Fairy tale movies seem to be more popular than ever at the moment, but few of them can have featured a chicken-cam before. Blancanieves is an idiosyncratically Spanish telling of Snow White, where seeing the world through the eyes of young heroine’s pet chicken is just one of a host of unexpected charms.
Being in black and white might actually not be too unusual in the summer of 2013, what with Frances Ha and A Field in England coming out in that format this July. Even the fact that it is silent is less likely to shock us since The Artist won Oscars by the bucket load last year. But although there may be recent precedents for Blancanieves, the film clacks its castanets in its own distinctive Spanish way.
Director and writer Pablo Berger told The Guardian that his film is a love letter to European silent cinema, rather than that of Hollywood as The Artist is. The innovative techniques of French legend Abel Gance are particular influences on the film. As well as the chicken-cam, the camera spins dizzily, tips at strange Expressionist angles, and is energised with zippy editing. All in the new old fashioned way.
The plot is also new old fashioned. Once upon a time a handsome prince, or rather champion bull fighter, and his wife, in this case obviously a flamenco singer, had a daughter called Carmencita. The mother died soon after and her father married his nurse. This new stepmother was wicked, naturally enough, she kept little Carmen in ignorance of her father and treated her as a slave. Her father died and after some tussles with her stepmother, she ended up living with a band of travelling dwarf bull fighters. Soon she too became a successful bullfighter, before she was offered a poisoned apple.
Blancanieves is very Spanish, but not just in subject matter. The film follows in the tradition of surrealism and magical realism from that country, most notably Luis Bunuel, but also Julio Medem, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo and Bigas Luna. The matador’s outfits and Spain of yore is slightly over the top anyway, but Berger gives all these elements an extra spin. The characters are eccentric, emotions volcanic, and true love’s kiss is a fact.
The cast are a fairy tale too. Both the young Carmen played by Sofia Ora and the adult version by Macarena Garcia convey a suitable innocence and wide eyed wonder. But the highlight must be Maribel Verdu as the wicked stepmother. A star of numerous Spanish films, Verdu’s long face is well suited to play the baddie, a role she takes to with relish. The chicken playing Pepé, little Carmen’s feathered friend, also deserves a mention as animal acting of the highest order.
In a medium devoid of the human voice, music is more important than ever in silent film. The score by Alfonso de Vilallonga – orchestra alternates with guitar and clapping powered flamenco – build the drama to impressive effect.
Although many of the parts of Blancanieves are tried and tested, it does not feel second hand. Also, luckily Berger did not think that his film should be five hours long, like his hero Abel Gance’s Napoleon. Over its 104 minutes, the film squashes in love, sorrow, humour, romance, passion, eccentricity and chickens. Qualities that are unlikely to seem hackneyed however many times we see them.
See the trailer here: