As movies are increasingly going digital, from production to projection, we're seeing a wave of nostalgia for the physical medium of film. Last year, a French silent movie, "The Artist," vied for the Best Picture Oscar with "Hugo," a drama about filmmaking pioneer George Méliès. This year saw the release of Miguel Gomes's "Tabu," a festival fave coming from Portugal that was shot in part with 16 mm cameras without sync sound. And coming out this month is"Blancanieves," a silent movie from Spain. Like "The Artist," this movie is a gorgeously shot homage to early cinema complete with black-and-white photography, iris shoots, and intertitles. Unlike "The Artist," which is so ingratiating that it becomes irritating, "Blancanieves" is a strange, dark work that doesn't quite have a fairy-tale ending.
The film opens with famed matador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) in the arena engaged in a dance of death with a bull. His gorgeous , very pregnant wife cheers from the crowd. Then tragedy strikes. When he takes his eye off the bull for a fleeting second just as he goes in for the kill, he gets horribly gored. In the resulting panic, his wife goes into labor and dies, but not before giving birth to a baby girl. Born under these less than auspicious circumstances, the child, Carmen, is exactly the sort of good-hearted girl who just can't get a break found in just about every fairy tale.
First, she watches her grandmother, the only person who ever showed her any affection in her young life, keel over dead from an excessively exuberant round of flamenco dancing. But real misery for Carmen comes at the hands of her wicked stepmother. Wracked by grief and confined to a wheelchair, Antonio retreats into his own world. His scheming nurse Encarna (played with delicious malevolence by Maribel Verdú) wheedles her way into his life, and soon they are married. When Carmen shows up at her father's estate, Encarna forces her to sleep in the basement alongside piles of coal, makes her work the most menial jobs, and most unforgivably, roasts her beloved pet rooster Pepe.
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As you can see, director Pablo Berger isn't afraid of employing industrial-strength melodrama in his movies. Like all fairy tales, this film nakedly strikes primal fears and anxieties. Encarna is as dark-hearted as a Bond villain but with less emotional shading. Carmen (played as an adult by Macarena García) is a pure maiden just looking to find her way in the world. She also has her father's knack for bullfighting. When she escapes from her Cinderella-like life of casual sadism and domestic drudgery, Carmen falls in with a band of dwarf matadors, which eventually gives her a fleeting moment to shine. Yet the movie's cathartic finale — the sort of vanquishing of evil and righting of wrongs that we come to expect — is complicated and undermined by its bizarre and troubling coda. Without a Prince Charming, the world of fairy tales can be a very, er, grim place indeed.
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See the trailer for 'Blancanieves':