Thursday, April 18, 2013

A boldly conceived fairy tale from Spain

It's always fun to watch a creative imagination at play. You'll get ample opportunity to do just that with the latest retelling of a familiar fairy tale.

In this outing from Spain, Snow White has become a young woman named Carmen. The seven dwarfs appear, but they've morphed into a bullfighting novelty act. In her young adulthood, Carmen also establishes herself as a groundbreaking female bullfighter, a trade she inherited from her father, a legendary matador whose career was cut short when he was gored by a bull.

And, oh yes, Blancanieves -- the movie in which you'll find these imaginative twists -- is also a black-and-white silent film that's set during the 1920s.

Director Pablo Berger's conception of this heavily re-imagined fairy tale is bold, melodramatic and, at times, witty. It's also well-acted by a cast that ably adapts to the vigorous demands of silent cinema. And Berger's employment of silent film tropes proves as deft as that of Michel Hazanavicious, who won an Oscar for his silent film, The Artist.

Macarena Garcia makes a worthy Carmen, but it's the movie's supporting cast that gives Blancanieves its robust and sometimes sharp flavor. Daniel Gimenez Cacho brings lingering sadness to the role of Carmen's debilitated father; and Maribel Verdu proves deliciously (even sadistically) wicked as Carmen's stepmother, the woman who insinuates herself into the picture after the death of Carmen's mother (Imma Cuesta). Cuseta's Carmen de Triana dies giving birth to Carmen after seeing her husband gored by a bull named (what else?) Lucifer.

The scenes involving Carmen's childhood can be sweet, a bit of an idyll in the story's mostly dark trajectory. Carmen has a pet rooster named Pepe, and a grandmother (Angela Molina) who treats her with kindness, a situation that -- in keeping with the doom-struck nature of this tale -- can't possibly last.

Carmen's stepmother works to keep the girl away from her father, and when Carmen is left with no choice but to move onto her father's estate, the conniving stepmother applies her cruelty with exaggerated harshness, unashamed enthusiasm and a taste for sexual perversity. Verdu's Encarna carries on with her chauffeur, frequently guiding him around on a leash.

Berger does an impressive job of balancing the demands of a classic story with the level of wild invention that's necessary to make the movie his own, and he builds toward an ending that's satisfyingly sad and completely in keeping with an approach that's grounded in bold strokes rather than wistful nuance.

So, "Ole!" to Berger -- for a version of Snow White that's at once idiosyncratic, thematically dark and visually striking.

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