An updated retelling of the classic Grim Brothers fairytale Snow White, Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves was Spain’s official submission to the Best Foreign Film category for the 2013 Oscars. In a year that saw two absolutely horrible Hollywood updates of the same story somehow earn nominations (Snow White and the Huntsman: Costume Design, Visual Effects and Mirror, Mirror: Costume Design) the vastly superior Blancanieves inability to earn even a single much deserved nod of its own is a bit perplexing.
Granted it has three very big strikes against it with regards to finding any type of commercial success in the North American film market: it was shot in black and white, it’s a silent film, and it’s in a foreign language (Spanish intertitles are featured throughout.) Still, these very same obstacles didn’t stop The Artist from taking home the Best Picture award in 2011. Perhaps even though Blancanieves was in production prior to The Artist, the Academy wrongfully labeled it as something of a copycat. Perhaps there’s some arcane bylaw that states that only two Snow White adaptations can be nominated per year. Regardless of why it was critically ignored during the Oscar season, there’s no denying the artistry at the heart Berger’s captivating creation.
Silent pictures demand so much more from an audience than today’s standard motion picture fare. In this fast-paced world of short attention spans, it’s generally hard to spellbind the viewer for any significant length of time without the aid of visual effects or technological wizardry. If they want to have any shot at being even remotely successful Blancanieves, and other films like it, must immediately engage and enthrall their intended audiences with stunning visuals, breathtaking performances, and perfect storytelling. The margin for error is miniscule. Even the smallest of moments is significant. If they somehow lose the viewer for even a split second then they’ve most likely lost them forever. Happily, like the best of any type of film, Blancanieves manages to transport the viewer from their seat and immerse them in an alternate version of reality with a seemingly effortless ease.
Set in the mid-1920s, Berger’s reimagining of the classic tale throws such a wildly inventive spin on events that it quickly takes on a life of its own. There’s bullfighting, there’s child abuse, there’s dwarven comic relief, there’s treachery aplenty – both from the expected sources and the more unlikely – and at the center of it all, desperately trying to pull all the strings, is the evil nursemaid/step-mother Encarta who is portrayed exquisitely by Maribel Verdú of Y Y Tu Mamá También fame. Her every facial expression oozes with the diabolical. Each subtle movement of her body screams evil incarnate. Encarta needs no voice, for her actions speak louder than any words could ever hope to.
Believing that beauty is the one true God and that she is the fairest of them all, Encarta is enslaved to a magic mirror of a different sort; fashion magazines. Within their pages she sees the visual beauty of her outward appearance reflected back at her and it affirms her sense of self-worth. She demands to be idolized. She must be worshiped by the masses. No one and one thing should ever stand in her path. Of course the showdown between Carmen (Snow White) and Encarta is imminent, but the fallout from it is surprisingly refreshing, and it leads to one of the most stunning final scenes in recent cinema history.
Blancanieves isn’t really a story for the kids, but then again, what Brothers Grimm fairytale is? It’s a thoughtful, expressive adaptation that builds on the existing foundations and morals of the original to create a timeless, haunting visual classic that’s executed to near perfection. The world has never been exposed to such an accomplished adaptation of the Snow White fable, and it probably never will again. Be prepared to be moved.
Directed by Pablo Berger