Friday, November 18, 2005

Smashing the Glass Slipper

Some months back, a reader wrote us out of the blue -- knowing of our fondness for European and Russian fairy tale films -- to recommend one he had recently seen, THREE WISHES FOR CINDERELLA. We tracked the title down to Facets Video and sent them a request for a screener; their representative wrote back to say it would be sent as soon as they could replenish their supply. The film (originally released in 2003) had proved so unexpectedly popular, it was presently on back-order. Our disc arrived some weeks later, and we watched it last night.

THREE WISHES FOR CINDERELLA is actually a Czech film, Tri orísky pro Popelku (1973), whose title translates -- and appears onscreen -- as "Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella," which would certainly confuse American audiences. It's a delightfully unconventional retelling of the classic story that is remarkable for the degree to which it empowers its put-upon protagonist from the outset. Sweetly played by the winsome Libuse Safránková (pictured above), this Cinderella has a more limited number of adversaries, just her fat and stupid stepmother and a single, snooty step-sister named Dora (who may be mildly plain, but isn't the "ugly" step-sister of American tellings of this tale). And this Cinderella also has the affection and support of the household's other servants, including a doting coachman who promises the girl that he will bring her "the first thing that hits his nose" when he ventures next into town. It just so happens that the young Prince (Pavel Trávnicek), out hunting, notices that the coachman has fallen asleep in his coach and deftly aims an arrow at an empty bird's nest, which drops onto his face as he rides below the tree branch, waking him. Inside the nest is a cluster of three hazelnuts, the gift that subsequently provides Cinderella with the means to make her dreams come true -- rather than have the traditional fairy godmother grant them for her. Also, here Cinderella is able to cross the path of the Prince twice, in two different guises (one of them male), before their climactic meeting at the Royal Ball, which necessitates that she dance with the Prince while wearing a veil. In another delightful invention, she presents him with a riddle he must answer in order to find her, after she flees -- but there remains the convention of the slipper which must fit a foot "no larger than a doll's." There is no sudden transformation "back" into the poor little ash-sweeper; there is magic abounding, but it is left to the girl to prove her worthiness by putting the tools at her disposal to practical use.

Directed by the Czech fantasy specialist Václav Vorlícek, THREE WISHES FOR CINDERELLA is a charming little movie whose winning unpredictability succeeds in revitalizing an overly familiar story. There are some things about it which seem stylistically stilted or dated (like the freeze-framed main and end titles, and a couple of ABBA-like songs accompanying scenes of horse-riding) and Facets' standard ratio presentation is very basic, with unsteady still frames, no progressive scan flagging, and awkward (and unremovable) subtitles that tend to confuse "think" with "thing" and "of" with "have." The subtitles will be an obstacle for many children who might have enjoyed the film otherwise, and the DVD's labelling as one of "Facet's Family Classics" overlooks the fact that the film contains a rather graphic account of a fox hunt. I guess Czech kids are made of stronger stuff.

Fans of the great Russian fantasists Aleksandr Ptushko and Aleksandr Rou will find Vorlícek's approach less stylized and more earthbound (the first and second act scenes are deliberately drab in their coloring), yet appealing on its own terms, which are progressive but nonetheless sweet. For this select audience, and children who don't mind reading a movie if it will expand their horizons, THREE WISHES FOR CINDERELLA is worth seeking out. It's available from Facets Multimedia on DVD and VHS, both priced at $19.95.

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