Daniel Gimenez Cacho-Blancanieves-485
Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

It’s almost impossible to write about this black & white silent film without mentioning last year’s sleeper The Artist. Some critics have chosen to praise the Spanish import at the expense of its Oscar-winning predecessor—perhaps because it was drummed into the front ranks by Harvey Weinstein’s aggressive campaigning. I choose not to follow that route, primarily because I liked The Artist, and because I consider Blancanieves a near-miss.

I’ll often forgive a film’s shortcomings if it has a good finish. Blancanieves has a rousing opening and then drifts toward a strange, off-putting finale. It left a bad taste in my mouth, which is profoundly disappointing after it gets off to such a great start.   

Writer-director Pablo Berger understands the power of silent-film imagery but isn’t a slave to its conventions, freely using modern editing techniques and CGI to help tell his Cinderella story (based on the original tale by “Los Hermanos Grimm.”) The time is the 20th century and the girl in question is the daughter of a famous matador whose mother dies in childbirth and whose stepmother is unrelievedly cruel. She not only treats the girl as a slave but keeps her from contact with her father. Berger cannily conveys all the emotional beats of the story, treating its heroes and heroines with sincerity and painting its villains in unabashedly broad strokes—a decision that yields diminishing returns as the film progresses.

The actors are well-chosen and make you forget the lack of dialogue, especially with the artful support of Alfonso de Vilallonga’s music. Great, expressive faces like Daniel Giménez Cacho, as the matador, Macarena García, as his beloved wife, and Sofía Oria, as their daughter, help filmmaker Berger bring the story to vivid life.

If you love silent cinema, I would still encourage you to see Blancanieves. It’s a damn sight better than the odious Snow White and the Huntsman, and it’s full of clever ideas. I just wish it fulfilled its enormous promise.