Early & Silent Film

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Archive for the ‘Spanish silents’ Category


Posted by keith1942 on August 19, 2013


This 2011 Spanish film is what is called a ‘21st century silent’ and I think it is the best example I have seen of this approach. Shot on Super 16, in black and white and 1.33:1 ratio, it is circulating in the DCP format and in the UK with English-language title cards. It seems the distribution re-creates the mode of silent exhibition with the title cards translated appropriately for each territory: with added subtitles for onscreen language. The latter also explain some particular actions or objects, such as bull-fighting terms, in the film. The film takes the Grimm Brothers fairy tale [titled Little Snow-White] and re-interprets and repositions it as a melodrama set in 1920s Spain. In an excellent review in Sight & Sound (August 2013) Mar Diestro-Dópido comments, “Unlike The Artist’s nostalgic facsimile of a generic, homogenous silent era, however, Blancanieves, was never imagined as a reproduction of that fertile period of film history, but rather as a reinterpretation of it, and a meditation on the origins of film language itself.” Indeed, the silent era was a much richer and varied area of art than a silent pastiche like The Artist suggests. And the review goes on to point out the rich variety of influences from the period that inform this film: Soviet montage, German expressionism, Hollywood Melodrama and [from the limited range I have been able to see] the Spanish silent film itself.

The fairy tale in question is commonly known as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The transfer to Spain has transformed the plot into one in which bull fighting is the central focus. At the start of the film we meet Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a famed matador. An accident in the bullring and the death of his young wife Carmen (Macarena Garcia) lead to his marriage to Encarna (Maribel Verdi). Encarna is the ‘wicked stepmother’ of the tale and her victim is Villalta’s daughter Carmencita (also Macarena Garcia), later renamed by a company of bull fighting dwarfs as Blancanieves. The bullfighting arena provides both the dramatic opening and climatic finale of the film. In between the film cleverly reworks the oedipal drama of the fairy tale.

The opening sequence of the film captures the flavour of the silent mode as a series of shots present the empty street of Seville and then the La Colosal bullfighting ring of Seville. The latter relies, as do a number of the settings in the film, on the use of CGI: noticeable but effective enough not to interrupt the developing drama. As in later sequences the filmmaking combines a range of shots including extreme close-ups. There are also recurring and dramatic overhead shots, and at least two 360% dollies, which were probably not technically feasible in silent era. The editing ranges between rather conventional cuts to forward the drama: dramatic cuts that suggest parallels and metaphors: and several short sequences where a torrent of images produces the ‘pathos’ discussed by Eisenstein in relation to Potemkin.

The film is full of motifs and metaphors. The most notable is that of the bullfighting ring: the film uses not just the traditional figures of the matador and picador, but the cape and sword, and [of course] the bull. Dialogue on a title card or specific subtitles explain technical terms. Other motifs and tropes include references for the country and period: there is a knowing scene where Encarna is interviewed and poses for a contemporary fashion magazine, Lectura. Suggestively the vast and dark mansion of Villalta offers a range of gothic references. There is one bizarre sequence, which carried no explanation: family and fans pose with the corpse of Villalta dressed in his Matador finery. This photographic ritual, known as post-mortem photographs, was apparently popular in Victorian times and hung on over into the C20th.

The film is also full of humorous touches: there is a really good in-joke with the company of dwarves, six in number. Encarna enjoys a relationship with the family chauffeur, and there are some witty sequences involving them. The chauffeur in his uniform also suggests an acerbic comment on the post-1920s Spain with its fascist/Franco rebellion and dictatorship. Carmencita has a pet cockerel, Pepé. He is a delightful character, though I should warn viewers that he meets a sad end.

The sound track uses a combination of orchestral and flamenco music. There is a flamenco singer at several points, in one case motivated by the onscreen plot. There are also a range of recorded noises, including clapping and castanets: all would have been possible with the sound technology cinemas in the silent era.

I thought the performances were really good. The melodramatic edge found in silents is there, whilst at the same time avoiding for the most part the sometimes declamatory style. When this appears it offer mainly witty moments in a sometimes dark story. Maribel Verdú as Encarna is particularly wicked and effective. Macarena as both Carmen and Blancanieves is suitably youthful and naïve. Daniel Gimenez Cacho’s character requires a very restrained almost passive performance, but which he does well. The dwarfs are both engaging and offer varied characters, partly recognisable by their clothing: though the one occasion when all their names appear was too short foe me to catch them all. The key character is Rafita (Sergio Dorado) who rescues Carmencita at a crucial point in the plot. The other key member is an elderly dwarf who resents Blancanieves and is antagonistic to her for much of the film. An added pleasure for me was Angela Molina as Dona Concha, the grandmother.

Finally in what is a brave and imaginative change the film offers a beautifully downbeat ending, which also references Todd Browning. This is where the film is at its most expressionist. And the sequence is presented in a finally judged balance between the tragic and the ironic. There are a couple of earlier sequences where I felt that the film did go slightly over the top. There is the coal shed where Blancanieves is housed by her stepmother: really the darkest and grimmest vestibule I have seen in many movies. And the poisoned apple [retained from the fairy tale] is emphasised by the use of CGI: I felt over-emphasised. But in the main this is a delightful 105 minutes. I have seen a number of C21st silents, mainly shorts but also including two features – and this is the best.

The film was the major feature in the opening evening of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013. We saw the Spanish language version with digital titles in English and Italian. There seemed to be a number of minor differences in this version. There were onscreen titles in Spanish to accompany the songs. The explanatory titles for bull-fighting were absent. Intriguingly I am pretty sure one short scene was missing. This during the First Communion sequence for Carmencita. In the English-language version there was a scene in the town square when our heroine glimses a motor car which might belong to her father. I assume this was added to make sure audiences understood what the young girl was experiencing at this moment. Apparently the screening was preceded by a small protest from animal rights activists. Seems they have not seen the film: we don’t see humans killing bulls, we see bulls goring and killing humans. In fact the star bull, Satan, is ‘pardoned’, a mercy regretted by at least one character.

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