Over the centuries since it was first told, there have been many different retellings of Snow White, the fairy tale by the brothers Grimm, yet none of those retellings has ever looked quite like this one. Released in Spain in 2012 and directed by Pablo Berger, Blancanieves is a black-and-white silent film, set in a fictional 1920’s Spain. Here Snow White is a bullfighter, as well as her father and the seven dwarfs, and the wicked queen is an opportunistic murderess. Flamenco music and dancing plays an important part both in the soundtrack and in several scenes. The film was Spain’s entry to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language film which meant that along with Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, the year had two separate black-and-white silent film entries in the Academy Awards.
A DIFFERENT FAIRY TALE
Most of us, whether through familiarity with the original fairy tale or its variations, are familiar with the story of the Snow White: A beautiful child named Snow White, a wicked queen with a magic mirror who becomes envious when the said mirror tells her that the young girl is more beautiful than her, the huntsman who is ordered to kill Snow White by the queen and the seven dwarves who take her in and care for her. The poisoned apple, the magical sleep, the glass coffin, and the final kiss of the prince; all of these are, to greater or lesser extents, familiar elements.
It cannot be overstated, then, what a fresh and at times thoroughly different experience Blancanieves is. The film takes place in a fictional 1920’s Spain, specifically in and around the city of Seville. In this version of the fairy tale, Snow White’s father is not a king but a bullfighter – the most famous and well-respected one in the country – named Antonio Villalta. Snow White is, for most of the film, called by her given name, Carmencita. She seems to have inherited both of her parent’s passions and skills: from her father bullfighting and from her mother Flamenco dancing. The wicked queen begins the film as a nurse named Encarna and, rather than a sorceress with a magic mirror, is an opportunistic and vicious schemer who is plainly narcissistic. Her poisoned apple plot is set into motion when she sees Carmencita’s face on the cover of a magazine instead of her own. Snow White becomes renowned across the land not for her beauty, but for her skill at bullfighting. The seven dwarves are actual little people who put on a travelling show called ‘The little dwarf bullfighters’ and who face bull calves in tiny arenas in what, to a modern audience, looks like a mocking parody of traditional Spanish bullfighting.
As can be guessed, the film is not a direct adaptation of the fairy tale. In fact, one segment of the film in which Encarna forces young Carmencita to slave away in the mansion as a humble servant is much more similar to Cinderella. This actually turns out more in favour of the film as it gives the narrative its own unique quality and avoids becoming confused or derivative. Which is not to say that the film is entirely devoid of clichéd storytelling: notably an important character suffers from amnesia, and then becomes cured of it, in a way that comes across more as narratively convenient than believable.
However, that same narrative convenience makes the film stand strong as its own creation, and it helps that it has a fine cast to put in their weight, with expressive faces and gestures that are perfect for the silent film medium.
To those wondering if they should see the film without knowing how it ends: Yes. It is a version of Snow White quite unlike any other, and will leave an impact long after it’s finished.
Of course, no piece of art is made in a vacuum, and it’s impossible to talk in detail about this film without mentioning the artistic, musical, and even religious influences from Spanish culture present in this film work. The following sections will analyse these influences in detail and will thoroughly spoil both important plot points and the ending. Please be aware that now there will be SPOILERS for the film when discussing the cultural and artistic influences present in its scenes.
TOROS Y FLAMENCO
Blancanieves draws heavily from traditional Spanish bullfighting and Flamenco. After all, in the film’s third act Snow White has become famous throughout Spain not for her beauty but for her skill as a Matador while travelling with the dwarf troupe. At the same time, Flamenco dancing plays just as important part, as the soundtrack includes many Flamenco dances and Carmencita plainly has inherited her skill at it from her mother, just as she has inherited her skill at bullfighting from her father.
It almost goes without saying that bullfighting is highly controversial, both in Spain and outside, but it is interesting to note that the film does not seem to offer either a defence or a condemnation of the practice. No bull is ever harmed on-screen. The act of bullfighting itself, of dancing and dodging around the animal with the Matador cape, is at the end notably framed as a Flamenco dance: The fast-paced music and the dizzying rhythms of the dance are used with the same rapid editing and spinning shots previously used for Flamenco dance scenes. This makes the final bullfight feel more like a dance than a confrontation in a way that is arguably meant to celebrate the skill and artistry involved in both practices.
It is a simple fact that for most of its history Spain was a fiercely traditional Catholic nation. It is something that can be felt in much of the country’s art, music, literature, and of course in its film industry. As can be expected, this influence is much stronger the further back in time one goes and Blancanieves, in deliberately emulating Spanish cinema from the 20’s, opts for an interesting use of religious symbolism at the end.
The final act of the film has Carmencita face a black, massive and muscled bull aptly named Satanás (the Spanish name for the Devil or the Satan). It charges at Carmencita right at the moment when she has frozen, overwhelmed by a torrent of memories surging back to her as her amnesia – developed earlier in the film when she escaped from Encarna – subsides. Yet the bull stops a hair’s breadth away from her and stands absolutely still. This allows Carmencita to recover in time to face it at the moment it resumes its attack, and successfully dance around the animal until the time comes to finish it off, at which point the audience crowd pardons the animal by waving white handkerchiefs. The bull is spared, and Carmencita allows Satanás to return to the bull pens.
Then the climax comes. Encarna tricks Carmencita into biting a poisoned apple, and the dwarves chase the villainess into the bullpens as our heroine collapses. Unable to escape, Encarna eludes the dwarfs and hides in an empty pen, until the door opens slowly to reveal Satanás’ ominous horned shadow filling the room. Encarna’s first and only pitiable moment comes when the cornered woman collapses into a trembling, despairing heap as the pen grows darker with the bull’s shadow.
The symbolism is plain if one examines the scene: Satanás is unable to trample and gore Carmencita, the most morally pure and innocent character of the film, even at the moment when she is most vulnerable. At no point during their duel does Carmencita have Satanás stabbed or weakened by other bullfighters, as would normally be done during a traditional bullfight, and at the end Satanás is allowed to live by a dizzying display of visually-apt snow-white handkerchiefs waved by the crowd. Even when holding a sword, Carmencita never sullies her hands with blood, and the white handkerchiefs come to symbolize both forgiveness and life. Encarna, on the other hand, has been a vile murderess throughout the whole film and a classic villainess who has indulged in the deadly sins of Greed, Vanity, Envy, Wrath, Pride and Lust. Where Carmencita is associated with white – both in her being called Snow White and in the handkerchiefs which spare the bull – Encarna is associated with black, and her final scene has her in a dark room, wearing a black mourning dress, shrinking to nothing as a dark, horned shadow falls over her. That final shot of Encarna is meant not so much as a death scene, but rather as the character being dragged to Hell for her sins.
Spain has a long artistic history of representing grotesque or unusual imagery. Look no further than Goya’s black-and-white drawings, Salvador Dali’s surreal landscapes and images, or Luis Buñuel’s film An Andalusian Dog (1929). A more mundane example can be found in Diego Velázquez’s portraits of little people dressed in court regalia, looking out at an unseen audience with intense gazes.
Blancanieves, in adapting the fairy tale, displays its own particular brand of unusual imagery. Consider the seven dwarves, who battle bull calves in miniature arenas to the applause and laughter of the audience. What to a modern audience is a dreadful and even despicable spectacle is treated by the onlookers, and even by the film itself, as a fun show.
Consider the funeral held for Carmencita’s father. As an esteemed bullfighter, his corpse is dressed up in his matador outfit and sat in the middle of a wide and plush couch. The guests troop in and have their picture taken sitting next to him, including former colleagues of his or a group of wailing old women in mourning veils. The effect is both unnerving and surreal, and entirely intentional.
Then there is the final segment of the film, which is discussed in the next section. Suffice it to say that the presentation of this imagery, bizarre and at times incomprehensible to a modern audience, is not only effective but also correctly employed the film. It creates not only a feeling of a different time and place, but lends the narrative an almost otherworldly quality and makes the whole experience feel oddly more dreamlike, and fantastical.
Traditional Spanish literature has tended towards tragedy. Some of the most famous Spanish novels – such as Don Quixote, the most internationally famous piece – have had sombre endings or tragic events befalling its characters. In imitating classic Spanish films, Blancanieves is no different.
In the original fairy tale, Snow White is put into a magical sleep by a poisoned apple and sleeps inside a glass coffin until she is awaken by the kiss of a prince. However, in the film there is a surprising revelation made late during the second act: After being taken in by the dwarves, the amnesiac Carmencita is playfully nicknamed ‘Blancanieves’ – Snow White – by her rescuers, “Like in the fairy tale.” they say.
This twist extends to the ending. Carmencita is tricked into biting a poisoned apple, and the ending of the film shows our heroine encased in a glass coffin, being exhibited at a circus freak show and tended to by Rafita, one of the dwarfs and her main love interest. For a price, spectators are allowed to come and kiss the unconscious young woman. Strangers, old men and even women all try their luck at ‘reviving’ her, with the implication that this happens every night.
The final shots seemingly show that Carmencita can never wake up. As the camera slowly zooms in on her face, we see a single tear bead from the corner of her eye and roll down her still cheek.
With this final shot, the film holds true to the Spanish tradition of tragedy, wherein the characters which least deserve it often suffer the most, even beyond the end of their story.
This (and the other elements mentioned) makes Blancanieves a viewing experience that is both familiar, but also unfamiliar, to those who know of the fairy tale and are always open to new interpretations of it, even if they don’t always end happily.