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Posted by martinteller on May 14, 2014

The famous toreador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) attempts to defeat six bulls in one day, but is gored by the last one.  The shock sends his pregnant, flamenco-dancing wife into labor, and she dies giving birth.  Paralyzed from the neck down, Antonio is too grief-stricken to handle his new daughter Carmencita (Sofía Oria), and places her in the care of his mother-in-law (Ángela Molina, from That Obscure Object of Desire).  Antonio eventually re-marries, to his conniving nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdú).  When Carmencita’s loving grandmother passes away, she and her pet rooster Pepe are hauled off to Antonio’s estate… but she is kept separated from her father by Encarna, who saddles her with chores and makes her sleep in a dirty dungeon.  Nonetheless, Carmencita manages to sneak in to see her father, and they clandestinely delight in each other’s company as he teaches her how to fight bulls.  And then Encarna devises a cruel demise for Antonio, and has her chauffeur/lover take the now-grown Carmen (Inma Cuesta) into the woods and murder her.  Left for dead, she is rescued by a travelling band of six bullfighting dwarves, including the dashing Rafita (Sergio Dorado).  She joins their troupe and their show is fast becoming a success… but Carmen hasn’t seen the last of Encarna.

There’s often a problem with high-concept movies where once you hear the concept, you start to feel like you’ve already seen the film.  If someone tells you “it’s Snow White, but it’s silent and black-and-white and set in early 20th century Spain and all the dwarves are bullfighters”, you start playing that movie in your head and figure you already know what it is.  The challenge of the movie then is to transcend its concept and deliver something substantial.  Blancanieves — like The Artist — justifies its stylistic gimmick by appearing to be a product of its setting.  Although the film is too glossy and bold to actually resemble a work of the era, it at least gets beyond the idea of being a black and white silent just as a lark.  And as a re-imagining of the fairy tale with Spanish bullfighters… why not?  We are accustomed to the classics being transposed to a different setting to breathe new life into them.

But does this movie actually breathe new life into the story?  Yes and no.  It’s certainly a far cry from the more familiar Disney version.  Although the music — a mix of flamenco and more traditional film score — is quite nice, there are no jaunty memorable tunes.  The dwarves aren’t introduced until halfway through and aren’t identified with a single, easy-to-remember character trait.  Though this might be a point in Disney’s favor…. some of the dwarves here have no distinguishing traits.  One’s a charmer, one’s apparently a cross-dresser, one’s kinda mean, and the other three are just there.  The humor is blacker and the tale more macabre.  Encarna is really a piece of work, and does things that would likely traumatize a child audience.

But even though it’s a new take, and even though the gimmick seems reasonably justified, it doesn’t really go far beyond the gimmick.  There are a few fantastic moments, the story is pretty engaging, and the cinematography is consistently gorgeous.  It’s just too hard to make a connection to the characters or the material with all this concept in the way.  When you watch it, you think “This is neat”, not “I care about this”.  It didn’t resonate with me on a gut level, it wasn’t the kind of thing to arouse any particular emotions or make me want to revisit it.  Still, it’s far from a bad movie.  It’s very entertaining (if you don’t mind the darkness of it) and original and beautifully executed.  Rating: Good (79)


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