Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Review: "Blancanieves"

Director: Pablo Berger
Runtime: 104 minutes

As evidenced by 2011's Best Picture winner The Artist, there's still a place at the cinema for both silent and black and white feature films. Likewise, the past few years have seen Hollywood attempt big-budget re-imaginings of classic fairy tales, to varying degrees of success. The offspring of both of trends, thankfully a good one, is Pablo Berger's Blancanieves, which sets the classic tale Snow White tale in 1920s Spain.

What makes Berger's film stand out, among other things, is his keen attention to Snow White (actually named Carmen) as a child. Whereas Hollywood's two attempts at Snow White last year jumped too hastily into the heroine's escape from the clutches of the evil stepmother/queen, Blancanieves spends almost half of its duration with Carmen as a young girl (played by Sofia Oria). Not only does it give the character time to build a bond with her father, tragically crippled after a bullfighting accident, but it also builds more tension between Carmen and the wicked Encarna (a deliciously manipulative Maribel Verdu). 

The way the time period and setting influence the film also help lend Berger's film a unique perspective, in everything from sets to wardrobes. Like The Artist, once you adjust to the silent film stylistic trappings, the film as a whole is never less than enjoyable. It's sumptuously photographed and scored as well, which lends the story a nice sense of momentum considering that you'll never hear anything but music. 

Blancanieves is also admirable for the ways in which it ventures into darker territory. Last year's Snow White and the Huntsman declared itself the dark, gritty version of the Snow White tale. This was more true in imagery, as the film's emotional destination hardly deviated from the expected happy ending. Blancanieves, despite the presence of its seven dwarfs (here portrayed as a traveling circus troupe of sorts) and other staples of the fairy tale, actually achieves a much darker vision of the story, without trying too hard to reach overblown, operatic heights. 

Yet as the film moves into its second half, featuring the grown up Carmen (Macarena Garcia), the previously elegant storytelling makes some minor stumbles. A seemingly important incident that highlights Carmen's aversion to eating poultry is dismissed by jumping from the character in distress to a scene of her partying with her dwarf companions. The first time this happens is in the first act, and serves as a way of showcasing Encarna's cruelty towards her step-daughter. The later incident, however, comes right out of the blue and is simply left hanging. Some of Berger's other storytelling choices are similarly less satisfactory, including a subplot that involves one of the dwarfs betraying Carmen. This unnecessary antagonist throws off the film's climax, which comes off as slightly cluttered.

Thankfully Berger's cast remains rock steady through it all. Verdu is far and away the MVP, and is clearly having a blast playing someone so elegant and sinister. The source of her cruelty may not be explored, but the character is still reined in enough to fit with Berger's take on the tale. Charlize Theron and Julia Roberts both took turns playing the Evil Queen role last year, yet it's Verdu's take that truly deserves to be remembered. That she, like the film, succeeds so much more without speaking a single audible word is even more impressive.

Grade: B+


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