LONDON – Whole vats of column ink (or the invisible online equivalent) have been spent by industry observers on the refuge Hollywood has recently sought in the humble fairytale. Whether on Red Riding Hood or the giant-slaying Jack, blockbuster millions are being lavished on reconfiguring a familiar storytelling universe that was once largely the domain of animators.
But if it’s been easy to connect this increased taste for pumped-up tradition to financially fragile US studios seeking comfort in the ultimate known quantities, we might now have to amend that copy a bit: “Blancanieves” a lush, lively new Sevillian spin on “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” that carries Spain’s hopes in this year’s Oscar race, takes the trend to the international arthouse. “Snow White,” of course, currently leads the charge in fairytale revisionism, having already yielded two contrasting English-language adaptations this year: Tarsem’s larkish, cupcake-colored delight “Mirror Mirror” and Rupert Sanders’ older-skewing and considerably dourer Gothic take “Snow White and the Huntsman.”
Directed by Pablo Berger, whose last film was the mild porn satire “Torremolinos 73,” “Blancanieves” — which recently had its UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival — targets a discerning audience that likely went to neither of those films, though it sits about halfway between them tonally, sharing the former’s playful sensibility while taking the root of the story at least half as seriously as the latter – which is to say, about the right amount.
It differs from both, meanwhile, in shooting for starry-eyed romanticism to a greater extent than even Disney’s 1937 benchmark version, and does so partially by framing one nostalgia trip in the cinematic language of another. Picking up, presumably coincidentally, where “The Artist” left off, “Blancanieves” is another full-tilt homage to silent cinema: shot in glistening monochrome, encased in the cosy Academy ratio and outfitted with crafty sonic and technical anachronisms that only underline its otherwise loving adherence to the principles of narrative cinema’s early pioneers.
Though its meticulous pastiche of obsolete (or so we thought) cinematic form makes it seem more of an antique novelty than either of the other 2012 Snow Whites, “Blancanieves” is actually the most overtly modernized of the bunch, updating the action to 1920s Spain, injecting wicked notes of media satire into the action and – most innovatively – stripping the tale of all its supernatural elements. There’s no magic mirror here, just a full-length one that sufficiently reflects the vanity of a wicked stepmother without needing to answer back.
You’ll have no trouble recognizing the familiar development of the story beneath the flavorful cultural accoutrements of fizzy maracas and matador bling. Snow White here takes the name of Carmencita, a raven-haired tyke (the irresistible Sofia Oria) born into tragedy when her mother, Spain’s leading flamenco dancer, dies in labor, sending her father – neatly enough, Spain’s leading bullfighter – into irretrievable shock.
Enter the fabulously malevolent Encarna (Maribel Verdu, of “Y tu Mama Tambien” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” fame), who bewitches Carmencita’s enfeebled pa and makes her stepdaughter’s life a living, if attractively lensed, hell. When the girl grows up and tumbles into the merry shelter of a sideshow band of mini-matadors, you more or less know where this is going, until you don’t: someday no prince will come, but one of the dwarfs is eager to double up, while the resolution strikes a note of tragic compromise more in keeping with the macabre adult leanings of early fairytales than Disney-model happy endings.
After a buoyant first act that Berger himself seems reluctant to leave, the air leaks out of the soufflé a little as our suntanned Snow White (later played by the bright-eyed but less engaging Macarena Garcia) reaches adulthood. As the dwarfs never quite cohere as an entity, any screen time not handed to a gloriously vampy Verdu feels ill-spent: attired in a series of progressively outlandish Art Deco creations that pitch her halfway between Garbo and Mommie Dearest (costume designer Paco Delgado, whose threads are soon to be seen in “Les Miserables,” is clearly having a ball), Encarna isn’t cinema’s first villain to swallow the heroine whole, but when she finally proffers the poisoned apple, my silent cheer of “You go, girl!” probably wasn’t the most appropriate response.
With that said, “Blancanieves” is entirely too gorgeous for such quibbles to take center stage. Kiko de la Rica’s camera takes some kinetic options that definitely weren’t available to cinematographers in the 1920s, but also knows when to just stay put and marvel at the film’s ostentatious design, while Alfonso de la Vilallonga’s clever, clattering, ethnically-infused score is more loyal to its period than that of “The Artist,” though in one key scene, Berger breaks the code by allowing the rumble of fireworks to intrude on its soundtrack. Whether the Academy agrees or not remains to be seen, but there’s enough practical magic here to excuse the self-celebration.