For the second year in a row, a black and white silent film is generating buzz at the Toronto International Film Festival. Blancanieves, the second feature film from Spanish director Pablo Berger, has audiences lining up to see the film twice. On Tuesday morning, Berger learned that the film has been shortlisted to represent Spain in this year’s Oscar nominations. Esteemed film critics have lodged rave reviews and Roget Ebert even went so far to as to suggest that Blancanieves has a fair shot at the coveted Blackberry People’s Choice Award.
Unlike last year’s buzzy silent film The Artist, Blancanieves is truly a silent film. While The Artist was modern film – a charming and entertaining one, no doubt – in the style of silent film, Berger’s movie goes all the way. This retelling of the familiar Snow White story, transferred to Spain and the bullfighting ring, harnesses all the power of the visual storytelling that is inherent in a film without dialogue. While silent film fans are going to go nuts over this movie (I know, I’m one of them), wider audiences, perhaps softened by the success of The Artist, are going to experience the full, almost magical spell that the best silent cinema can weave.
On a sunny, autumn morning, I put aside the giddy fan-girl in my soul (barely) and sat down with Pablo Berger to talk silent cinema, inspiration, the obstacles in producing a silent movie in 2012, and the power of hope. His enthusiasm is infectious and endearing, and he had me when he referred to movies with synchronized dialogue as “talkies.”
Like all silent cinema afficiandos, Berger can pinpoint the moment when silent film stopped being a novelty or a curiosity and became a passion for him. “The first time I watched a silent on the big screen it was von Stroheim’s Greed. I even saw it with a live orchestra – Carl Davis was there. I felt things I had never felt before. It was like cinematographic ecstasy,” says Berger. ”And when the movie ended it took me a while to come down. I went to places I had never been before as an audience member. It produced more feeling in me than any conventional talkie film had produced in me. So from that moment, every time there was a silent film screening on the big screen with with music I always went to see it. That was the beginning of my love for silent cinema.”
When asked why he wanted to make a silent movie in 2012, Berger waxes poetic. And when I pointed out that for me, at least, silent films feel like an entirely different medium, he agreed. “I think it’s a different experience. Sometimes when I talk about the film, or when I was trying to get the movie financed, I called it a sensorial experience,” says Berger. ”It’s more about the senses, it’s more about going on this journey – it’s almost like time travel. It’s not like real life, so it takes away the realism of it. It’s more dreamlike.”
With his love of the silent era, Berger was confident in his medium. He knew absolutely that we wanted to make a feature-length silent film, especially after spending time in film school making short silents. But how exactly did he come to make this film, this perfect blend of real emotion and fairy-tale. Fittingly enough for such a visual form of storytelling, he drew inspiration from a photograph.
“In the 1990s a very famous photographer named Cristina Garcia Rodero published a book called Espana Oculta, or Hidden Spain. She travelled around Spain documenting fiestas in little villages and she found a troupe of bullfighting dwarves,” says Berger. “And I saw her picture of a bullfighting dwarf. Somehow when I saw that picture, there was this dignity, it was portrait done with such respect, and that’s the respect I wanted to portray in my film. But I added my own element and my element was to put Snow White in the middle. So it was I want to make a silent film and that picture – that was the cocktail.”
And that cocktail is heady, indeed. But the magnetism of Blancanieves does not derive solely from having a great story to tell and potent starting point. Berger knows silent film. He understands the tools that he had in his hands and applied thoughtful care to their uses in this movie. The depth of both that understanding and that thoughtfulness spilled out when I asked him about how his cast felt about being in a silent film.
I think they were scared in the beginning. They’re professional actors and my cast are some of the biggest stars in Spain. They’re used to the talkies, they make movies all the time and as actors they use dialogue as a way to protect themselves, but here they have to be without a net,” says Berger “They have to use their bodies and their eyes to communicate emotion. So they were a little scared.”
In Blancanieves, Berger walks a fine line between fantasy and fairy-tale and very real emotional experience. The character of Blancanieves is, after all a young girl with real troubles and a wicked step-mother. One peculiar strengths of silent films, the best ones anyway, is the porous nature of that line. It is possible to portray a character as utterly human and another character as fantastically evil at the same exact time? In silent cinema, it’s almost routine.
“I decided we were going to make the acting a little more stylized for the evil characters, a little Grand Guignol. Not going too far, but not too little. But for the good characters, we went the other way we went truth, emotion, drama, and real, very real,” says Berger. “We wondered, is it gonna work, to mix these two? But I think there was space, I think one of the successes of the film is that people can relate to the characters and they can separate those positive characters from the evil characters.”
I wrap up our discussion by cheekily inquiring of Berger if he had any trouble get financing for his black and white silent film. His response was a bit cheeky as well. He laughs when saying, “Trouble is a very small word.”
He goes on to say that after the huge success of his first feature film Torremolinos 73, he felt like the king of the world. He was getting scripts and calls from producers and everyone was eager to work with him… until he offered up the script for Blancanieves as his next project.
“This was 2005, and on the first page of the script it said black and white silent film, and everybody laughed at me. I’m serious, they said ‘No you’re joking!’ Then they read the script and said, this is big budget. You’re talking about millions and millions of Euros and you’re making black and white silent film,” says Berger. “Producer after producer said I was crazy. But I wanted to make the film. I really honestly knew my gut was telling me it was going to work.”
And then there was that other silent film. After eight years, Berger had finally secured financing for his crazy idea. He had begun shooting Blancanieves when he got word about The Artist, via text message.
“And I was like oh my god. My reaction was initially negative, like it cannot be! You know, I wanted to be the first,” Berger laughs. “Which is stupid. What The Artist and Blancanieves have in common is that they’re both mainstream. They’re big budget. But it is great for us because at least The Artist was successful. What it means now is that I’m sure there was an audience that enjoyed The Artist and now they say, ‘Okay I’m going to give a chance to Blancanieves.’ I’m very happy that it was a hit and not a disaster!”
If you can catch the third and final TIFF screening of Blancanieves on Friday, September 14 at 3 pm, do it. This film is a wonder and you will not be disappointed. If you can’t make that, you can jet off to Barcelona for The Great Film Concert Blancanieves that will be held September the 26th at the Gran Teatre del Liceu. A giddy silent film fan-girl can dream, can’t she?
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