It is almost unimaginable going nowadays to the cinema to watch a silent film, but there was a time that movies were in black and white and the dialogues were presented in a full-screen sign after every intervention of the characters. However by the 1920’s sound was added to the image to create the experience of film art we enjoy today, a complete three-dimensional realism. Yet, in 2012 there was a man who dared to go back to the beginning and make a black and white silent film. He was the Spanish film-maker Pablo Berger and the movie was called ‘Blancanieves’, the Spanish for Snow White, the worldwide known tale by the Grimm brothers. Since it is precisely in its extraordinarily expressive soundtrack where the magic of this acclaimed film can be found, I would like to expose my ideas and thoughts about it in order to talk about the cinema as ear.
This version of the tale is slightly different from the original: in this risky proposal that takes place in a South Spain village, Berger introduces ‘Snow White’ as ‘Carmencita’ the daughter of a bullfighter. Her mum passed away giving birth to her and her step-mother is the nurse who took care of her dad when he got gored by a bull in a “corrida”. The presence of bullfighting was very controversial yet it did not prevent it from being tremendously popular everywhere it was released like in USA or Japan as well as from receiving numerous awards for best picture, best leading female actress and best soundtrack amongst others.
‘Blancanieves’ was shot bearing all resemblances to a late 19th century movie. There is no spoken dialogue throughout the entire movie and this need to talk is helped by those full-screen signs that transcript everything the characters have to say. Nevertheless, the dialogue is not much and what actually speaks for the movie is its soundtrack. The music leads the viewers’ journey as soon as the first musical notes can be listened (and the first images appears on the screen). This first musical piece introduces the town where the events are going to take place and presents every frame in a stunningly magical way that recalls the opening of a fairy-tell story. The music is constant and not only does it replace the lack of dialogue but also it moves the film smoothly and strikingly until the end.
One of my favourite scenes is the one happening when ‘Carmencita’ is feeling downcast hidden under a table at her yard because her dad did not come to see her after her First Communion. Nonetheless, her grandma, the mother of her deceased mum, strives to cheer her up by playing ‘flamenco’ music and encouraging her to dance together. They transform the scene in such a theatrical performance of both granddaughter and grandma dancing charmingly. The music at this point is a ‘flamenco’ piece sung by Juan Gomez and Silvia Perez Cruz, unlike most of the pieces in the movie which are just orchestral tracks. This song is apparently really cheerful and emotional yet it anticipates what is about to happen, a macabre twist of black humour. (I don’t want to spoil the film.)
Nevertheless, what really bewildered me was what I realised right after I watched the movie and that I could experience again meanwhile writing this essay and listening to the soundtrack on Spotify. If you do not watch the film, if you make the exercise of closing your eyes and just listen to the music you can feel and almost tell everything is going on. You can tell when there’s a change of scene, when there’s a tense situation, when the bull is about to gore the dad or when the evil step-mother is around. It is delightful how the music in this ambitious film could convey so much and so precisely that there was no need of image to narrate the story. I truly believe cinema like this, cinema as ear, is still factual nowadays and indeed a field yet to explore, experiment and develop.
Therefore, I perceive sound as something intrinsically related to image and whose juxtaposition creates something wonderful called cinema. What’s more, I understand that sound and image are not only a good combo but on top of that they only add more value to each other. Music and image, equally expressive medias.
Link of the ‘Blancanieves’ track list on Spotify