By Anna Bielak | January 18, 2013
Director: Pablo Berger
Writer: Pablo Berger
Starring: Maribel Verdú, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Ángela Molina, Pere Ponce, Macarena García, Sofía Oria, Josep Maria Pou, Inma Cuesta
“It used to be said that everyone had a novel in them,” claims British writer Martin Amis in his biography, “and I used to believe it, and still do in a way. If you’re a novelist you must believe it, because that’s part of your job: much of the time you are writing the fiction that other people have in them. Just now, though, in 1999, you would probably be obliged to doubt the basis proposition: what everyone has in them, these days, is not a novel but a memoir.” These sentences echo in my mind long after viewing Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves; however, some kind of paraphrase is needed here. Let’s say that it used to be said that everyone had a story in them, and every brand new filmmaker believed it. If you’re a filmmaker you must believe it, because that’s part of your job. Much of the time you are filming the fiction that other people have in them. Just now, though, in 2013, you would probably be obliged to doubt the basic proposition: what everyone has in them, these days, is not an original story but a memoir. This statement seems to be crucial for Berger’s sophomore feature that was a runner-up to getting this year’s Oscar Nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film. A silent black-and-white Spanish twist on the Snow White fairy tale is both a multi-genre plot deeply rooted in 1920s Spanish culture and a multi-layered story about the female experience.
This beautiful Snow White story begins as a typical Douglas Sirk melodrama from the late fifties. There is a great love followed by an even greater tragedy. A famous matador from Seville, Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is hurt during a brutal bullfight and becomes paralyzed. It is beyond his pregnant wife’s strength. The birth of Antonio’s daughter is lethal for his beloved Carmen (Inma Cuesta) and — as in the plot of many fairy tales and classical melodramas — the matador’s malicious nurse (the amazing Maribel Verdú!) seduces Antonio and becomes the new Mrs. Villalta. This is the moment when two other very important things happen. Antonio’s innocent daughter, Carmencita (Sofía Oria) becomes her evil stepmother’s enemy and Berger’s film turns into another genre. What we had in the very beginning was brutal, spectacular and emotionally exaggerated black-and-white soap opera; what we’ll experience later are mixed-up episodes taken from many different bedtime and coming-of-age stories. Carmencita (the fabulous Macarena García in the leading role!) will be killed, resurrected, loved and hated. Within this one film’s frames Carmencita will put on a Cinderella look, turns into Sleeping Beauty, transforms into the titular Snow White, and meets the men hidden in her stepmother’s big residence as if she was The Secret Garden’s (1993) Mary Lennox.
Berger’s plot is filled with references and is open for an infinite number of associations. In terms of that, Blancanieves has hardly anything in common — other than the silent period in film history — with Michel Hazanavicius’ more modest The Artist (2011), which more or less focuses on one leitmotif. Carmencita’s story is a mosaic of quotations, but the Berger is not focused on cinematic melancholia; contemporary social issues concerns him much more than that. Within this black-and-white magical plot is the story about a girl who needs to face enemies that haunted her coming-of-age journey and learns how to turn failures into successes and grows up ready for anything that life may bring. In terms of that, it is kind of like a feminist road movie. It is as intriguing as any road to independence, it is as beautiful as every path laced with fairy tales, and as touching as any story about a real love. Blancanieves is also as heartbreaking as many beautiful silent dreams that have turned out to be really nothing more than old, cherished memoirs about a world that passed by.