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This movie was #9 on my “Top Ten Movies of 2013” list. 

Some movies are different just for different’s sake, and when I hear that a movie is silent and black and white, that’s what I expect. Any who reads this blog regularly knows I wasn’t very impressed with “The Artist,” which won the Best Picture Oscar in 2011, despite the fact that nostalgia was almost all it had going for it as a movie. The old-fashioned techniques didn’t serve that movie, they were that movie – take them away, and all you’d have was a mediocre romantic comedy. But sometimes the filmmakers find that the road less traveled is the most effective way to tell a story in an entertaining and engaging way, and that’s what happens in “Blancanieves.”

Snow White adaptations are a dime a dozen lately, but none have the guts to reimagine the story the way that Pablo Berger has – or the storytelling chops to make the audience feel like maybe this is the original story, and all the others are just remakes. Set in 1920s Spain, Carmen (Macarena Garcia, who likes like Jake Gyllenhaal’s sister far more than Maggie does) is the daughter of a famous bullfighter, born into a tragedy: her beautiful mother dies giving birth to her on the same day that her father’s career is ended by a moment of distraction in the bullfighting ring. (“You must never take your eyes off the bull,” he tells her much later.) Maribel Verdu, surely one of Spain’s finest actresses, plays the wicked stepmother, who nurses the father through his convalescence and then shoves him into a corner room and ignores him once they’re married. Poor Carmen wishes her stepmother would ignore her, but instead she is viciously cruel to her, and the only moments of peace she can find are when she sneaks upstairs to spend time with her father.

I suppose you know pretty well what happens after that. Carmen wakes up in the traveling caravan of a troupe of bullfighting dwarves — their show is more of a freak show comedy than actual tauromachy. Carmen can’t remember who she is, but instead of immediately washing their dishes and making their beds, she joins them in the bull ring, and finds she can hold her own just fine, and more.

“Blancanieves” is more in the vein of the wonderfully weird 1932 film “Freaks” (which actually wasn’t silent) than last year’s “The Artist” or the movies it was emulating. But it also borrows liberally, in its quick cuts and overall storytelling style, from music videos – which, are, essentially, modern silent films, after all. “Silent” never meant no music; it just meant no dialogue. It is chock full of arresting images – like the moment, after her nanny’s sudden death, young Carmen’s pure white confirmation dress is dipped into a basin, and emerges black – a mourning dress. It’s also not too concerned with ending happily. “True love’s kiss” has been exposed as a sham over and over again in films lately (see “Frozen” and “Maleficent”) but perhaps never so scandalously as it is here.

I suppose a silent, black and white film about a bullfighting fairy tale character isn’t for everyone, but generally I find that the movies that are for everyone really aren’t for me. “Blancanieves” has flair, it has wit, it is visually striking and completely engaging. It’s easily one of my favorite movies from 2013.


Random Notes:

–Other recent adaptations of Snow White include “Snow White and the Huntsmen,” starring Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron, and “Mirror Mirror,” starring Julia Roberts and Lily Collins. Both got middling reviews. I haven’t seen either of them.

–One of my favorite adaptations from the original story: instead of a magic mirror, we have a fashion magazine. The evil queen was supposed to make the cover, but get supplanted and bumped to page 12 by the sudden sensation of this bullfighting beauty.  Who’s the fairest of them all?



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