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San Sebastián Film Festival: Snow White hits Andalusia

With ‘Blancanieves’, Pablo Berger offers an original take on a classic fairy tale. Meanwhile, Ben Affleck’s ‘Argo’ shows diplomats as heroes.


Pablo Berger's Snow White.

Pablo Berger's take on Snow White sets the fairy tale in turn-of-the-century Andalusia.

Not long after movie audiences made the pleasing discovery, thanks to last year’s The Artist, that silent films can still be enjoyable, Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves, competing in this year’s Official Section, provides yet another silent revelation. The story of Snow White set in early 20th century Andalusia actually works.

Berger’s Blancanieves is Carmencita (played by Sofía Oria and Macarena García), born in Seville during the Belle Époque, a rose-tinted era of Spain’s past that lends itself perfectly to silent cinema. Snow White’s father is a handsome and celebrated bullfighter, her mother a famous flamenco dancer who dies in childbirth after seeing her husband gored and left paralysed in the bullring. If this sounds like a cliché, it is hardly accidental. As The Artist showed only too well, satire is an inevitable characteristic of the silent movie medium.

Time was silent cinema didn’t have to be visually engaging to hold an audience’s attention. With the advent of talking pictures, special effects and – more recently – 3D, that is no longer the case. Blancanieves, in monochrome and starring Maribel Verdú as the wicked stepmother, is nothing if not aesthetically stunning. Berger was clearly aware of the task he was facing in this respect, and for the most part he pulls it off. One scene in particular, in which Carmencita is reunited with her father, looks like something out of a Jan Pienkowski illustration.

Berger also adds some nice touches that pay homage to the medium and simultaneously tip the wink to the audience. A white communion gown is dipped into black dye and turned into mourning attire, while the seven bullfighting dwarves (based on reality, apparently) name the main character Blancanieves “after the girl in the fairytale”.

At 98 minutes, Blancanieves is the same length as The Artist, though it feels longer at times. I briefly lost interest towards the middle when the film felt cluttered, as if trying to fit in too much. There are several scenes between the young Snow White and her father, for example, when one would suffice, and there is a sense that the film is dragging its feet.

On the whole, however, Blancanieves is an entertaining, visual feast of a film, and what it lacks in finesse, it makes up for in originality.

Affleck’s back

Also showing in San Sebastián on Saturday was Ben Affleck’s Argo, following its premier at the Toronto Film Festival.

Affleck’s third film as director, in which he also stars in the lead, explores one of the US’s frequent diplomatic messes, in this case the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.

In fairness to Affleck (and George Clooney, who co-produced with him), the film does not shy away from exposing America’s contribution to events in Iran. As the film opens, the history behind the 1979 revolution and the US and UK’s role in reinstating a corrupt Shah in order to protect their oil interests are explained with a series of illustrated storyboard images. It is a detail many will value, while others may see it as a cynical attempt to belittle the true extent of the West’s role in Iran’s current state of affairs.

Argo is based on the true story of a CIA rescue attempt of six US embassy employees in Tehran who took refuge with Canadian diplomats when their building was stormed by Khomeini supporters. Affleck plays Tony Mendez, the man who led and was the brains behind the operation to sneak out the six employees under the guise of a Canadian film crew.

Despite being a tautly tense film, Argo is also darkly comic at times. Alan Arkin’s jaded old producer and John Goodman’s quirky make-up artist offer some welcome light relief to a film full of strong images and intense emotions. It is effective in its depiction of post-revolutionary Iran and the utter fear with which the Americans, the 54 taken hostage and the six who managed to escape, were forced to live.

Affleck told press afterwards that he was wary of including too many comic moments, and there were odd times when the laughs threatened to overshadow the central theme. Generally speaking, however, the film strikes a fine balance.

It was just in the closing moments when the tension began to feel almost farcical. In real life, there was a long, eventless wait at the airport in Tehran, so some dramatic licence is to be expected, but it feels a bit forced. At one point, just to add to viewers’ suffering, we are shown people pushing buttons in the control tower and the details of the pre-flight conversation between pilot and air traffic technicians.

There was a palpable sense of cheer when the worst of the stress had passed. The San Sebastián public even clapped on three occasions: once from relief and twice more, probably from delayed hysteria. It is some feat to inspire this kind of involvement from an audience – it’s just a shame Affleck felt the need to include the whooping and cheering seen in so much substandard Hollywood fare, and which sadly belies its overall integrity as a film.

Argo does have an undeniably patriotic flavour at times and was criticised when it premiered in Toronto for minimizing the role played by Canada. When asked about this, Affleck said his real intention was to show the human side of the story, that of diplomats as heroes, “To demonstrate what we are capable of as people.” That may explain why his own performance as CIA “hero” Tony Mendez remains so poignantly contained right up until the end.

As a film about political espionage, Argo does not always hit the right notes. But thanks to some strong performances and an intelligent script, it is ultimately a hugely satisfying and absorbing thriller.

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Published: Sep 24 2012
Category: Iberoblog, Films, IberoArts, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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