I’ve already spent a great deal of time and effort writing about the plague of fairy tale adaptations to come our way in the past few years. Surely, I don’t need to remind any of you about Jack and the Giant Slayer a couple of months ago, nor Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters a couple of months before that (or maybe I do, I understand that they were both quite easy to forget). Hell, it was only last year when we had two — count ’em, two — competing takes on Snow White.
With all of this in mind, you might think that we need another fairy tale adaptation — particularly another Snow White adaptation — like we need another couple dozen Harlem Shake videos. But what if I told you about a Snow White adaptation set in 1920s Spain? That was centered around bullfighting? And presented as an authentic black-and-white silent film consistent with the time period?
Yeah, there’s a concept to wrap your head around, isn’t it?
(NOTE: I won’t try to hold back on spoilers for this review. I don’t see why I’d bother, considering that it’s freaking Snow White.)
Blancanieves opens with a famed toreador named Antonio Villalta (Daniel Gimenez Cacho). Sadly, Villalta soon makes national headlines when he is tragically gored by a bull. After spending several weeks comatose in a hospital, we eventually learn that the accident has paralyzed Villalta from the neck down. And somehow, things get even worse.
While Villalta lies unconscious, his wife (a dancer played by Inma Cuesta) gives birth to their child. Our film’s Snow White analogue turns out perfectly healthy, but her mother isn’t so lucky. Having lost his wife, his career, and even his ability to hold his beloved newborn daughter, Antonio naturally sinks into a deep depression.
So where does the Evil Stepmother come in? Well, Encarna (Maribel Verdu) is first introduced to Antonio as one of his nurses. Lured by his enormous fortune and fame, Encarna agrees to work as Antonio’s live-in maid and eventually marries him. She then goes on to live a vain, cruel, and extravagant lifestyle while her husband is locked away in some bedroom, completely at her mercy.
Meanwhile, young Carmencita (Sofia Oria) has been sent away to live with her grandmother (played by Angela Molina) and her beloved pet rooster (named “Pepe”). She makes it all the way to her first communion until another awful thing happens and grandma dies. She’s then sent to live with Encarna, and the next few scenes are your standard “stepmother abuses the heroine” fairy tale stuff.
The one notable change is that for whatever asshole reason, Encarna forbids Carmencita from seeing her father. In point of fact, I don’t think the two had ever actually met in all of those years. Maybe that’s because Encarna was being a domineering bitch, or maybe it’s because Antonio was too ashamed to show his crippled self to his daughter. Could be some combination of the two. In any case, the two are blissfully reunited and the old toreador teaches his daughter life lessons through bullfighting, just to spite You-Know-Who.
Another few years pass before Encarna finally kills her husband and makes it look like an accident. The next step, of course, is to kill his daughter. Her chauffeur takes Carmen (now grown up into a beautiful young television actress named Macarena Garcia) out to the woods and seems to kill her. However, her body is discovered and she is saved by a travelling group of bullfighting dwarves.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you read that right: Bullfighting dwarves. And one of them is a cross-dresser. They’re apparently quite popular as a kind of sideshow act. But you know what’s even weirder? There are only six of them. Not seven, six. The film even draws attention to this discrepancy, yet it offers no kind of explanation.
Anyway, Carmen has suffered a bad case of amnesia, but she’s otherwise okay. In fact, her bullfighting skills are as sharp as they ever were. So she eventually becomes the group’s lead toreador and leads them on to nationwide fame. That naturally attracts the attention of Encarna and everything spirals out of control from there.
First of all, I loved the film’s period setting. It was just modern enough to give the story a bit of “present day” flavor, but not so much that the story lost its “innocent and old-timey” feel. Plus — for American audiences, anyway — the period Spanish presentation puts a very neat twist on the classic conceit of “Once upon a time in a faraway land…”
Making the film silent and monochrome was a brilliant way of taking the audience back to that time and place. I’m honestly quite disappointed that silent films didn’t make a comeback after The Artist won Best Picture a couple years ago. It’s remarkable to see all the ways that filmmakers tell a story without the use of color or dialogue, and the effects are spellbinding when done properly.
This particular movie, for example, does a sterling job of using music, camerawork, old-school special effects, and captions to move the story along in a quick and coherent manner. I’ll grant that the editing and the score can both get a little too hectic for the film’s own good at times, and it certainly helps that the basic story is so universally familiar to begin with, but the point stands. Several intimate and introspective moments were elegantly captured on the screen, and the score was integrated into the movie with very satisfying results.
Speaking of ways to convey the story, let’s talk about the actors. The cast is uniformly wonderful, though two actors in particular deserve special mention. One of them is Maribel Verdu, who resembles Dr. Frank-N-Furter to an uncomfortable degree in this picture. It certainly doesn’t help that the character spends her ill-gotten money on outrageous costumes and fetish play. That aside, Verdu seems to relish chewing the scenery in this role, portraying Encarna as such a colossal bitch that she was a lot of fun to hate.
The other actress worthy of mention is Macarena Garcia. I have no idea who this woman is, but I hope she gets some stateside work ASAP. Her portrayal of Snow White — strong and independent, yet innocent and endlessly compassionate — was delightful, and Garcia had enough presence to light up the screen. Wonderful work.
So now we move on to the nitpicks. I’ve already talked a bit about how the editing and the score occasionally get out of control, but those are just little speedbumps. No, a much bigger problem is in all the padding that got put into this film. A key example is the bullfighting manager who appears just before the third act. The movie really stresses him as a villain, even though the guy only appears in one scene. As such, all of the set-ups contained in that one scene were made entirely moot.
There’s also the matter of the lead dwarf (pray forgive me if I don’t recall his name), who’s jealous of Carmen for taking his former position as the lead toreador. I get what the filmmakers were going for with that plotline, but it doesn’t accomplish anything that the film could really have done without or done in some other way. Additionally — and maybe this is just personal preference — I don’t like the idea that a dwarf would hate Snow White to the point where he’d actually try and harm her.
But the big nitpick comes at the end. I know I said I wouldn’t hold back on spoilers, so here goes: This version of the story keeps the poisoned apple, but Carmen doesn’t wake up. It’s never made entirely clear if she’s dead, asleep, or if she’ll revive at some point in the future, but the movie is quite defiantly void of any “happily ever after.”
After thinking about this for a long time, I’ve decided that I don’t like it.
On the one hand, the whole “poisoned apple” plot point needs magic to work. There’s absolutely no way to put the story in any kind of modern setting, cure Snow White’s poison with a kiss, and hope to keep suspension of disbelief intact. Then again, that problem might easily have been avoided in this case if Carmen had simply taken the Mirror Mirror route and said “No, I’m not eating from this apple, because I’m not an idiot.” Come to think of it, given the circumstances of how the apple was given to her, Carmen looks like a total goddamned moron for eating it in the first place.
Also, the opening credits make it abundantly clear that this film was inspired by “Los Hermanos Grimm,” and heaven knows that this darker take on the story fits in with their reputation. On the other hand, the Grimms’ fairy tales were usually told to convey some kind of lesson or moral. If Snow White lives, then it shows that love and compassion can triumph in the face of adversity. But if she dies, then it’s just one family death after another, and for what?
I’ve been struggling to find a moral in Carmen’s character arc that could justify the ending and everything leading up to it, but I’ve got nothing. Without a clear point or statement to the ending, it just seems needlessly mean more than anything else. Furthermore — to reiterate — Snow White is arguably the definitive fairy tale. Call me a purist, but ending the story without a “happily ever after” just seems wrong to me.
I would also add that after the botched assassination attempt, one of the dwarves has to revive Carmen by way of CPR. Why couldn’t they have just let that be the reviving kiss and left well enough alone?
Blancanieves is hardly perfect, but its flaws were borne of an experimental attitude that I can respect. Though it ultimately botched the landing, this film still took some very bold and very entertaining liberties with the source material, all while keeping the story we know and love intact (more or less). For all of its minor faults, the film is easily worth seeing just for its masterful silent presentation. Maribel Verdu and Macarena Garcia are both definitely worth watching as well.
I can easily bring myself to recommend this film, if only because it’s so hard to find a take on Snow White that hasn’t been done before. If you’re interested in something new and original, and if you don’t mind a tragic ending getting in the way, then don’t let this one pass you by.