Thursday, May 2, 2013

Blancanieves [2012]

MPAA (PG-13)  Roger Ebert (4 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars with Expl)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

Blancanieves [2012] (screenplay and directed by Pablo Berger) is an internationally critically acclaimed and award winning (including 10 Goya Awards, Spain's equivalent of the Oscars) b&w silent screen adaptation  of the Brothers Grimm fairytale Snow White set in and around turn-of-the-20th century Seville, Spain and in the context of that most Iberian of traditions Bull Fighting.  The film comes on the heels of the previous year's internationally critically acclaimed/award winning French b&w silent screen sensation The Artist [2011] as well as two other recent (indeed 2012) American treatments -- Mirror, Mirror [2012] and Snow White and the Huntsman [2012] -- of this particular story.

One could initially ask: what could this film possibly add?  Well simply from a stylistic point of view, it should be clear that Blancanieves [2012] seeks to put itself in a completely different realm of cinema (classic, in league with such masterpieces as Jean Cocteau's post WW-II The Beauty and the Beast (orig. La Belle et la Bête) [1946]) as compared to the far more "popular fare" treatments of the story by the two other films, which in a few years will almost certainly be largely forgotten.

More interestingly, arguably Blancanieves [2012] builds on the success of The Artist [2011], and "moves the ball" as it were. The Artist [2011] excellent though it was, was, above all, a nostalgia piece being at least as much about the "b&w silent screen era of cinema" itself as about telling a particular story (in the b&w silent screen idiom).  In contrast, IMHO Blancanieves [2012] actually seeks to tell a story choosing then to do so using the b&w silent screen medium.  Will the b&w silent screen medium prove suited to tell other stories in the future?  The answer obviously lies in the creativity and resourcefulness of cinematic artists.

So what is Blancanieves [2012] about?  The film seeks to follow the story of Grimm's Snow White story (Blancanieves means Snow White in Castilian Spanish) while placing the story in the context of turn of the 20th century Spanish bull-fighting.

The film begins with heroic, widely celebrated bullfighter Don Antonio Villarta (played by Daniel Giménez Cacho) praying before a classically Spanish statue of Our Lady of Sorrows, seven swords in her heart [cf. Luke 2:35 "And you yourself (Mary) a sword will pierce so that the hearts of many will be revealed" reflecting my own (Servite) Order's devotion to the Seven Sorrows of Mary] prior to entering into Seville's famous bull ring to take-up the challenge of taking-down 7 bulls in the course of the afternoon.

Don Antonio's wife, Carmen (played by Inma Cuesta) a former flamenco dancer (another classically Spanish archetype) now expecting their first child is (along with her mother) in the audience.

Don Antonio has no trouble defeating the first five bulls and seems to be about to slay the sixth, nicknamed Lucifer, when something goes wrong.  For a split second he's distracted (for actually a very contemporary reason, but it works for the time in question as well) and instead of slaying the bull (Lucifer), the bull gores him.  Horrified, Carmen, in the crowd faints.

After the stunned attendants on the field chase the bull away, Don Antonio is taken quickly to the hospital named again for Our Lady of Sorrows (which when one thinks about it, is actually a terrible name for a hospital ... ;-) ... the name actually would work better for a counseling center / memorial chapel.  One would probably prefer to go to a hospital called Our Lady of Perpetual Help.  But then this is a Spanish story / tragedy and the Spanish speaking world has also been known historically for its rather graphic depictions of Jesus crucified and very large/thorny crowns of thorns).

Carmen (who goes into in labor after she faints) is taken to the hospital as well.

Don Antonio is saved though paralyzed as a result of his injuries, while Carmen dies after giving birth to their daughter Carmencita.  In shock from his own injuries and the loss of his wife, Don Antonio can not bear to even take a look at the little newborn when she's brought to him.  Carmencita (played as a child by Sofia Oria) is thus raised for the first part of her life by her grandmother (Carmen's mother) while Don Antonio recovers and eventually marries his scheming nurse named Encarna (played by Maribel Verdú).

When Carmencita's grandmother dies suddenly (presumably of a heart attack after doing a flamenco dance) at Carmencita's first communion party, Carmencita is taken to her father, who's holed-up in a country estate named "Monte Olvido" (The Mountain of Forgetting / Abandonment), run now (presumably using Don Antonio's money) by Encarna (now to become Carmencita's wicked step-mother).  Indeed, in this part of the film, Carmencita's existence more resembles Cinderella's than Snow White's as she's forced to live in the basement of the estate, does all the hard chores of the house (even though she's only 7-8 years old) and she's never ever allowed to go to the second floor, where Don Antonio is holed-up, and probably doesn't even know that his daughter is now living below.

Eventually fate lends a hand through Carmencita's wandering pet chicken, who plays a role akin to the dog in The Artist [2011].  So Carmencita finds her way to the second floor (chasing after said wandering amiable chicken) and finds her father (paralyzed in a wheelchair) there.  While Don Antonio initially didn't even realize that his daughter was now living in the same compound as he, he's quickly able to put it together:  Carmencita looks kinda like her mother, already seems to be quite good at flamenco, and when she picks-up the toreador's cape there by Don Antonio's stuff recalling his glory days, she proves to be a natural.  Don Antonio, who's had no one to talk to for a very long time, teaches her a trick or two of the trade, even though, at this point, it's just for fun as Carmencita was both a girl (Toreadors were traditionally men and Spain was traditionally a very Macho country) and still "just a kid" (only about 8-9).

Well, eventually Encarna catches wind of Carmencita's having found her father upstairs (where Carmencita had been forbidden to go) and that the two were enjoying each other's company far more than she enjoyed either of them.  So (as a wicked person after all...) she can't bear the two enjoying each other's company that much.  So she asks a trusted servant (and lover?) to take good-old Carmencita out into the woods some distance off the estate and to kill her.  The servant can't bring himself to do so.  So Carmencita escapes...

This is when Fate lends another hand ... and Carmencita finds herself being picked-up and rescued by a traveling circus act calling itself "The Bullfighting Dwarfs" (dwarfs that would bull-fight, but, of course only calves...).  The rest of the film ensues ...

Obviously, eventually Carmencita grows-up with these dwarfs, and thus their act eventually becomes "The Toreadora and the 7 Bullfighting Dwarfs" and eventually they make it to the famed Plaza de Toros back in Seville.  There, an older but still very much wicked Encarna, who had figured out who this surprising and increasingly famous Toreadora had to be ... comes to visit her ... with an apple ...

Does the story work?  What do you think?  I honestly think it does, and certainly a good part of the film's charm is that it was made in the b&w silent screen style with generally only vintage (piano) music playing in the background.  Does the bullfighting in the story get old?  IMHO, it could, but there's enough variation to keep it fresh: (1) We see "the pro" at the beginning, (2) we see the little Carmencita playing with here dad, (3) we see the Dwarfs Bull Fighting against Calves and (4) we see the grown Carmencita taking on "a real bull" by the end ...

So this is a surprising movie folks and it reminds us of the storytelling possibilities available these days.  And yes it does make me wonder if between Blancanieves [2012] and The Artist [2011] preceding it, we're actually witnessing the beginning of a revival of this long thought dead (b&w silent screen) art form.  Can more be done with with it?  Who honestly knows?  A year ago, I would have thought The Artist [2011] would have been a one shot deal.  Now I'm no longer sure ;-).

And as a Servite priest, I can not but appreciate the film's repeated allusions to my (Servite) Order's Principal Patroness Our Lady of Sorrows (USA Province).

In any case great job folks, great job!

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