that it never feels anachronistic or nostalgic. And those sumptuous images tell the story too, as when Carmen’s first-communion dress is plunged into a tub of black dye, or she sees Pépé’s face hovering on her dinner plate.
With such riches at his disposal, I almost wish Berger had made a more serious film than this twisted fairytale, which occasionally veers into camp. Blancanieves is a strange piece of work, but a precious one, however, so even if it lacks ambition, its integrity and beauty are to be treasured.
Blancanieves screens as part of the London film festival at the ICA on 18 October. You can book tickets here.