There is no magic mirror in Blancanieves, the early 20th Century silent retelling of Snow White. The only royalty in sight risks their lives for glory inside a bullring. As for a happily ever after, let’s just say this black and white Spanish film, which swept this year’s Goya Awards, is closer in spirit to the German folk tales that inspired Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm to put pen to paper than to the Disney princess who whistled while she worked.
And yet the movie’s exquisite blend of domestic melodrama and dark comedy is magical from start to finish, its robust storytelling pull captivating enough to rope in viewers who would think twice before sitting through a silent film.
We begin in 1910s Seville at La Colosal bullfighting ring. Devoutly Catholic toreador Antonio Villalta (Bad Education‘s Daniel Giménez Cacho) kneels praying inside a chapel before the big show. His pregnant wife, flamenco artist Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta), sits in the audience, stubbornly determined to be the talisman her hubby needs to emerge unscathed. She’s the apple of his eye, right up to the moment that last bull gores him, a vividly rendered outcome that causes Carmen’s water to break.
Writer-director Pablo Berger crosscuts images of carnage inside the ring with Carmen’s intense childbirth. She loses too much blood. Antonio pulls through, but can’t feel his legs…or his arms.
Spunky Carmencita (Sofía Oria) grows up with her grandmother, Doña Concha (legendary Spanish cinema grande dame Ángela Molina), since Daddy dearest can’t even bring himself to look at his newborn daughter. He’s consumed with grief over his beloved’s untimely passing, but not so much that he’s willing to fall prey to the Florence Nightingale effect with his nurse, Encarna (Y tu mamá también‘s Maribel Verdú), who he marries. (See where this is going?)
Tragedy strikes yet again, and poor Carmencita, looking like a cross between Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden and young Totò in Cinema Paradiso, moves into the imposing castle, er, mansion Monte Olvido with Pepe, her mischievous rooster. Encarna welcomes her with open arms and takes her to her cozy new room, which makes Harry Potter’s cupboard look inviting by comparison. She also forbids the new arrival from seeing her father. Thus, the battle lines are drawn.
We think we’re one step ahead of the ways Berger will pay homage to the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale, but the story keeps springing surprises on you. Unshackled by the constraints a sound film would impose on the timeless tale, Berger allows Kiko de la Rica’s splendid cinematography and editor Fernando Franco’s delirious use of montage to do the heavy lifting. De la Rica’s interplay of pastoral landscapes and shadowy Gothic interiors perfectly captures Berger’s delicate tonal balancing act, and Franco’s razor-sharp cutting occasionally bring to mind the work of Canadian auteur Guy Maddin, whose monochrome fantasias embrace the silent-cinema aesthetic. (I haven’t mentioned The Artist, which is delightful in its own way, because it bears so little resemblance to what Berger is trying to do here.)
There’s a lot of bullfighting in the late 1920s portion of Blancanieves, as well as some scene-stealing traveling circus dwarfs with names like Manolín, Juanín and Josefa (although the latter is played by little person Alberto Martínez). Just like Dopey did in the 1937 animated feature, Rafita (newcomer Sergio Dorado) pines away for the grown Carmencita (Macarena García), now just plain Carmen like her mother, who may just follow in her father’s footsteps. If there’s a shortcoming to Blancanieves, it’s that there’s very little interaction between García and Verdú, who’s deliciously conniving in the way only the best movie villains are. For my money, she’s the best live-action baddie since fellow Spaniard Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men.
Blancanieves was Spain’s submission for this year’s Foreign Language Film Academy Award – I know, the movie’s not even technically spoken in Spanish, but it’s so distinctly Iberian that this is a non-issue – but the Academy chose to go with five other titles. Their loss. The film Pedro Almodóvar has famously declared “the best Spanish movie of the year” (2012 in their case) now becomes one of the best arthouse releases of this calendar year across the pond. Clever, heartbreaking, and irresistibly campy, it takes a text that’s been adapted to death (twice last year) and makes it feel vibrant and new.
You could say something similar about the first half hour of Trance, a new psychological thriller from Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle. In customary non-linear fashion for the Trainspotting filmmaker, his new effort appears at first to be a fairly straightforward story about Simon (James McAvoy), an amnesiac fine art auctioneer who pulls a fast one on ill-tempered robber Franck (Vincent Cassel) and seeks the services of Elizabeth (Rosario Dawson), a hypnotist, to navigate his subconscious to find out where he stowed that priceless Rembrandt painting Franck was supposed to steal.
Heist movies are due for a facelift, and at first it seems like that’s exactly what Boyle has accomplished. The fluid storytelling, set to McAvoy’s voiceover narration, gives viewer’s an insider’s account of an art robbery gone awry. I was primed for the film’s second half to take place mostly inside Simon’s mind, as Elizabeth plays mental detective to try to uncover the painting’s whereabouts. No dice. It seems screenwriters Joe Ahearne and John Hodge were intending something considerably more ambitious, a daunting exploration of perception with echoes of Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The problem with that lofty goal is that, in the process, they reduce three intriguing characters to a wan romantic triangle and ultimately resort to lame tactics right out of a straight-to-DVD action movie.
If Hodge’s name sound strangely familiar, it’s because he collaborated with Boyle in the 90s, most notably in Trainspotting and Shallow Grave, the 1994 thriller who put Boyle in the map. Like the latter film, Trance shows a tendency to shift viewers’ sympathies between characters, so the person you thought was the hero might actually be a miserable heel, and a known criminal might unexpectedly behave with chivalry. It’s a very tricky tactic that demands a very subtle, assured hand behind the camera, but Boyle is too busy sweeping the rug from under the audience’s feet to pay much attention to the troubles of three complicated people with enough baggage for three feature-length screenplays.
Two men’s baggage weighs heavily on The Place Beyond the Pines, the eagerly anticipated new film from Blue Valentine writer-director Derek Cianfrance. Once again, Ryan Gosling commands the screen with the brooding, controlled magnetism he displayed in Drive. The Oscar winner plays Luke, a tattooed stunt motorcyclist with bleached hair at a traveling circus, who is performing at Schenectady, N.Y. When he discovers Romina (Eva Mendes), with whom he had a fling the last time he stopped there, has given birth to a baby boy. “He’s yours,” says Malena (Olga Merediz), the boy’s grandmother, when Luke drops by unannounced.
Luke may be rough around the edges, but he wants to do right by his former flame, even though there’s that pesky detail about Romina and Malena living with Kofi (Mahershala Ali), Romina’s new beau. But where to get the cash? Enter Robin (Animal Kingdom‘s Ben Mendelsohn), who thinks Luke’s dexterity on the handlebars could make him an ideal bank robber. To reveal anything else that happens in The Place Beyond the Pines from this point onwards would entail heading into spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that Cianfrance makes a bold storytelling decision involving Luke and Avery a rookie police officer played by Bradley Cooper, that makes the film switch gears abruptly, a measure no less ambitious than Boyle’s byzantine maze of mirrors, but not much more effective.
Up until this point, Cianfrance had prevented the film from becoming to much of a downer, but by the time the movie comes to its ponderous climax, it seems like every single character has lost their use of free will. The film’s grim developments feel overly deterministic, thus making it more difficult for viewers to care for these people, whose fates appear to be so preordained. Cianfrance has an unerring knack for capturing a particular setting, and Schenectady comes across as a secondary character here. Now all he had to do is allow his characters enough breathing space to think for themselves.
The Place Beyond the Pines starts Friday at Regal Cinemas South Beach, Paragon Coconut Grove, and AMC Aventura and Sunset Place cinemas. Trance begins peddling its sleight of hand the same day at several area theaters. Blancanieves begins an exclusive, two-week Miami engagement at the Coral Gables Art Cinema (gablescinema.com) on Friday as well. Movie lovers cannot afford to miss it.