Rating:Like The Artist and Tabu, Blancanieves is part of a recent upward trend in silent cinema homage, reimagining the Brothers Grimm tale of Snow White in ‘20s Seville, following a young woman named Carmen born under tragic circumstances. However, Blancanieves joins those two films in name only, not spirit, lacking their emotional and intellectual substance.
Blancanieves starts off life as Carmen the orphan (Sofía Oria): on the day of her birth, Carmen’s father, Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho), is paralyzed permanently by a bull-fighting accident and her dancer mother dies during labor. Estranged from her father, who remarries a vain gold-digger nurse named Encarna (Maribel Verdú) who makes his life miserable, Carmen grows up under the nurturing guardianship of her grandmother, Doña Concha (Ángela Molina). When the beloved Doña suffers a heart attack during Carmen’s first communion, the child is sent to live with her evil stepmother, who forces Carmen to live in a dirty hole and refuses to let her see her father. Yet Carmen manages to do so anyway, in small, stealthy ways, finally giving the two a chance to bond through a shared love of music, dancing and bull-fighting, Antonio teaching Carmen basic bull-fighting techniques and Carmen sending her father on bittersweet nostalgic trips as her dancing reminds him of his beloved deceased wife.
Their rendezvous is soon discovered by Encarna, who threatens Carmen to stay away from Antonio, unless she wants him killed. When Carmen grows into a beautiful young woman (played by Macarena García), Encarna has her valet drown Carmen in the woods, though she is saved by a travelling troupe of bull-fighting dwarves. She awakes in complete amnesia, and so the bullfighters name her after the fairy tale Blancanieves (Snow White). The only memories she is able to recall flood back during a moment of desperation when one of the dwarves is nearly killed during a small bullfight; she remembers her training and saves him. It’s a serendipitous re-discovery that leads her to eventual fame as a talented bullfighter. Encarno still manages to have the last laugh, however, when she poisons Blancanieves during an important, spectacular bullfight in which the wicked stepmother gives Blancanieves a poisoned apple as a performance gift.
The epilogue is more cute than intriguing, though at least it has something to offer: Carmen’s grief-stricken romantic lead becomes an assistant for a circus freak show act in which audience members are tricked into thinking the corpse of Blancanieves can be brought alive by their kiss. It’s a quaint modernization of the healing lover’s kiss that at least tries something new (and emotionally compelling) with the Disney film’s fantastical ending. But elsewhere in the narrative, Blancanieves does very little to elevate the contrivance of Snow White into anything substantial or interesting. Indeed, the way the film is appropriated for ‘20s Spain is done so plainly and mechanically it reminds me of a mad-libs game from my eighth-grade improv club that employed fairy tales, story structures that were idiotproof for quick and easy reenactment and ripe for reinterpretation among young drama geeks. But quite frankly, most of the renditions my pubescent group members thought up were more interesting and memorable than Blancanieves.
Many critics unfairly called The Artist’s homage to silent cinema a specious gimmick that functioned as a ready-made visual aesthetic. Yet at least that film actually attempted to make numerous, reverent references to the history of film whilst underscoring specific arguments about film nostalgia in its thematic core; Blancanieves does very little other than re-appropriate an archaic aesthetic as cutesy formal device. Indeed, the only connection between this perfunctory fairytale adaptation and silent cinema is a shared time period. Yet nothing about the prevalence of silent film in that era is recalled throughout the narrative in Blancanieves, as it focuses instead on traditional Spanish forms of entertainment. As slapdash homage, Blancanieves is marred by the banality of its source material, incapable of making an argument that more contemporary movies should be done in the style of silent cinema. Equally absent as thematic form is the notable lack of one of the dwarves; the bullfighting troupe consists of only six members. It is possible the seventh dwarf is Dopey, and he is the film itself: mute, clumsy and dumb.