“Pure cinema” — a concept with roots in the silent era, when spoken dialogue was technically impossible — communicates visually, rendering words secondary or even irrelevant. In the years since the introduction of synchronized sound, both avant-gardists and mainstream filmmakers (most notably Hitchcock) have pursed this notion to circumvent, or at least downplay, speech in order to communicate more directly to the audience through images.
Pablo Berger has pure cinema on his mind in his new film, Blancanieves. A silent, black-and-white, Spanish version of Snow White set in bullfight-crazy Seville in the 1910s and 1920s may sound like an art-house item to an American audience, but with a little acclimation (helped in no small way by the success of 2011’s The Artist), it’s quite accessible. This is the province of melodrama, of imagery so beautiful and emotions so big they don’t need words to find expression. (There are intertitles, most of which are expendable.)
Though not an all-out pastiche — Berger avails himself of the shot compositions, camera angles and movements, and editing techniques unheard of in the silent era — Blancanieves is decidedly self-conscious; it even begins with a pair of red curtains that part to reveal a box screen and old-fashioned credits. When the opening bullfight scene cuts back and forth between famous matador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and his worried, pregnant wife in the grandstand, we know something terrible is about to happen, and the tragedy plays out in a brilliant first act that functions as a mesmerizing mini-movie. Kiko de la Rica’s photography alone is enough to bring tears to your eyes.
The remainder of the film is a slight letdown after that powerhouse opening. Berger works some clever innovations on the familiar story of Snow White: the villainess is a nurse played with gusto by Maribel Verdú, and the dwarves (who arrive very late) are a traveling troupe of matadors. But the pace slackens and the tone grows uneven. Perhaps assuming he couldn’t sustain such a high level of intensity, Berger opted for a more varied emotional palette in the film’s long middle section. Unlike The Artist, which starts out funny and becomes increasingly serious, Blancanieves attempts to do the opposite, which is much trickier. Unfortunately, Berger’s feel for comedy is far less sure than it is for melodrama, and the film falters in the majority of its lighter moments. Still, it restores some of the eroticism and grotesquerie Disney scrubbed from the version of the fairytale most familiar to Americans, and it picks back up for an ingenious, melancholy final act.
Today, silent film is practiced primarily by experimental filmmakers like Guy Maddin and creators of shorts. But Blancanieves demonstrates the possibility of making a mainstream feature that champions visual storytelling as a means to emotional expression (as opposed to mere sensation). Terence Malick has pursued this route more assiduously than any other director working today, but still feels the need to overlay his images with philosophical narration. The next step would be to eliminate such voice-overs, as well as the retro trappings with which Blancanieves and The Artist acknowledge their technical anachronism, and just make an unapologetically modern silent.
Berger has the chops for it. His first feature, Torremolinos 73 (which also evinced a keen interest in film history and technique) told a subtler, more complex story, but gave no indication of the aesthetic sophistication that has flowered in Blancanieves. He spent most of ten-year interim trying to get the new film made. Whether or not he continues in this vein, let’s hope it isn’t another decade before we hear from him again.