A stark, romantic and beautifully executed version of the Grimm fairy tale.
It is thrilling see another black and white movie make it into the Oscar nominations. In this case it is Pablo Berger’s fascinating “Blancanieves,” the black and white (and silent) retelling of the brothers Grimm fairy tale “Snow White.” Raising the bar to unprecedented heights of minimalist exposition, the black and white video is accompanied by a sound track devoid of dialogue. However, although there is no talking (the few spoken lines are expressed in inter-titles), the sound track is a collection of some of the most beautiful music heard this year (original music by Alfonso de Vilallonga). The effect is as if the video portion of the movie has been choreographed to fit the sound track.
This very poetic presentation contrasts with the harshness of the fairy tale. Of course, this is an updated version of the story, set in modern times. Set in 1920’s Seville, Carmen is the daughter of the famous and dashing bull fighter Antonio Vallarta (Daniel Giménez Cacho). Although the bullfighter is a national hero who triumphs over all odds, he is undone by the modern technology of a camera flash and paralyzed from the neck down as he is savagely gored by the enraged bull.
This tragedy, coupled with the death of Carmine’s mother in childbirth, sets the stage for the vicious and deviant step-mother, Encarna (an epic performance by Maribel Verdú), to take the child. Living off the wealth of the wheel chair ridden Antonio, Encarna takes the child Carmen into her lavish house and throws her into the coal bin in the basement. Make no mistake about it; Encarna is bad to the bone. She is not simply going to abandon the child and go play Mah Jongg; she is going to force the child to live in the coal bin. Later she is seen engaging in some seriously silly sexual perversion.
The backdrop of the grisly Grimm fairy tale, set against the occasional throw-away joke, in the context of the enthralling music and the ultra-romantic tradition of the Spanish bull fight (in Seville, yet) makes this a complicated film, belying the simplicity of the black and white photography and the ancient inter-titles transmitting the extremely sparse dialogue. The result is a cozy and yet powerful vision into a fantasy world we all want to visit, but might be sorry of we did.
The two Carmens, young and old, are played by Macarena García and Sofía Oria, both in spectacular riles. Oria, as the child Snow White, is especially remarkable. Yes, she does little but smile, but she smiles well and her movements have a poetry and self-assuredness that complements the very mature music.
The original music by Alfonso Vilallonga is performed by, among others, the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra. The film also features the world class Flamenco guitarist Juan Gómez “Chicuelo”.
The black and white presentation is a little plain, however, that may be the intent. The minimalist nature of the visual experience emphasizes the outstanding music of the soundtrack, and the essentials of the story, which we all know. The three lead performances are all nearly perfect. The good is very good, the bad, very bad and the father, somewhere in the middle. This precious story will receive limited interest in the USA, since it is a child’s story that will never compete with Disney and it will not be the first choice of adults who are looking for alternative fare. In any event, it is a solid addition to the Oscar nominations and it deserves the attention.
All three leads actors, Maribel Verdú, Ángela Molina and Daniel Giménez Cacho, accomplished major successes with their performances in this film. They are all at the peak of their careers and appear to thoroughly enjoy working with director Berger, and with each other. Director Pablo Berger started off his directorial career with the redoubtable “Mama” in 1988, attended NYU and released his first feature film, the award winning “Torremolinos 73” in 2003. Cinematography is by veteran lenser Kiko de la Rica, who rejoins Berger after collaborating on “Torremolinos.”
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Directed and Written by: Pablo Berger
Starring: Maribel Verdú, Ángela Molina and Daniel Giménez Cacho
Release Date: December 25, 2012
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including a disturbing act, and for brief language
Run Time: 104 minutes
Color: Black and White