At first sight, the sophomore effort by Spanish director Pablo Berger seems to be riding the coat-tails of Michel Hazanavicius' Oscar-winning feel-good homage to the silent golden age of Hollywood, The Artist: a silent period fable shot in Academy-ratio black & white, here set in 1920s Seville. Yet Mr. Berger's film was in fact a labour of love the director steered through the best part of a decade and was shooting when The Artist premiered, and it's much closer in spirit to the fantastical appropriations of Spanish history that Guillermo del Toro explored in his two Spanish movies, The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth.

     As in the first, it's a tale about the past coming back to haunt you and never really leaving your side; as in the second, it's a story about a girl who must overcome the raw hand fate has dealt her, both of them within an ingenious framework that adapts the Grimm's classic fairytale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to Spain's atavistic fatalism and macho culture of bullfighting. Ironically for a film set in a strongly patriarchal time period, this is the tale of two women struggling to stand on their own feet and escape the rigid rules of a male-centred society.

     Snow White is Carmen (played as a child by Sofía Oria and as a young girl by the charming Macarena García), love child of the ill-fated marriage between a flamenco star who died giving birth and master matador Antonio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), rendered quadriplegic in a fateful corrida The Wicked Stepmother is Encarna (Maribel Verdú, the kindly housekeeper from Pan's Labyrinth, in a richly villainous performance), the hospital worker who nursed the now-widowed Antonio back to health and married him for his money, taking in Carmen as a virtual slave after the grandmother who raised her dies.

     Ms. Verdú depicts Encarna as a ruthless man-eating dominatrix who will stop at nothing to make sure she gets what she wants, an evil double of Ms. García's Carmen, whose wide-eyed naïveté and innate goodness become self-evident once she escapes death at the hands of Encarna's factotum and, amnesiac, is taken in by the Seven Dwarves - a troupe of circus artists performing as comic relief in bullrings. Chance leads Carmen - rechristened Snowhite by one of the dwarves in a sly meta-reference to the fairy tale - to reveal herself as a fully-fledged matador worthy of her father's reputation, and in so doing to posit the Snow White vs Wicked Stepmother duel in 1920s Seville as that of two women daring to step outside their comfort zone and yearning to be acclaimed for it - yet also necessarily condemned to pay the price for their daring.

     Mr. Berger's silent treatment (not so much wanting to pass itself of as a lost 1920s movie but effortlessly combining both 1920s and 2010s techniques, with many handheld shots and quick-cut editing given added effect by the square frame ratio) frames the story both as timeless melodrama and updated Greek tragedy given a high-contrast expressionist gloss by Kiko de la Rica's rich cinematography, in a veiled metaphor of the upcoming Spanish Civil War underscored by the film's finale, darker and edgier than the traditional iterations of the fairy tale. Though some will think of Luis Buñuel's dispassionately acid satires (especially in some of the more surreal moments), Mr. Berger's film is not in the same league; and, in any case, is a much more ambiguous proposition, since it simultaneously celebrates resistance and shows how futile it can be - to quote from another Spanish classic, Encarna and Carmen are tilting at windmills in a country that is about to be torn apart. Whereas The Artist was a celebration, Blancanieves is an elegy.

Cast: Maribel Verdú, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Sofía Oria, Macarena García, Angela Molina
Director: Pablo Berger
Screenplay: Mr. Berger, based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm
Cinematography: Kiko de la Rica (black & white)
Music: Alfonso de Vilallonga
Designer: Alain Bainée
Costumes: Paco Delgado
Editor: Fernando Franco
Produces: Ibon Cormenzana, Jérôme Vidal, Mr. Berger (Arcadia Motion Pictures, Nix Films, Sísifo Films, The Kraken Films, Noodles Production and ARTE France Cinéma)
Spain/France/Belgium, 2011, 104 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1 (Lisbon), February 28th 2013


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