Silent films tell a story in a different way, with images instead of dialogue, and they rely on those images to convey the emotional depth of the tale. With the modern reliance on booming sounds and excessive dialogue, it’s nice to experience a familiar story told in the silent style. Not that the silent cinema told stories more simply, they just layered the images within a simpler emotional context of focused awareness and a natural empathy towards their characters.
The story of Snow White, written by the Brothers Grimm, is both dark and imaginative. The characters are well known: Snow White, the evil stepmother, and the seven dwarfs. They’re all in the 2012 silent movie from Spain called “Blancanieves,” written and directed by Pablo Berger. In this dark and fascinatingly realistic movie, Snow White is the daughter of a bullfighter who has suffered a horrendous injury in the bull-fighting ring. The shock of the injury forces the bullfighter’s pregnant wife into labor, where she dies in childbirth but produces a beautiful and graceful daughter named Carmen (Carmencita). Her paralyzed father marries his nurse and abandons Carmencita to a nanny. Despite Carmencita’s longing for her father, all is well until the nanny dies and the little girl is whisked off to live with her father.
Then Carmencita is thrust into the clutches of her VERY evil stepmother, Encarna, who keeps the girl’s father hidden in an upstairs room in her villa while Carmencita sleeps in a dirty basement. Encarna treats Carmencita like a slave, and she’s forced to spend her days doing arduous chores. The girl’s only joy is a pet rooster named Pepe and the hope that one day she can sneak upstairs to see her father in his hidden room. That day eventually comes, and some of the most charming scenes in the film involve the father and daughter’s joy at establishing their natural relationship with each other. In the process, the paralyzed matador teaches Carmencita the techniques of bullfighting.
Eventually, the evil Encarna discovers Carmencita’s visitations with her dad, and punishes her severely. Carmencita spends the rest of her days at the villa in complete misery until she becomes a young woman. One of Encarna’s henchmen tries to drown her in a pond, but a troupe of bullfighting dwarfs rescues her. She’s lost her memory, but begins to find happiness and shows a surprising ability for bullfighting. Her success and fame soon draws the attention of Encarna, who arrives with a poisoned apple for her stepdaughter.
Many bad things happen in this movie, and the tone remains dark. But the joys come from the triumph of spirit and the obvious gratitude the good characters have for small successes. The story seems to take place in the late 1920’s, but that only seems apparent at the climax when a line of cars from that era show up for Carmen’s big bullfighting scene. Director Berger filmed the bullfighting realistically, staying away from heavy special effects. This helps to keep the audience engaged in the characters without the distraction of computer graphics. CGI would have looked completely out of place in this black and white period film.
Berger and cinematographer Kiko de la Rica lit the film very brightly, presumably because much of the action takes place in sunny Seville, Spain. All the characters look very good, even though they exist in less the health-conscious times of the 1920’s. But the movie does not seem like an imitation of silent films but rather a fresh approach on telling a familiar story with beautiful images.