Would you believe me if I told you there’s a film opening this weekend about bullfighting dwarfs? Would you still believe me if I told you it wasn’t directed by Terry Gilliam? Now let’s up the ante even further: Assuming you’ve answered both questions in the affirmative, would you think I was being truthful if I also claimed it’s the best film I’ve seen so far in 2013?
Directed by Pablo Berger (whose previous feature, Torremolinos 73, dealt with Spain’s adult film industry during the Franco era), Blancanieves is a silent black-and-white adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale ‘Sneewittchen‘ (better known as ‘Snow White’). That, of course, is where the dwarfs come in, while the bullfighting reflects the film’s Spanish roots. Now playing at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinemas in San Francisco, Blancanieves will open at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, April 26.
The story begins one day in 1910, as hundreds of excited corrida enthusiasts prepare to witness legendary torero Antonio Villalata (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) in action. No slouch with the capote and muleta, Villalata is scheduled to do battle with six bulls in a single afternoon, all under the watchful and proud eye of heavily pregnant wife Carmen (Inma Cuesta).
Alas, the sixth and final bull gets the better of Antonio, leaving him gored and trampled in the dust. The shocked Carmen immediately goes into labor, dying in the course of giving birth to baby Carmencita. Tragedy follows upon tragedy, as the child endures a horrific relationship with her crippled father’s second wife, Encarna (Pan’s Labyrinth’s Maribel Verdu), which ends — temporarily, at least — with Carmencita’s apparent strangulation at the hands of her stepmother’s lover.
Left for dead in a pool of water, Carmencita (Macarena Garcia, in a role only Joan Crawford could have essayed in the 1920s) is rescued by a septet of itinerant little people who, by happy coincidence, earn their living fighting miniature livestock. Our heroine’s genetic predisposition to bullfighting soon becomes apparent to everyone — including a conniving talent agent — but alas…there’s a poison apple in the beautiful young woman’s future.
Director Berger is clearly familiar with the grammar and language of silent cinema. Though his use of Dutch tilts in the film is perhaps more reflective of post rather than pre-World War II influences, Blancanieves displays many classic attributes of the silent style, including extreme close-ups, exaggerated facial expressions, multiple exposures, and superimpositions.
While film fans will also recognize the influence of such groundbreaking artists as King Vidor, Tod Browning, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Dziga Vertov, Blancanieves is, happily, much more than a catalogue of silent cinema tricks and tropes. Unlike his contemporary, Canadian silent filmmaker Guy Maddin, Berger prefers storytelling to staging, and the result is an extremely moving melodrama climaxing in final reel tragedy that will have you reaching for your hanky.
Footnote: Though much of this film takes place in the matador’s arena, its bullfighting sequences are virtually bloodless. A comic relief rooster, however, does come to a somewhat sticky end.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more Big Screen Berkeley reviews here.
To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. It’s a post-your-own calendar so we also encourage you to submit your own events.