Magic and Reality: Fairy Tales in the
Big Screen in 2013
Fairy tales have been making a comeback at theaters lately. It's almost as if the studios ran out of superheroes to exploit and decided to look to the past for the next big thing.
Credit Christopher Nolan for giving depth and darkness to Batman. But trying the same thing on Jack and the Beanstalk or Hansel and Gretel (Jack the Giant Slayer, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters) seemed doomed to fail.
But there is one fairy tale movie this year that is truly bold. Not just throw-money-at-the-computer-department boldness, but genuine artistic-vision boldness. The film is Blancanieves (Snow White), and the artist is a Spanish filmmaker named Pablo Berger. His vision borrows not just the forgotten past of fairy tales, but from the bygone era of silent film.
Set in 1920s Spain, filmed in square-framed black and white, and presented as a silent film with composed music, Blancanieves is a magical movie, grounded in reality.
A good-hearted girl named Carmencita lives with her vain and impatient stepmother for as long as she can. Her only friend is a pet rooster named Pepe who wears an adorable bandana. Her father (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) was a renowned bullfighter until he was gored. He survived, but just barely. Oblivious to the machinations of his second wife Encarna (Maribel Verdú) -- that's Carmencita's wicked stepmother, of course -- he convalesces in her superficial care. When her father dies, "Blanca" is thrown out on her own.
Adult Blanca is played by Macarena Garcia with an endearing mix of strength, confidence, and humility. She has a winning smile that warms your heart.
She falls in with a troupe of bullfighting dwarves who are the comic opening act for many A-list toreadors in the small towns on the Spanish plains. Blanca is the perfect addition to their company, and not only because of the well known fairy tale (so what if there are only six dwarves?). As a female bullfighter, she fits right in with their novelty act, but inside, Blanca takes her new calling very seriously. The spirit of her father remains with her as she picks up the family trade.
Blancanieves is really at least two cinematic experiments -- first in making a silent film in 2012. Yes, The Artist beat it to theaters but Blancanieves was still a risky proposition. And second, in getting the story away from the storybook feeling of a fairy tale while keeping the themes and details.
Where The Artist went for broad laughs and knowing jokes, Blancanieves captures a lot of genuine emotion in its 1920s melodrama. Even the silent-movie tropes -- closeups, irises, and editing rhythms -- seem more about engaging and mesmerizing the audience rather than winking at them.
When the movie ends with a beautifully ambiguous closeup, you think back on the whole story and realize that, as magical as the silent-movie experience has been, there was practically nothing of the supernatural in Blancanieves. Emotions are heightened and good and evil are exaggerated. Yet the overall experience is genuine, not fantastic.
So skip the big-budget fairy tales that emphasize the "magic" of computer-generated imagery and embrace instead the real magic old-fashioned storytelling.