Pablo Berger’s third film, Blancanieves, finds the classic tale renvisioned as a silent film and a sorrowful epic. There is no solace for the young Carmencita (Macarena García) from the day she is born as her mother, Doña Concha (Ángela Molina), watches her husband, Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho), brutally gored by a bull during one of his highly attended bull fights. Doña Concha’s mother (also played by Molina) accompanies her to the hospital along with Antonio, and helps her daughter deliver her baby under the stressful condition of knowing her husband is badly injured. Just as Carmencita is delivered, Doña Concha dies, leaving Biancanieves under the care of her Abuela. In the meantime, Antonio finds himself paralyzed and immediately falls victim to the charms of his nurse, Encarna (Maribel Verdú). Evil to the core, Encarna does not allow Carmencita to live with them once she marries Antonio, even though Carmencita’s greatest wish is to be with her father.
Set in the Andalusia of the 1920s, there is something about Blancanieves that is far more in keeping with the macabre tone of the original Brothers Grimm tale than the Disney version we’re so often peddled. Rather than the occasional inconvenience, you know, like being followed into the woods by a huntsman, Carmencita faces tribulation after tribulation. Her next tragic life event occurs when her Abuela drops dead while dancing to Doña Concha’s record. In a surreal, almost cartoonish scene that only a silent movie could carry off, Abuela falls to the floor, the life leaving her body just as the record ends (which is just one of many brilliant parables in Blancanieves).
With no one else to care for her, Carmencita is sent to live with Encarna, who provides her with dungeon-like accommodations and immediately cuts all her hair off into a boyish style. The only thing that offers Carmencita any modicum of comfort is her pet rooster, Pepe, who she visits in the chicken coop where he has been banished. One day, as she’s collecting eggs from the coop, Pepe escapes and makes his way into the house, where he leads Carmencita to the second floor—an area Encarna had specifically forbidden her from entering. Following Pepe into a large, dim room, she sees her wheelchair-bound father and at last finds the familial comfort she’s been looking for. Although the two must meet in secret for fear of Encarna’s wrath, Antonio teaches her everything he knows about bullfighting, while also reading her other Brothers Grimm fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood (real self-referential, I know).
But, as the cliché goes, all good things must come to an end. Ultimately discovering what Carmencita has been up to, she makes a point of inviting her to the dinner table one night and serving her chicken. What Carmencita does not realize until she’s already eaten it is that Encarna has killed her rooster and served it to her on a silver platter. She then warns that she’ll do the same to her father if Carmencita ever disobeys her again. Defeated and distraught, Camencita spends her days performing menial tasks, practicing bullfighting in one seamless transition that sees her as a young girl hanging sheets to a young woman wielding the sheet as a bullfighter’s cape.
Although she never sees her father anymore, she is devastated by the news of his death (Encarna pushed his wheelchair down the stairs, quelle surprise). Following his demise, a photographer comes to take photographs of the mourners with Antonio (apparently one of those old school creepy funeral customs). Carmencita is the last to be photographed with him, forcing a tearful smile as she sits on the sofa with him in his bullfighter’s uniform. With Antonio out of the picture completely, Encarna takes it upon herself to get rid of her once and for all. Under the pretense of sending her to the woods to gather flowers for her father’s grave, Carmencita travels very far, unknowingly pursued by a huntsman who strangles her in a river bank. She is eventually found by six dwarves (that’s right, six, not seven) who revive her and take her under their collective wing. Traveling under the moniker of "The Bullfighting Dwarves," Carmencita--who has no memory of her identity--decides to join them. They dub her "Blancanieves" ("just like in the tale") and take her to a bullfight where she ends up intervening to rescue one of the dwarves from certain death.
Her natural knack for bullfighting leads her to gain fame quickly, rising up the ranks to star in her own show. Encarna learns of Blancanieves after she usurps her from having the cover of a magazine that did a feature on Encarna’s home. As Blancanieves’ tour makes its way to Seville where Encarna lives, she disguises herself to attend the show and see what this attention-stealing whore is all about. Just before Blancanieves is about to enter the ring, one of the more spiteful dwarves (jealous that she has taken their spotlight for herself) switches out her bull for a more fearsome one. Although everyone else in the crowd is surprised when they see the size of the bull, Blancanieves merely stares at it stoically just as her father taught her to do. In the end, the audience asks the bull to be pardoned, a request that Blancanieves obliges much to their delight. Now that she remembers whose daughter she is, she relishes the applause and accolades from the crowd—taking her rightful place as Spain’s new premier bullfighter.
Recognizing who she is, Encarna poisons an apple using a needle (in one of the most memorable visual effects from the film) and hands it to Blancanieves in a congratulatory fashion. Not recognizing who she is behind her veil, Blancanieves bites into the apple, signaling her untimely death. It is at this point in the movie that you start to understand how much grittier the Spanish are willing to get as Berger deviates from the standard prince rescuing the princess solution. Instead, Blancanieves is used by the dwarves as a carnival spectacle that charges spectators five cents to give her a kiss and see if they can revive her. Using a smoke and mirrors tactic to make it seem as though she rises when the right man kisses her, the Blancanieves spectacle is quite successful. At the end of the show, the dwarf that was closest to Blancanieves retouches her makeup and sleeps next to her in her glass coffin. Leaning over to kiss her before he goes to sleep, Blancanieves’ eyes remain shut, but we see a single tear flow down the side of her face.
What Blancanieves achieves cannot be underestimated as it is very challenging to make a captivating silent film in the twenty-first century. The subject and themes, however, are the kind to transcend the need for dialogue. Just as another recent modern silent film, The Artist, showed us, emotions are powerful enough to be conveyed visually—while still remaining subtle. And there is perhaps no better classic story to indicate this than that of Snow White.