Saturday, September 6, 2014

White as Snow

Film: Blancanieves
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Friend and once-and-future podcasting partner Nick Jobe and I trade lists of films now and again; I’ve got one of Nick’s coming up in a little more than a week, matter of fact. Because of this, I tend to have my eye out for films that I suspect he hasn’t seen and that I like. Nick’s got a thing for fantasy and fairy tales, which meant going into Blancanieves, a modern silent retelling of the Snow White story was particularly interesting for me. I figured if it was good enough to recommend, I’d give this to Nick on his next list.

I haven’t quite made up my mind on it in terms of that recommendation for Nick. Blancanieves has a great deal going for it in addition to its retelling of a classic fairy tale brought forward to the modern era. There are problems, though, and most unfortunately, the bulk of the problems come in the last 10 minutes. When a good film shits the bed at the end, it ends up leaving a bad taste in my mouth. Blancanieves doesn’t quite go that far, but what should be a resolution for the audience ends up being completely unfulfilled all the way around. This means we’re likely going to get to some spoilers here before the end.

Since the story is being updated, albeit to the 1920s, we’re not dealing with kings, queens, and princesses here. Instead, we begin with the great Antonio Villalta (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), greatest toreador in Spain. As the film opens, Villalta is planning a massive exhibition, fighting six bulls on the same day. In the audience is his wife Carmen (Inma Cuesta), pregnant with their first child. The flash of a photographer’s camera distracts Villalta on his last bull and he is severely injured, ending up paralyzed. That same day, Carmen gives birth do their daughter, but dies in the process.

Young Carmencita (Sofia Oria) is raised by her grandmother (Angela Molina) while Villalta marries his nurse, Encarna (Maribel Verdu), most definitely at her insistence. There’s no hiding the fact that Encarna is a wicked stepmother-to-be. She is concerned for her own wealth, glamour, and happiness, shunting her wealthy husband off to a room in his house. When the grandmother dies (on Carmencita’s day of first communion—the kid can’t catch a break), she is forced to move in with her paralyzed father and evil stepmother, who treats her like a servant and enacts some truly terrible emotional torture on her in the process. Eventually, Carmencita discovers her father and the two bond. He also teaches her how to fight bulls.

Of course, eventually he dies, and at this juncture, Encarna sends the now-grown Carmen off for flowers for her father’s grave. This is actually a pretext to have her chauffeur/lover (Pere Ponce) kill Carmen to keep her out of the picture. He fails (of course), and Carmen (now played by Macarena Garcia) is discovered by a band of six bullfighting dwarves. She has lost her memory, but demonstrates her skill as a bullfighter. They dub her “Blancanieves” (a literal translation of “Snow White”) and change the name of their act.

And, of course, there’s a big moment where Carmen/Blancanieves fights a bull in front of a massive crowd. And, of course, Encarna has poisoned an apple. And, of course, Blancanieves eats the poisoned apple. And this is where the film falls apart. Skip a bit if you don’t want to see why:


So what happens? Well, the dwarves go after Encarna, of course, and manage to trap her and get her trampled by a bull. But we don’t get to see it. We see only her against a wall and the shadow of a bull closing in on her, but there’s no payoff. Second, when the film ends, Blancanieves is still in the glass coffin despite her cobbled love interest, the dwarf Rafita (Sergio Dorado) kissing her. No happy ending for a fairy tale? For shame!

This doesn’t even mention the moment when Blancanieves signs a lifetime contract with a promoter, and based on his expression, it’s not one that benefits her in any way. For some reason, we’re told she is illiterate, which is ridiculous for a film that takes place in the 1920s. Her grandmother didn’t teach her how to read? Those hours she spent with her father and it never came up? I find that difficult to believe.


While the ending cheeses me off, there are some strong positives with Blancanieves. Primary among these is Macarena Garcia herself. Garcia is atomically beautiful, and no, that’s not a typo. I mean that the atoms that make up her cells have beauty as a main component instead of carbon. I like how the tale has been modernized here, and the shift into bullfighting is an interesting one. I like how nicely this mimics Freaks at the end.

It’s worth noting as well that some sympathy needs to go to Pablo Berger. Berger was set to work on principle photography and had the film completely storyboarded when The Artist came out, blindsiding everyone. Because of this, Blancanieves looks derivative when it was specifically designed to be fresh and new. That said, there’s no getting over the fact that The Artist beat Blancanieves to the punch.

As for recommending this to Nick? We’ll see in a couple of months when I have to make him a new list.

Why to watch Blancanieves: A modern retelling of a classic story.
Why not to watch: Can we be done with the retro-silent thing now?


  1. You don't need to be so skeptical, SJHoneywell. Illiteracy used to affect one in each three men and half of the women (about 40% of Spanish people) in the 1920s. Especially in Andalusia, where this film takes place. About 90% of Jaen's inhabitants were illiterates.

    Anyway, I'm a great fan of your work here, and I'm looking forward to see "Blancanieves".

    1. I stand corrected. Thanks for the information--that genuinely takes away one of the real objections I had to the film.

  2. I thought this was a really good movie, but I hated the ending, too, to the point I took a star off my rating because of it (4 to 3). I had a different objection to it, though.


    Yes, the fact that Snow White and her "prince" didn't end up happily ever after bothered me a little, but the rest of the film hadn't exactly been a happy one, either, so the ending was consistent. No, what bothered me is that the ending was too sick for me. She dies and they keep her dead body as a carnival act, with men paying to kiss her to see if she will wake up. Yes, in the Snow White tale she is only sleeping because it was an enchanted apple and her prince's kiss wakes her up, and she is shown having a tear fall out of her eye at the end of the movie, but they clearly stated just earlier that she was dead, not in a coma. I took the tear to be artistic license, not proof of life, and that made the ending just too sick for me. It should have ended with them carrying her out of the bullfighting ring - still no magic kiss, but a fitting conclusion for a real world Snow White tale.


    On a somewhat related note, would you have an interest in doing something similar in 2015 with me where we recommend 12 films that the other has not seen and then we review them?

    1. Actually, in the original fairy tale, the dwarfs did think Snow was dead, which is why they placed her in a coffin to begin with. They didn't know about the apple or the enchantment. For all the dwarfs knew, the girl had died. The Prince didn't even know her beforehand. He finds her dead body in the coffin, falls in love with her, and kisses her, which wakes her up. Now, I haven't seen this film (obviously, as Steve states in the review)... but... just wanted to clarify.

    2. Nick's right on this one--the dwarfs couldn't bring themselves to bury her, but they were convinced that she was dead.

      As for a 12 movie swap, I would be interested, provided I could come up with 12 movies worth watching that you haven't seen...

    3. You could probably name dozens of good horror films off the top of your head I haven't seen. In fact, I've thought about doing a discussion post asking people what the most famous movie is that they've never seen. Right now, my answer would be Friday the 13th.

      If we do do it, I would hope there would be some mix of genres, though.

      I'm tempted to joke that I'll just email you the names of the remaining movies I haven't seen and you can then pick. I don't have that big an ego, though, to even joke about it. There are literally hundreds of thusands of movies that I have never seen and probably never will see. Of course, the key is what you wrote: that they were ones you felt were worth watching.

      I'll start thinking about movies I'd recommend that you might have not yet seen because they were not on one of the lists you've done, nor were they exceedingly popular.

    4. Works for me. I figure I'll create a list of several dozen and rank them, and you can pick out the ones you've seen versus the ones you haven't.

  3. This is a fine addition to the "female matador' genre, joining Fiesta with Esther Williams and Talk to Her by Pedro Almodovar. (And as far as I know, these are the only films in the genre.)

    Speaking of Almodovar, Blancanieves seems like the movie that would result if Almodovar had been around in the silent era and made a film about Snow White in 1928 or so.

    I've expressed some doubts about some of the movies added to the list in the last ten years or so, about whether they are really "must see," but Blancanieves is definitely not one of those movies! A worthwhile addition to the list.

    And to top it all off! Bullfighting dwarves!

    1. I still don't love the end, but there was a lot here that I found really interesting. It's one I wouldn't mind watching again.

      I can see the link to Pedro. There are aspects of this that very much feel influenced by him.