Monday, September 9, 2013

Old is New Again: BLANCANIEVES

Unlike 2011’s Best Picture Oscar winner The Artist, Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves is more than a pleasant pastiche or an amiable gimmick. It’s nothing less than elemental cinema, an exhumation of silent film that rings deep and true. Berger knows that a film without the spoken word and without color is not necessarily a film that lacks, but has the potential to gain. With clarity of vision and crispness of beautiful black and white photography, the film has a purity of purpose that’s enveloping and sumptuous. It’s a gothic fable with marvelously archetypical characters and a thin, but splendidly detailed and vividly visualized plot. Here is a film that creates its own universe so persuasively and completely with images so rich and welcome that I felt at times as if the movie were being projected directly into my brain. It’s well worth seeing quite not because it is perfect, but simply because there’ll surely be nothing else like it anytime soon.

It starts with a grand flourish of melodrama as a bull gores a famous matador (Daniel Giménez Cacho) while his pregnant wife sits in the stands. They’re both rushed to the hospital where she dies in childbirth and he, despondent, ends up in the arms of his nurse (Maribel Verdu). The nurse turns out to be a cruel stepmother who, some years later, makes his little girl (Sofía Oria) sleep in the basement on a pile of coal. Life in a mansion, a house of swooping architecture casting German Expressionist shadows, is both a wonderment and a menace to the girl, who gets into innocent trouble that’s met with Grimm cruelty from a stepmother who refuses to even acknowledge her humanity. The plot grows, spanning years, complicating to include tragic accidents, malicious murderous intent, conspicuous celebrity-aspirant consumption, and a wandering band of seven circus dwarves who are ready and eager to help a young woman become a famous matador.

It’s gradually apparent this is a reworking of Snow White, decked out in early-20th century Spain’s trappings. Rather than subverting or commenting on the tropes it evokes, like other recent Snow White adaptations, Blancanieves creates a narrative that’s as deep, dark, and resonant as the Grimm fable that inspires it. There’s an intense focus on our Snow White, Carmen, the little girl who must avoid the wrath of her stepmother as she slowly learns for herself the truth about her father and grows into a talent for bullfighting that becomes her consuming passion. The camera sticks close to her, the editing quick to fill us in on her emotions. She’s so sweet and sympathetic, it’d be hard not to get involved in her plight. One terrific scene concerns a mischievous pet chicken that becomes a pawn in the struggle of wills between child and stepmother and meets a torturous end.

Berger gives the plotting an easy sweep that takes us from the child’s young years into her young adulthood, finding ways to allow the central tragedies and failures of the adults to reverberate through Carmen’s life. Moments of broad comedy and high stakes coexist comfortably in the grand, richly embellished style of the whole. Even though it ends up somewhere unexpected, leaving me a little uneasy  – a sharp turn into tragedy ends the film on a low-key note of moving and beguiling macabre – it’s all of a piece. Still, I’d have preferred the film had ended before the events of its final five, or even ten, minutes. Those minutes leave the film in a sour, haunting place that sits uneasily in my memory. But the film is so very good for so long, a quibble with the conclusion only goes so far.

Though I’ve praised Berger’s filmmaking, a word or two must also be said for the performers who bring these impeccably storyboarded sequences to life. The acting from all concerned is broad and nuanced. Verdu, as the flamboyantly villainous stepmother, is darkly kinky in her movements, whereas the daughter (first Oria, then Macarena García) is sweet and open, with a smooth honesty of expression. As the wounded father, Cacho creates a still sense of a man who may be partially healed, but never feels whole. These are performances that are evocative of the best of silent acting, without ever feeling in that same league. They’re precise and resonant, nebulously modern in a precisely calibrated old-fashioned package. In exquisitely storyboarded sequences of great emotion, these actors are the soul.

Berger confidently draws upon old storytelling traditions, whether they are from a century - silent films - or many centuries - fairy tales - ago to create something that’s at once classical and modern. The lush, ceaseless score by Alfonso de Vilallonga in inspired equally by the sounds of studio Hollywood orchestrations and the energetic claps and resonantly plucked guitar of flamenco. In imagery and tone there are wisps of bold F.W. Murnau shadows and light and Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish-language girl’s-eye-view fantasies, a sense of stirring cinematic synthesis that creates a vision all its own. As astonishing as it is welcome, Berger has given us one of the most welcome, confidently playful throwbacks in recent memory. Instead of coasting on the nostalgia of easy homage, he has used the old to give us something new.

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