VideoVista has my review of Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves, a silent black and white re-invention of Snow White.
Set in 1920s Spain, the film opens on a young couple who are about to have their first child. He is a successful bullfighter, She is a famed flamenco dancer. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes when He is injured in the ring and She goes into premature labour and dies in the process of giving birth to her daughter. For reasons that are not even remotely addressed, the bullfighter’s daughter grows up in the care of her grandmother and is never allowed to meet her father who immediately marries his demonic and controlling nurse. When the young girl’s grandmother dies, for reasons that are not even remotely addressed, the bullfighter agrees to assume his responsibilities as a father but he refuses to meet with his daughter and so the young girl is forced to work as a scullery maid. Eventually the father and daughter meet and so the evil step-mother throws the young woman out onto the street forcing her to befriend a band of dwarven bullfighters who help her achieve fame as a successful bullfighter in her own right.
The fascinating thing about this film is that while Berger sets out to make a proper silent film, it is clear that Berger struggles to tell a story using only images and musical cues. Thus, rather than images that tell a story and musical cues that provide an emotional context for these images, Berger presents us with a series of incredibly well-composed but dramatically empty images backed up with an entirely inappropriate musical score. Indeed, Blancanieves is less a work of cinematic art than it is a fashion shoot inspired by a combination of 1920s Spain and film noir. As I say in the review:
Having failed to marshal both his visual and his musical resources in an effective manner, Berger is forced onto the decidedly contemporary footing of relying upon scripting and actors to tell the story, and this is where silent film’s lack of bandwidth really bites as the actors seem to take their cues from the inter-titles and the inter-titles are all featureless snippets of dialogue meaning that none of the actors ever transcends the childish and stereotypical origins of their characters: evil stepmother is evil, warm-hearted child is warm-hearted, broken patriarch is broken, and dwarves provide a deeply questionable combination of comedy and pathos.
Ideally, the history of film should tell a story of growing complexity and accomplishment; Each new technical innovation unlocking entire arenas of artistic potential that is broken, harnessed and added to the ever-growing toolbox of a mature art form. However, as Berger’s failure to tell a convincing story suggests, many of the techniques pioneered by silent filmmakers have dropped out of mainstream use meaning that many contemporary directors trained to make ‘talkies’ are effectively incapable of making a silent film as they lack the technical skills required to convey narrative without the use of expositionary dialogue. However, as I explain in my review, many of the skills pioneered by silent filmmakers live on in the work of art house directors:
In 1963, the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman produced a film with no dialogue at all. The Silence is a genuinely extraordinary exercise in technical self-control as while Bergman does make use of sound effects and incomprehensible mumbling, he effectively manages to tell a complex psychological story without a single line of dialogue or even an inter-title. This desire to demand more from your audience and keep them making imaginative leaps is now firmly embedded in the DNA of the art house tradition but it is particularly noticeable in such recent dialogue-free triumphs as Jose Luis Guerin’s In The City Of Sylvia, Mao Mao’s Here, Then, and Amer by Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Watching these films reminds us of how crude, lazy and wasteful Hollywood filmmaking has become. It also shows us quite how much the likes of Pablo Berger need to learn before they can tell a compelling story without the use of dialogue.
For those interested, I include links to reviews of the films I mention:
- Mao Mao’s Here, Then
- Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s Amer
- Jose Luis Guerin’s In the City of Sylvia
Re-reading my review of Bergman’s The Silence, I am struck by how little I actually engaged with the film as a piece of silent cinema: I talk about character, I talk about mythology and I talk about the purpose of criticism precisely because at the time of writing that review (2008) I lacked the critical tools required to make sense of what it was that I was seeing on screen. In order for audiences to be able to make sense of a work of art, they must first possess the tools that will allow them to decode them. Much of what we mean when we talk about ‘education’, ‘learning’ and ‘being cultured’ is acquiring skills that allow us to make sense of particular works of art and it is in this process of acquisition that we see the true biases of our own society: Because I grew up in an era when films had dialogue, I never needed to acquire the skills required to make sense of a dialogue-free film. Because I am a straight, white man and I grew up in a culture that uses that perspective as a universal cultural default, I find films that embody different perspectives to be both a challenge and a release but I think many people view films made from non-white, non-straight and non-male perspectives in a manner comparable to the way I used to see silent film: Sure… a lot of effort went into this, but I can’t make any fucking sense of it!