But there’s a reason we don’t make silent films anymore. A lack of sound isn’t a tool itself, but rather an unnecessary handicap that places a deeper responsibility on the craft of the filmmaker. Recently employed in the Best Picture Oscar winner “The Artist,” Michael Hazanavicius only had interest in the lack of sound as a cheap gimmick. That gimmick is eventually botched as Hazanavicius employs a style of editing from the forties and beyond, and a sense of rhythmic editing from even after that. Moreover, given that the film deals with a silent star who cannot transition to the talkies, it’s even demeaning: the familiar story would carry more weight if we grasped his conundrum with sound (and perhaps color), but the lack of sound only patronizes the audience into embracing the lead and demonizing innovation, the last part of that decision not motivated by politics or point of view.
Fortunately, in the case of “Blancanieves,” the silent film concept is best served with a less rigorously academic approach, attached to the theme of a timeless fairy tale instead of a vainglorious show business satire. This would be another “Snow White” story, following last year’s “Snow White And The Hunstman” and “Mirror Mirror." But while 'Huntsman' trapped its heroine in a tired world of “Lord of the Rings” fantasy-battle clichés, 'Mirror' managed to mock the original fable by turning it into a musical treatise on aging in Hollywood. “Blancanieves” takes a different tack, bringing the action to 1920s Spain.
This film’s Snow White is Carmen, a sweet little girl who reverently adores her kindly father. Little does she know that behind the scenes, his caretaker Encarna (Maribel Verdú) has arranged to seize the sickly old man’s cash, becoming a queen herself as he slides into the afterlife. From there, Encarna entertains slaves and lovers, some considerably younger than her, as Carmen struggles to find out the truth about her father’s passing. With some casual familial catfighting, Encarna reveals herself to be territorial and demanding, enough to not understand Carmen’s refusal of the flimsy explanations of her father’s death.
Eventually, exile arrives and Carmen, now in her teenage years, must struggle to survive despite having enough smarts and ingenuity to avoid Encarna’s charmless thugs. Seeking refuge in a circus, her search for a father figure leads her into the arms of seven mismatched dwarves. In a bit of a modern twist, she takes the opportunity to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a bullfighter, gaining assistance and friendship from her seven small partners, all of whom are in love with her to varying degrees.
The film stays true to its silent roots with a musical score that seems appropriately chintzy. Even if PETA activists won’t be amused, there’s a grace and grandeur to the bullfighting scenes that, portrayed with black and white editing and photography, make the sport seem larger than life: they’re shot in an immersive manner that puts to shame the 3D theatrics of most in-your-face blockbusters. And director Pablo Berger’s film also manages to find a neat twist on the classic formula, integrating the poisoned apple in a story stripped of supernatural artifice, but still feeling vaguely fantastical. Oddly enough, “Blancanieves” ends on a beautifully romantic, tragic note, maintaining the story’s ages-old hold on younger audiences, while also presenting a ghoulish conclusion that feels authentic and well-earned. The silent trappings seem like a gimmick when employed in 2013, but the story’s impact is never dulled. [B+]