Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Pablo Berger's Snow White bull fight opens: BLANCANIEVES proves a real Spainish silent film, and TM has a short Q&A with Berger

TrustMovies has seen BLANCANIEVES twice already (a third watch is not out of the question), so he stands by his earlier assessment of this rich-in-so-many-ways movie. The below is an extended version of what he published when the film opened last year's Spanish Cinema Now series from the FSLC. What we have here is a much more genuine "silent film" (if that's what you're looking for) than last year's Oscar-winning Best Picture.

In fact, Spain's entry into the Best Foreign Language Film "Oscar" race is the real thing, all right, succeeding both as an homage to "silents" and -- because of its ambition and insight, not to mention what movies are capable of technically these days -- a truly new creation all its own. (The fact that Blancanieves was not even short-listed for the "Oscar" says less about its quality than about the inability of the Academy to distinguish art from enjoyable, if self-reverential, kitsch -- particularly where certain other "silent films" are concerned.)

Retelling the Snow White fairy-tale while giving it a decidedly Spanish spin, writer/
director Pablo Berger (who, nearly a decade ago offered up his only other full-length feature,
the great Torremolinos 73), combines the customs of Spain (bullfighting, anyone?) with the story's own identifying objects (a wicked stepmother gloriously played by Maribel Verdú, above, who seems even better on that second viewing) into a Grimm stew of dark and delightful variations on the original (and already dark) fairy tale's themes.

Senor Berger, shown at right, has stocked his film with so many ideas, all at the service of his story, that his film -- if it were more in-your-face and he were not such a sleight-of-hand director -- becomes, if not exactly a critique then more a gentle reminder of things like Capitalism, child abuse, the Spanish heritage of everything from dance to bullfighting, the power of media and the utter gullibility of the populace, among its many subjects. The filmmaker also gives us "the other" in the form of those famous dwarfs, below, who here appear as a coalition/family of mini bullfighters. The way that Berger weaves together themes from the old story, along with those that are new and distinctly Spanish, is a treat.

By the way, you can indeed take the kids to see this film -- so long as they can read the subtitles. While the movie occasionally goes into "adult" areas (Wicked Stepmom's into S&M!), it does so fleetingly and "tastefully," as becomes a silent movie. And it is consistently suggestive rather than coarse in its visuals (the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography is by Kiko de la Rica of The Last Circus) -- never more so than in its amazingly beautiful, sad and mysterious final scene.

Here, Berger takes a magnificent leap, and what has heretofore been a lovely retelling of an old tale transforms into... oh, god, so many possibilities that I must see the film again to re-discover. (That's what I said before I saw the film a second time. Now that I have, damned if even more possibilities haven't opened up  -- which I ask the writer/director about in the Q&A below.)  You're going to have to open up a discussion with your kids about this final scene and what it means. But it'll be worth it. You'll all learn and grow and be made aware again (maybe for the first time for those kids) of what movies are only very occasionally capable.

Blancanieves, from Cohen Media Group and running 104 minutes, opens this Friday, March 29, in new York (and the Angelika Film Center and the Paris Theatre) and in the Los Angeles area (at Laemmle's Royal and Sundance Sunset Cinema. I believe there will be a further rollout, but these are the only playdates I could find, as of now....

TM's recent talk with Blancanieves' writer/director Pablo Berger (shown just right of center, above) took place at the offices of Cohen Media Group, when the filmmaker was in town. Berger seems a very gentle and intelligent family man (he's married with kids -- I think he told me two), whose prematurely grey hair offsets his quite youthful and unlined face. In addition to being a filmmaker who doesn't film that often (two full-length movies and one short in 25 years!), he has a Ph.D. and has taught here in NYC as a professor of management, as well as having successive careers in a publicist and music producer. A kind of Spanish Renaissance man, he could undoubtedly handle a number of other jobs, too. But we're glad he's made his movies. If you're unfamiliar with his sensational Torremolinos 73, stick it on your must-see list for an amazingly funny, real, surprising look at Spain toward the end of the Franco regime. (The link above is to my talk with actor Javier Cámara about the film)

In person, Berger is gracious and accessible, and this little round-up would be longer than it is, had TM not forgotten, in one of his increasing senior moments, to bring his pocket recorder with him. So, instead, he scribbles away as Berger speaks. TM first explains to the filmmaker how much he loves Blancanieves, and particularly the way in which it sort of leaves, at the finale, the more regular world of storytelling, to becomes something quite else. He then tells Berger that he has watched the film twice and is still wondering about/musing on that strange ending. (I have taken the liberty of quoting as best as my notes would let me, below, even though I did not have my recorder. In the short conversation that follows, TM appears in boldface and Berger in standard type. )

Your ending seemed to includes ideas on everything from capitalism -- That sleazy character of the bullfight manager (played by José María Pou, above) to whom our heroine signs away her life, so why would not someone as famous as this lady bullfighter end up as an attraction in a carny show -- as a kind of Lola Montès? Boy, I wish Andrew Sarris could have seen this movie! -- to feminism: Does that tear indicate that the girl is saddened not to have found her prince, or sad because the prince turns out to be only the most handsome of the dwarfs? Or maybe she is realizing that this carny show, and only this, will be here new role/career in life?)

(Berger smiles.) You have understood things. But the meaning here is open to interpretation. It's up to you. To each viewer.

Hmmm...  Some viewers, I think -- and I am sometimes among them, though not so much here, with your film -- want more guidance.

I always feel that, in addition to everything else in the movie, there must be something mysterious to make it special: some sort of surprise. To me, movies are an act of love. A kind of time travel.  They include a thick layer of emotion, plus humor and surprise. They are like your children.

That's how many artists feel about their creations.

Really: I believe they are like your children because they have the same DNA!

(We laugh.)  Well put. I can hardly think of two films more dissimilar than Toremolinos 73 -- which shows us a slice of Spain toward the end of the Franco regime, in which you used, in addition to Javier Cámara and Candela Peña, that great actor Mads Mikkelsen -- 

He is a fine actor. And so very versatile.

-- and now Blancanieves. How did you come to this one?

I always loved fairy tales as a kid, so that led naturally to this film. My father was a ship's captain, and he was a great story-teller. He always told us stories that would begin in reality but then he always added his own fictional elements to them. All this inspired me.

Yes, and now you have inspired us. This may be a little soon to ask, since you don't make movies all that often: Do you have any idea -- movie-wise -- what you might do next?

Well, I have now two different scripts ready to go ahead.

What are they about, and which do you think you'll do first?

I don't want to go into detail about either of them, as everything is so uncertain at this point. But for me, the test always is this: Would you be happy if this one were your final film?

Wow. That notion certainly separates the men from the boys.

(We get the word from the publicist that our brief time is up, 
and so I thank Señor Berger for his time -- and his 
two very different and very fine films.)

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