“Blancanieves,” the new fairy tale-based film written and directed by Pablo Berger is a little bit of a lot of things, but in the end, not enough; much like the Diana Krall song “I know a little bit about a lot of things, but I don’t know a lot about you.” There is a wicked stepmother, Encarna, played deliciously over-the-top by Maribel Verdú; a sweetly bland Snow White, Sofía Oria as Carmencita; and of course there are dwarves, although only 6 rather than 7.
Curiously produced as a silent film (with title cards) in glorious black and white, Berger’s choice of style is neither as original nor as compelling as Hazanavicius’s time and topic-specific use of black and white silence in “The Artist.” Berger’s retrospective use of the silent film perhaps serves to emphasize the Grand Guignol aspects of his story, but it doesn’t seem to be an as fundamentally necessary use of the medium as “The Artist” was. All that aside, however, the lack of sound does underscore the dramatic moments and visual impact with the lushness of music written by Alfonso de Vilallonga.
Set in a time specific era in Seville, this is a once-upon-a-time tale of a dashing bullfighter named Antonio (the handsome and soulful Daniel Giménez Cacho) who was the toast of the town with his wife, the famous dancer known far and wide as Carmen (a briefly seen Macarena Garcia). Tragedy compounds tragedy when the handsome bullfighter suffers a near fatal goring that puts him a wheelchair. Witnessing the event, a pregnant Carmen goes into a premature labor and dies giving birth to their daughter Carmencita. Grieving the death of his beloved wife, Antonio cannot bear to see the child he blames for her death and banishes her to the care of her grandmother. In his weakened and suffering state, he falls prey to the beautiful and scheming nurse, Encarna, who wants nothing more than hi wealth and standing; she will stop at nothing to get it.
When the beloved grandmother of Carmencita dies, she is sent to her father’s estate to live under the thumb of Encarna who assigns her Cinderella-like tasks, all the while forbidding visits between father and daughter. But such forbidden visits only intrigue the child further and are easily circumvented as Encarna is busy carrying on an affair with her chauffeur. Discovering their betrayal, Encarna dispatches with her inconvenient husband sending him careening down the stairs, channeling Tommy Udo in “Kiss of Death.” She sends Carmencita off with the chauffeur, a stand-in for the huntsman, who bungles the job of killing her and leaves her to be discovered by a roving band of dwarves who ply their comedic trade as distractions in the 3rd rate bullrings found in the hinterlands. What they soon discover about their amnesiac ward is that she has inherited her mother’s grace and her father’s talent in the corrida de toros. With their beautiful ward in hand, now billed as Blancanieves, they storm the countryside. A collision of good and evil is sure to result.
Berger freely takes elements of the fairy tale and twists and turns them to attempt a surreal mash-up of the seven deadly sins that both beauty and evil. In wanting “Blancanieves” to be his everything, a silent film with Almodovar-style twists, Dali’s chaos and Buñuel’s ambiguity, he has ended up with none of the above. Part of the fault may lie in the overly slow pacing that lingered too long on Carmencita’s early life or the deliberate lack of character development accorded Encarna, an only occasionally effective comic relief, turning a lusty evil mistress of the dark into a cartoon playing in a different field than everyone else and lessening the dramatic impact of actions that should be fraught.
Despite my many admonishments, however, this is not a bad film; it’s just not a very good one. There are so many “almosts” that Berger’s inability to excel in any of them is particularly frustrating. The cinematography (Kiko de la Rica) is often stunning but its brightness and lack of shading and shadowing seems to indicate that “Blancanieves” was filmed in color and then taken to black and white in the studio. And certainly the attempt to translate the fairy tale into a modern day morality play of heightened emotion does occasionally work, but it is the sporadic nature of this success that ultimately leads the viewer perplexed and frustrated.
Opening Friday March 29 in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal and in New York at the Angelika.