[T]he history of Spanish art features many courageous people. I am always championing it because it is very difficult to see. [T]he value of Italian art is very easy to see, and the same goes for French. The great thing about Spanish art is that it wears very little make up. It is not showy. It is very abrasive. Right from the beginning it presents numerous obstacles. For example, the grandeur of Michelangelo can be appreciated immediately. The grandeur of Spanish works takes time to see. I am talking about a particular artistic tradition which is very characteristic of Spain. And in this regard it seems to me that Spain contributes something of immense value. Spaniards have a capacity to connect with the truth which is unmatched by any other people. (1)

Spanish cinema’s best film in recent years, Blancanieves (2012), which adapts a famous Brothers Grimm tale to the heady, roaring 1920s, slipped by unnoticed at the 2013 Academy Awards. Memory of the acclaimed film The Artist (2011) was still fresh, and there is an obvious similarity between the two films in terms of form, with their updated recourse to the techniques of the silent cinema. Yet that is where the resemblance ends, since, unlike the French film, the Spanish production’s decision to use silent film is perfectly justified, as it seeks to provide a window into the historical reality of Spain in (supposedly) documentary form. Furthermore, the Spanish project was in development long before Michel Hazanavicius dazzled critics and audiences with a modernised version of A Star Is Born. It was because of the French film industry’s greater financialagility ­– Pablo Berger had to wait eight years to find funding for his project in Spain – that Blancanieves was received by international audiences with a sense of déjà vu.

Despite all of this, the film was hugely successful in Spain, winning 10 Goya awards including best film and best actress (Maribel Verdú), followed by the Jury’s Special Award, and best actress (Macarena García) at the San Sebastian Festival in 2012, as well as four Gaudí Awards in Barcelona, including best film in the Catalan language. It has also had great success in Latin America, winning the 2012 Ariel Award for the best Ibero-American film, and more recently, gaining nominations for best film and best director from the European Film Academy. 

Blancanieves had no luck in Hollywood, not only because of the precedence of The Artist, but also the complexity of its focus, which moves beyond an indulgent look at traditional folklore. The prestigious Hispanist, Stanley Payne (2), states that all of the stereotypes about Spain held by those outside of the Spanish-speaking world fall into one of two paradigms: 1) the Black Legend, which depicts Spaniards as either being religious fanatics who invented the Inquisition, conquered the Americas and exterminated the autochthonous civilisations, or as provincial and backward beings with little capacity to modernise; and 2) the romantic Spain, which is rooted as much in the Andalusian folklore and gipsy-based stereotype of flamenco and bullfighting as it is in the stereotypical image of Castilla-La Mancha, land of honour and chivalrous nobles. Payne says that the first paradigm was used in ideological discourse, and has already fallen into disuse, but adds that the second still sells well in the tourist markets, although neither of them has much to do with the historical and cultural reality of modern Spain. However, Blancanieves shows not only that these stereotypes endure, but also that these historical clichés created by foreigners serve as a political weapon in modern ideological struggles among Spaniards themselves, and the different readings and rewritings confront the shared history.

The fact that the director is from the Basque country is very significant, as is the fact that the film has mainly had the support of producers from Catalonia who would not usually accommodate subjects like bullfighting. (We should note that the practice has been officially banned in Catalonia). It is also significant that the film could not be made in Seville, and that the supposedly Andalusian country house belonging to the bullfighter Villalta is, in reality, located among Catalonia’s famous Cordoniú cava (Catalonian Champagne) vineyards near Barcelona. Equally remarkable is the fact that the Goya Awards, which are still renowned for their strong degree of politicisation and progressive, non-conformist line against the conservative government, have been so generous towards the film.

These awards are certainly well deserved, since the film is a work of art which assimilates the best Spanish realist tradition, with all of the consequences that brings. Only a Spanish art form could turn a children’s story based on the figure of Snow White into a tragedy and manages to seem at first glance to be a tribute to popular folklore and the bullfighting and flamenco traditions, which have become the quintessential Spanish ‘brand’, and then suddenly turn into such a subtle and devastating criticism of that same image by which Spain is identified throughout the world, one that is most closely associated with Andalusia.

Yet the most important point is that it should be filmmakers from peripheral Spanish cultures (i.e. Basque and Catalan) who take an interest in the more stereotypically Spanish reality (that of the centre: Castille-Andalusia), adopting a curious stance of proximity and distance at one and the same time. All of this ambiguity in form and substance means that the film is baffling for anyone who is not familiar with Spanish history and its recent traumas. However, there are artistic elements which make the film universal, and enable it to transcend its own time; and this artistic symbolism merits detailed study.

Art and politics

Blancanieves combines the characteristic language of documentary, a typical feature of Spanish realist cinema, with other devices from the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum (fades, magical connections, etc.), typical of silent film – which in some cases call to mind Luis Buñuel’s surrealist aesthetic. These paradoxical styles help to create a visual atmosphere which is appropriate to the somewhat sinister tale by the Brothers Grimm which serves as the pretext of the film. The choice of reference is very judicious, since the fairytale is incorporated into the typically-Spanish bullfighting context of the overarching story, which can be summarised as follows: The greatest of the toreadors, Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho), and the greatest flamenco performer, Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta), have had a daughter, Carmencita (played by actress Sofía Oria as an infant and by Macarena García as the adult Carmen).

A set of tragic circumstances lead to the arrival on the scene of Encarna (Maribel Verdú) and to a drastic change in the happy state of affairs. Encarna becomes the girl’s cruel stepmother, as well as her rival for fame. Encarna’s hatred grows to the point of wishing Carmen/Blancanieves (Snow White) dead. The magic mirror from the fairytale is symbolically represented here by a fashion magazine, Lecturas (from the era of Coco Chanel), which promotes vanity and envy (which also fuelled the flames of the stepmother’s hatred in the Brothers Grimm’s story).

Blancanieves

Thus, the film portrays an era of modernity which, in the Spanish case, coexists with ancestral rituals and barbaric customs. It is true that until recently there were troupes of dwarf toreadors in Spain who entertained the crowds with mock bullfights as a sort of curtain-raiser, known as the charlotada, before the more “serious” main event. In fact, charlotadas (named after the comic character Charlot [The Tramp] played by Charlie Chaplin) still take place in some rural parts of Castille and Andalusia. In fact, this is where the crowd scenes were shot, and the real faces featured in the scenes lend the film a documentary tone. Let us not forget that in addition to Tod Browning’s silent film Freaks (1932), the director’s idea of adapting the story of Snow White to the Spain of a bygone era was inspired by a photograph of some dwarf matadors taken by Cristina García Rodero (3).

Blancanieves

Both the recourse to expressionist silent cinema, of which Pablo Berger is an admirer, and the inclusion of these folkloric and ethnographic aspects taken from documentary Spanish photography –Ortiz-Echagüe’s portraits (4) – and cinema –Jose Valdelomar and Buñuel– invite us to travel back in time, to the Seville of the heady 1920s, during the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera (himself born in Seville), when Spain became a mecca for international tourists. (Universal expositions were held in Seville and Barcelona in 1929). On that basis, the film is constructed around the well-known story of Snow White, though there are some significant differences. The most remarkable difference involves the film’s denouement, which despite appearing to be open, had been planned from the beginning in a highly structured script which left no room for improvisation.

On one hand, the pretext of telling a tale using the typical devices of silent film makes any narrative licence appear permissible, for instance: poor Pepe’s appearance on the amnesiac Carmen/Blancanieves’ plate (the cockerel had been sacrificed purely to make the girl suffer), or the image of her toreador father appearing in a cloud to encourage his daughter to kill the bull as he was not able to himself, etc. These magic windows – fading apparitions which serve to show not only the transcendent world but also the surrealist subconscious – provide glimmers of hope, which are ultimately extinguished, and therefore are systematically used to foster the audience’s sense of frustration at the film’s ending. Unlike in children’s stories (which are always comforting for the children’s collective magical imagination), “supernatural” hope is absent from Blancanieves. Prayers are useless as good people are thwarted, and there is only room for human, and therefore makeshift, justice (such as the form of retribution gained by the dwarves when the bull kills the stepmother). Indeed, the decision to pardon the bull, to facilitate the stepmother’s demise according to the scripted plan, introduces an element of unreality (bulls were only reprieved in very exceptional cases) that plays to the current taste for political correctness, which is against any kind of violence towards animals.

However, the film does not spare the viewer from scenes of psychological violence against humans, particularly the leading character. The story unfolds in keeping with the spirit of positive tragedy in the Soviet tradition (which seeks to provoke in its audience a backlash against the inevitability of destiny), which exerted so much influence on Spanish art, with such internationally famous examples as Picasso’s Guernica, also accomplished in the guise of an allegory of the world of bullfighting. In Picasso’s famous mural the only form of hope for the victims lies in the justice that history might provide them in the future, once the lost liberties have been re-established. Like the bird escaping from the horse’s gaping side in Guernica, in Blancanieves, the tear running down the cheek of an innocent girl who has fallen victim to all of the evils of her homeland, including exploitation by unscrupulous agents, devastatingly expresses the tragic destiny of its protagonist. The loyalty of the love-struck dwarf makes the monstrosity of Blancanieves’ situation even more brutal, reflecting the Spain described by Antonio Machado just before the Civil War:

There is a Spaniard who wishes
To live, and begins to do so
Between one Spain which is dying
And another Spain which is yawning.
Little Spaniard just coming
Into the world, may God keep you,
One of these two Spains
Could freeze your heart. (5)

Of course, all of this could have slipped by unnoticed by the director, but not by the producers, as we will see. The director is acting out of love for the art form typically known as Black Spain, which is more enamoured with anomalies than normality. Along with the final dénouement in this spectacle of monstrosities, one of the most bizarre moments involves relatives and admirers having their photograph taken with the deceased toreador. Though post-mortem photography was in fact carried out all over the world in the nineteenth century, it is shown here as a macabre relic of the past in the Spanish bullfighting world, a world which refuses to evolve with the times.

In this sense, in Blancanieves we find the best representation – for better or worse – of timid Spanish realism, based primarily on a ‘closed’ script cloaked with an appearance of reportage, yet it does not leave room for the surprises that reality itself has to offer (6). This critical commitment to the social and political reality of the present, disguised as realist objectivity, extends to the means of interpreting the past. Hence, Blancanieves does not describe the Spain of the 1920s, but rather a Spain revisited from a critical distance, and views these clichés of the national image (with which a significant proportion of Spaniards themselves no longer identify) accordingly.

The Brothers Grimm fairytales also have a sinister side, which Blancanieves uses to its advantage. But the greatest difference between the versions lies in the film’s frustratingly open ending, which stands in contrast to the fairytale’s happy conclusion. This makes it very difficult for anyone who is not familiar with this type of art to fully understand the film. As stated in the opening quote by Antonio López, this type of art, i.e. Spanish art, is always uncomfortably sincere. In order to understand the nature of Pablo Berger’s cause, we must pause to consider an old controversy of the Spanish art world which started at the beginning of the twentieth century, and still lives on today.

Zuloaga versus Sorolla (7)

Like the English and French travellers of the nineteenth century, there was a time when the Basques looked upon Andalusia and Castille for the first time with admiration and exoticism. The difference lay in the fact that the Basques were seeing the regions from inside and felt part of this Spain which was different to theirs and yet they were able to describe it with a fresh, expressionist take. In fact, the majority of those who rediscovered the reality of Castille for contemporary literature and painting were Basque painters and writers (there were many Basques among the Generation of ’98). Paul Gauguin and the French Nabis fled Paris to primitive Brittany in order to take inspiration from the popular roots which existed before industrialisation. Similarly, these Basque artists were also escaping from their urban landscapes, which were undergoing an intense process of industrialisation, and heading for the rural world of the semi-deserted Castillian plateau, where the economy remained stagnant, to seek refuge in the ancient villages that the railway did not yet reach. Ignacio Zuloaga was the most important painter of the group, and he attracted other Basques such as Iturino, Salaberría, and the brothers Zubiaurre towards a vision of Black Spain (painter of the Basque Country, Darío de Regoyos, called his travelogue ‘Black Spain’ in 1888), which these end-of-the-century decadent movement painters revelled in.

Meanwhile, Joaquín Sorolla would bring a very different costumbrista mentality to bear on his work on Spain’s differing popular identities. The work, created between 1910 and 1920 and commissioned by the Hispanic Society of New York, comprises a set of enormous canvases which has been described as the ‘Sistine Chapel of regionalism’. Sorolla was from Valencia, and along with his impressionist brushes he brought a fresh, light and celebratory way of looking at popular Spanish folklore. In contrast, Zuloaga provided a starkly realist vision of these subjects, following the expressionist tradition of Goya.

Zuloaga always tried to exhibit his expressionist work alongside that of Sorolla, but he was unable to do so because of the rejection that he faced within Spain at that time, despite being highly successful on the international stage. Zuloaga painted what Basque writer Miguel de Unamuno calls the ‘intra-historia’, while the academic art world preferred the great canvases depicting fake, pompous history, and, subsequently, well into the twentieth century, the fresh impressionist vision of Sorolla and the Sorollista painters of the Mediterranean.

In Blancanieves, there is a restrained violence which continues the best Goya-esque tradition of Black Spain, which itself has yielded such important artists as Zuloaga and José Gutiérrez Solana, with whom Berger can identify. The director also identifies with Julio Romero de Torres, a painter from Córdoba, whose turn of the century decadentism (more in keeping with Nordic symbolism than Mediterranean regionalism) sets him apart in the luminous context of Andalusian popular folklore. Like Zuloaga’s famous painting Victim of the Feast for the Hispanic Society, Blancanieves approaches a symbolic representation of the tragic essence of Spain. (8)

image009

This selective way of looking at Spanish reality encompasses an admiration for the characteristic elements of the culture in which these artists had been raised as Spaniards, as well as an anguished critical perspective on that same culture from which they draw inspiration, but from which they are also able to distance themselves. It is a case of the periphery looking towards the centre and reinterpreting it through a magnifying glass: Spanish impressionism does not so much distort reality, but rather exaggerate it selectively. When they dealt with the typical subjects of Andalusian folklore, these painters were accused of being anti-bullfighting, although they denied it categorically. They too were fans, as the tradition symbolically expressed whatUnamuno called the “tragic sense of life”.

As Pablo Berger recognises, the legacy of the famous Generation of ’98 can still be seen in Blancanieves, since the bullfighting rituals are described in an epic manner, with admiration (but without hiding the gothic rawness of a barbaric and bizarre reality). However, there is one essential difference. While Zuloaga never stopped admiring the other Spain of the south, with its bullfighting and flamenco traditions, Blancanieves is a film that, after revelling in the clichés of the romantic vision of Spain, embodied primarily by Andalusian folklore, chooses to ironically destroy them. Or, and this amounts to the same thing, it chooses to document them as something which belongs not to the present, but to a sad past, as exotic as it is melancholy and bizarre, and with which a large proportion of Spaniards no longer identify.

Blancanieves

Conclusion

Blancanieves appears to be a film with international pretensions, in that it makes use of the universal language of cinema prior to the arrival of the talkies and the stereotypes of the most exotic Spanish folklorism; however, in it’s more profound content, Blancanieves is a film of an ideological nature, which seeks to address a modern Spanish audience first and foremost. That is the reason why Blancanieves proves disorienting for an international audience which is unsure whether what they are watching is a tribute to bullfighting or a visceral criticism of the entire ritual and the Spain that sustains it.

Hence, in order to understand the film correctly in all of its grandeur, it must be interpreted in the context of conflict between two Spains. Not just the two Spains which did battle against each other in the Civil War, but also those described by Ortega y Gasset in his work España Invertebrada (‘Invertebrate Spain’, 1921): the core and the periphery, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, White Spain and Black Spain. Blancanieves tells us that the country contains many Spains, and that the internal differences are ideological as well as national (ethno-cultural). More than a tribute to traditional Spanish folklore – the image of brand Spain which has been identified with Andalusia since the Romantic period – this film is a biting parody which invites us to announce the demise of this “antiquated” view of Spain.

These claims may appear excessive, given that the epic treatment and the expertly-chosen musical accompaniment suggest that the world of flamenco and bullfighting are praised in the film, and that is indeed how the Basque director and scriptwriter, an admirer of Andalusia, wants it. However, this is only the case if we fail to notice the in-depth subliminal interpretation on the bitterness of a world without hope, in which prayers are useless and in which the good people ultimately lose, since life is nothing more than a macabre charade, as is the case in the well-known film Balada triste de trompeta (The Last Circus, 2010) by Alex de la Iglesia. What appeared to be a documentary window – silent cinema – into a (supposedly happy) bygone era, portrayed in the guise of a children’s fairy story, is in fact a film with a political message and a bleak ending. On the other hand, although the film does not say it explicitly, there was also a progressive Spainwhich called for an end to all this, in order to make way for a new era. In the eyes of many Spaniards, Basque and Catalan nationalists in particular, this is what the Second Federal Republic tried to do in 1931, just a few years after the events we see in the film. Later, General Franco would demolish the entire process, making the Andalusian stereotype the only international brand identity for Spain once again.

Thus, it becomes obvious that the language of silent film, which transports us to the golden era prior to the invention of the ‘talkies’ in 1928, is not only justified in terms of the narrative (the freedom to combine documentary and more oneiric styles), but most importantly, fits the intent and plot progression. Blancanieves speaks not of the past but rather of the present day: of the complexity of a Spain which is breaking apart because it has not managed to find an identity capable of providing the backbone for all of its particular idiosyncrasies. Inevitably, the nationalist periphery, represented by the director and the producers of the film, look at the clichéd traditions of the south (the bullfighting and flamenco tale) with the critical distance of the expressionist viewpoint of the north, with disturbing results. The only advantage of this old tension which still remains unresolved in Spain is that it has engendered the best of Spanish art from the time of Goya up to the present. Blancanieves is another good example, and for that reason it will in time transcend the current cinematographic context and the conflicts around identity in Spain that underpin the plot, though these conflicts will doubtless lend it new topicality in the future.

Endnotes

  1. “(…) el arte español ha tenido mucha gente valiente. Yo lo defiendo mucho porque es muy difícil de ver. Lo italiano es muy fácil de ver, lo francés también. Lo grande de lo español es que tiene muy poco maquillaje. Es muy poco brillante. Es muy áspero. Presenta de entrada muchos inconvenientes. Por ejemplo, la grandeza de Miguel Ángel se ve enseguida. La grandeza de lo español se tarda en ver. Hablo de una forma de lo español. Y en ese sentido a mí me parece que España aporta algo de muchísimo valor. El español tiene una capacidad para conectar con lo verdadero como ningún pueblo”. Interview with Antonio López, in Letras de Cine, n. 6, 2002, p. 125.
  2.  Stanley G. Payne, Spain: A Unique History, University of Wisconsin Press, 2011, p. 3 – 7.
  3.  http://www.interviewmagazine.com/film/pablo-berger-blancanieves#_
  4.  http://www.textezumfilm.de/sub_detail.php?id=1321 I explored the subject of photography and 98 Generation in “Pictorialism in Spanish Photography: ‘Forgotten’ Pioneers”, History of Photography, Volume 29, Number 1, Spring 2005, pp. 60-72.
  5. Hay un español que quiere/Vivir y a vivir empieza, /Entre una España que muere/Y otra España que bosteza./Españolito que vienes/Al mundo te guarde Dios,/Una de esas dos Españas/Puede helarte el corazón. A. Machado. Cantares, LIII.
  6. A. Quintana,“Modelos realistas en un tiempo de emergencias de lo político”, Archivos de la Filmoteca, n. 49, 2005.
  7. Gabriel Francis, “Sorolla and Zuloaga”, America, 4/24/1909, Vol. 1 Issue 2, p. 50. This article compares and contrasts Spanish painters Ignacio Zuloaga and Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida. It states that the two painters are committed to modern art and to different aspects of Spanish tradition. It cites that Zuloaga uses a deserted church in Segovia for his studio while Sorolla lives and paints in the open air. It describes some of Zuloaga’s work as exaggerated and artificial, while that of Sorolla is said to be true to one of the grand traditions of realist Spanish painting. Zuloaga, however, gave inspiration to the vision of the writers and painters of the so-called ‘generation of ’98’. Also see J. Tussell, ‘La ‘‘cuestión Zuloaga’’: el debate inicial’ and ‘Una pintura regeneracionista’ en Paisaje y Figura del 98, Madrid 1997, pp.50–60.
  8.  http://www.diariovasco.com/20071109/opinion/paradojas-ri