Are silent films now a thing that people do? Is it a trend? Technically pre-dating the Oscars™ success of The Artist (2012) is this Spanish film, now on general release in the UK after some festival appearances, which to my mind is a far more nuanced and interesting take on the silent film form, though certainly darker in tone than that other famous recent silent. It’s also a more sympathetic pastiche (for a start, there’s no diegetic sound), yet swiftly moves beyond mere slavish hommage in crafting a rounded film that plays to all the strengths of this antique form.
Of course, over the 80 or so years since sound film came to pre-eminence, there have been periodic throwbacks to the specially-moving qualities of the silent film form. There are those which reference the era within otherwise mainstream (sound) films like Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and then there are those which imitate the style, like the fantasias of Guy Maddin or the overly-grim lugubriousness of Aki Kaurismäki’s Juha (1999), amongst several others, most rather more experimental in form. So, whether these recent few films constitute a real trend is up for debate.
If there’s more interest in silent cinema now — and, from a capital city perspective, my friend Pam’s Silent London site is some small evidence of that (there are plenty of other silent-film-specific blogs to suit your tastes) — I don’t think a handful of films really does constitute a trend exactly. However, it’s nevertheless pleasing to see filmmakers (and audiences, since these films would hardly exist if there weren’t an audience for them) respond to the peculiar joys of voiceless cinematic art. I say ‘voiceless’ of course, since as we all know now, these films are not really silent: there’s a lot that can be done with a good score and expressive acting. For Blancanieves, Alfonso de Vilallonga provides the music; he’s not a name I’m familiar with, but his score leans heavily on traditions of silent-film accompaniment that will be familiar to anyone who’s seen a live screening.
The gorgeous contrasty black-and-white photography emphasises faces — extreme close-ups in a nod to old Soviet silents — though with a slightly more emphatic montage style than you’d see even in those films, belying its minimal budget. However, the faces glow with that peculiar radiance that silent films have always imparted at their best. Divorced from the prosaic limitations of the voice, we have the soulful eyes of both the heroine Carmen (played as an adult by Macarena García and by Sofía Oria as a child) — who with her cropped hair at times recalls even Renée Falconetti’s suffering as Joan of Arc — and the evil stepmother Encarna (Maribel Verdú, every bit the campy stage villain). In fact, this is a film of uncommonly strong women: there’s also a role for veteran actress Ángela Molina as Carmen’s flamenco-dancing grandmother. The men in the film are no match for these women, being either literally smaller (the dwarfs who take Carmen in when she’s been forsaken by her stepmother) or symbolically so (her wheelchair-bound father, the former torero Antonio, who is effectively imprisoned by Encarna upon the death of his first wife, Carmen’s mother).
For a country which gave us the word “macho”, it is perhaps not surprising that strong women have been a feature of many classic Spanish films, as have young girls who are exposed to the allegorical horrors of a patriarchal world, which is the most pertinent point of comparison — whether the poetic rural fantasies of El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive, 1973) or El laberinto del fauno (Pan’s Labyrinth, 2006) more recently. In this case it’s bullfighting which is at the symbolic heart of the tale: Carmen’s attempted mastery over a bull in the stadium where her father was gored, and where her mother died giving birth to her, is what the film’s narrative is working towards. However, it hardly seems accidental that this most clichéd of Spanish pursuits should be emphasised, given we also see plenty of flamenco dancing — both being entrenched traditional arts renewed with nationalist fervour by the Francoist regime. Given that horror at Franco’s Spain is very much at the forefront of both the films I mentioned above, I suspect the inclusion of these art forms is more than mere window-dressing to make the film marketable to an international audience. The nostalgia inherent in the silent form is politicised by these allusions to the later fascist regime; Blancanieves does not present the comfortable past of the heritage film, whatever its silver-screen trappings might be.
I think that’s the key for me, that this isn’t some comfortable exercise in Roaring Twenties nostalgia, but a way of using the form in such a way as to undermine viewer assumptions. The resulting fairytale is thus returned to its complex psychological roots, and with Spain’s traumatic 20th century history still menacingly in the future, we are left uncertain as to whether ‘Snow White’ even should awake from her sleep. Thus does the film’s conclusion feel exactly right.
Director/Writer Pablo Berger (based on the fairytale Schneewittchen “Snow White” by the Brothers Grimm); Cinematographer Kiko de la Rica; Starring Maribel Verdú, Macarena García, Ángela Molina; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Renoir, London, Sunday 14 July 2013.