When I first saw Michel Hazanavicius’s “The Artist,” I was swept off my feet by its charm, by its playfulness, by its love for the movies in general and silent film in particular. It was, and still is, a crowd pleaser in the strictest sense of the term, one that depends on its cast ( dog included) and the power of its parallel rags to riches and riches to rags stories to move us, much like classic Hollywood movies once did.
I thought that “The Artist” and Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” would make for a great double bill given that both are love letters to the movies. But on a second viewing, “The Artist” left me rather cold. It had lost some of its magic. I found myself nitpicking some of its most annoying anachronisms (like the gratuitous use of Bernard Herrmann’s score for “Vertigo” in one key scene). Next to Pablo Berger’s gloriously magical, dark and ravishing “Blancanieves,” “The Artist” pales by comparison. I think “Blancanieves” is a far worthier companion to Scorsese’s film.
Berger delivers a film that is both fresh and modern while paying tribute to such masters of silent cinema as F.W. Murnau and Victor Sjöström, whose influences are duly acknowledged in the end credits. It poignantly and smartly asks: what would a silent movie look and sound like (yes, sound because, although “silent,” they relied heavily on music) in this digital era? Moreover, Berger delivers a culture specific take on the classic fairy tale by the Grimm brothers that is accessible to all audiences. Never has the notion that cinema speaks a universal language been truer.
By setting the story in 1920s Spain, Berger takes full advantage of his country’s iconography while stripping away the tale’s most fantastical elements, grounding the same in a reality that is both palpable and earthy. Carmen (played as a child by Sofía Oria and as a teenager by Macarena García) is the daughter of famed matador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and a flamenco dancer (Inma Cuesta). In the opening scene, Villalta is left paralyzed by a bull and Clara’s mother dies after giving birth to her. Antonio blames Carmen for his beloved’s death and soon falls under the malicious spell of nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdú). As soon as they marry, Encarna locks Antonio in a room in his mansion, keeping him sedated while she and the chauffeur live off his fortune.
After Carmen’s caring grandmother (Angela Molina) dies, the poor child ends up living in a coal room in the mansion, performing menial tasks. She disobeys her evil stepmother’s order to not visit her father’s room and soon father and daughter are reconciled. From his wheelchair, Antonio coaches his daughter on the art of bullfighting.
Once Carmen reaches her teenage years, Encarna decides to rid herself of both father and daughter. Left for dead, Carmen is saved by the most handsome member of a traveling troupe of bullfighting dwarves. Suffering from amnesia, Carmen soon impresses her fellow travelers with her bullfighting skills, becoming a star attraction in Spain’s arenas and drawing the attention of Encarna. You know the rest of the story. Or do you? For Berger offers a unique, terrifying and melancholic twist to the classic tale, one that questions the whole notion of living happily ever after.
Berger and his production team deploy a vast arsenal of cinematic tropes and techniques, some deliberately Wellesian —like the use of canted low angles— and some borrowed from German Expressionism. There is in fact, a touch of Buñuel and Fellini as well. And, like D. W. Griffith long before him, Berger exploits the narrative and emotional power of the close-up. “Blancanieves” is perfectly cast: you could imagine Giménez Cacho and Verdú starring in a film by King Vidor or Murnau. Verdú steals the film as Encarna: she brings the right amount of wickedness and meanness to the role, relishing every cruel act but also, towards the end, delivering a degree of vulnerability and fear that makes her comeuppance that much more horrifying and satisfying. Macarena García, on the other hand, evokes in her innocence and childlike delight such great silent era actresses as Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford.
But, for me, the real star of “Blancanieves” is Alfonso de Vilallonga’s score. His music is simultaneously cheerful, melodramatic and chilling, each note, each chord, evoking the right emotion without feeling overtly manipulative. It is, without a doubt, one of the best film scores you’ll hear this year.