Director: Pablo Berger
Stars: Sofia Oria, Maribel Verdu
2 (out of 5) globes
Before “The Artist,” faux-silent cinema had one regular practitioner: Guy Maddin, the Canadian mad scientist who — with “The Heart of the World” and “Cowards Bend the Knee” — always kept cult viewers fat on spastic homages to Soviet montage and German mountain films. Pablo Berger’s “Blancanieves” was in production at the same time as “The Artist.” Though it won many awards in its native Spain, there’s not a chance any producer would have successfully rammed this down Oscar voter throats. But it’s closer to the Best Picture winner than to a Maddin whatzit, which is to say it's a reminder that not all of the period’s entries, as with any era, were winners.
That’s not for lack of trying. Berger’s film cites the Grimms’ “Snow White” as its source, but it tries its best to cover those tracks. It takes 55 minutes for Snow stand-in Carmencita (Sofia Oria as an adult) to almost get gouged by an assassin and happen upon a septet of dwarves (one a transvestite, natch). Before then our heroine’s backstory is relentlessly upchucked. The daughter of a famed bullfighter, she’s placed in the care of a duplicitous nurse (Maribel Verdu, of “Y Tu Mama Tambien), who proves — like Julia Roberts in “Mirror Mirror” and Charlize Theron in “Snow White and the Huntsman” — to be the aging-but-still-hotcha queen.
Upon escaping her clutches, Carmencita finds herself adopting her father’s trade. That Snow White now has a job, and a pretty manly job, makes it less sexist than the Grimms original (as well as the other recent Snow White “twists”). It grants autonomy to a character who is typically reliant on men at all turns. And Oria does a mighty bullfighter strut that’s right for the hyperbole of silent cinema.
The same goes for Verdu, who vamps up a storm. Someone has to. For a film that rounds up the Brothers Grimm, bullfighting, dwarves and a nearly century-old filmmaking style, “Blancanieves” is surprisingly sedate, calmly plowing through its mixed-up narrative. One could say that’s accurate, that silents aren’t as hysterical as legend would have them. (Some of the period’s best, Mary Pickford and Buster Keaton among them, relied on the subtlest of physical expressions.) But if ever there was material that cried out for the era’s more kinetic techniques — if not an outright debasement, a la Guy Maddin — it’s a fractured fairy tale that upends gender roles.