Blancanieves: silent Gothic melodrama of a brief summer of shining innocence before a long winter of fascism

Pablo Berger, “Blancanieves” (2012)

In the style of old 1920s expressionist silent films, Berger’s “Blancanieves” is a witty, layered and lavish Gothic retelling of the fairy-tale Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Set in southern Spain in the 1920s, the innocent beauty becomes Carmencita, the daughter of famed matador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and his beautiful flamenco-dancing wife Carmen (Inma Cuesta). The child’s birth is attended by tragedy: Villalta becomes a quadriplegic after a goring by a bull (because he was forced to look away by a thoughtless news reporter flashing his camera) and Carmen dies during childbirth. Enter the gold-digging nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdu) who marries Villalta and banishes Carmencita (Sofia Oria), who is brought up by her aunt (Angela Molina). Unfortunately Aunty dies while the child is still young so she is sent to the Villalta household where Encarna promptly banishes her to the servants’ quarters. Carmencita manages to find her father in his room and learns basic bull-fighting techniques from him. After his death, she (Macarena Garcia) is banished from her rightful inheritance and is nearly killed by Encarna’s chauffeur lover; traumatised, she suffers from amnesia when found by a troupe of bull-fighting dwarves(!) who welcome her into their nomadic way of life and christen her Blancanieves. Freudian psychology and nature-over-nurture racially based inheritance will out: Blancanieves finds her calling as Spain’s first female toreador, culminating in acclaim and recognition as Villalta’s heir in the prestigious Seville corrida. However, the wicked Encarna has found out about Blancanieves from a fashion magazine and plots the girl’s demise.

The film uses a maximalist expressionist style to tell its nuanced story: the excellent and camera-friendly Verdu camps up her role as the evil stepmother and several wonderful scenes in the film highlight Encarna’s depraved nature and fashion sense. The only thing lacking is evil cackling, as this is a silent movie. Berger employs several experimental filming techniques typical of a number of arthouse films from the early 20th century: Dziga Vertov (“Man with a Movie Camera”), Jean Vigo and Luis Bunuel are obvious inspirations. Alfred Hitchcock is also an influence in many scenes of voyeurism and the Villalta mansion, complete with Hitchcockian staircase which also becomes a murder weapon, might be a nightmare labyrinth from one of Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories.

Scenes are shot from different angles and the corrida becomes a microcosm of gladiatorial battles between life and death, youth and old age, and innocence and the kind of sophistication that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing, embodied by both Encarna and the bull-fighting agent who cunningly takes advantage of Blancanieves’s naivety by tricking her into signing a contract that allows him to exploit her bull-fighting talents and eventually everything else she has. Berger brings a self-reflexive dimension to the reworked fairy-tale: the news media and the cult of celebrity are always present in some way, whether through the reporter’s gaffe that sets the train of tragedy, the fashion magazine as the substitute for the mirror on the wall or the freak-show exploitation of Blancanieves as she lies comatose in her glass coffin while the ghoulish queues of Prince Charming hopefuls line up to pay for the privilege of kissing her; and there are motifs of the eye-as-camera and voyeurism. The dwarves know the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and with Blancanieves bill themselves as such: the fact that they’re missing a seventh dwarf bothers only one of their number but no-one else, least of all the public.

At times, the film trembles under the weight of the plot and the multi-layered symbolism and the narrative denouement does not hold up too well under the high tragedy of Blancanieves’s downfall and the creepy freak-show fade-out.

The film’s highlight is its rousing and passionate music soundtrack which includes heavy yet glorious doses of flamenco and militaristic music appropriate to a bull-fighting ritual. Something of the pagan nature of bull-fighting and its probable origins as a fertility rite and test of masculinity makes an appearance.

The subtext is perhaps obvious and banal: the character of Blancanieves represents a life-giving force that is continually thwarted by forces of evil in capitalism: the cult of celebrity, materialism and selfishness, exploitation and competition expressed through various support characters. It seems appropriate that Blancanieves should fall victim to Encarna’s wiles just before the Spanish Civil War breaks out; one presumes that she will have to sleep through General Franco’s rule to 1975 at the very least before she will finally find her Prince Charming.

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