“Three Wishes for Cinderella” (1973) serves roughly the same societal role for Europe as “It’s a Wonderful Life” does in the US. It’s a magical, feel-good fantasy that brings together the community and appeals to every generation. The film is a perennial classic in Germany and Switzerland. In the Czech Republic it is a national landmark; part of the cultural landscape. In Norway, the film is virtually a religion: public demand has decreed that the state television channel play it ritualistically every Christmas morning at the same time. In the US, nobody has any idea what you are talking about when you mention the film. Americans like to be left alone with Charlie Brown’s holiday foibles and claymated Rudolphs that look like nightmare Bozo-the-clown centaurs.
“Three Wishes for Cinderella” tells the classic Cinderella fairy tale without a hint of irony. Unlike the Disney animated feature from 1950, which reigns supreme over the American mindshare of the story, this Czech version has much more genuine, down-to-earth tone, a light, desaturated palette and a whimsical atmosphere. The dense, folksy mise-en-scene reminded me of a sweeter, child-friendlier “Alice” (1988), a Czech fantasy film that was probably influenced by this feature.
Cinderella is played by Libuse Sanfrankova (I’ve omitted about seventeen accent marks so don’t even try to pronounce it) to great effect. She lives in a quaint village snugly tucked into a wintry forest near the local castle. Her stepmother and sister, jealous of her beauty, happiness and good-nature, try to saddle her with a life of drudgery.
To some degree, the film plays like the wish-fulfillment fan fiction of a thirteen-year-old girl. There is a preponderance of horse-riding, dressing up in pretty clothes and showing up boys while remaining perfectly graceful and conspicuously pretty. Oh, and at the end she consents to marry the handsomest and most wealthy person in the land after he desperately combs the countryside for her. However, even fan fiction, if executed extremely well, can be quite enjoyably.
Libuse Sanfrankova’s lead performance is one of the reasons the film works. Though twenty at the time, she looks no more than fifteen in the film. She possesses all the innocence, enthusiasm and ethics that a good fairy tale heroine needs, but demonstrates a competence in horsemanship, archery and climbing that modernize her into a girl-power emblem.
The regal realities of feudal governance, class-based oppression, political intrigue and Haemophilia are not for Cinderella, but she does show such benevolence, initiative and tolerance for work that one could imagine her growing into a beloved leader. She is so in control of her destiny that I doubt she even needed the magic hazelnuts to win over the prince: in addition to her charming personality and impressive resume of Renaissance skills, she is also remarkably pretty. Amongst the many imdb testimonials of girls enchanted or inspired by the film are several male confessions of long-lasting crushes and even one slightly disturbing tale of a boy whose standard for beauty was set so high by Sanfrankova that it soured his later relationships.
A surprising place where “Three Wishes for Cinderella” succeeds is in the immaculate cinematography, not usually of much interest in family fare. The whole thing is lens in a glittery soft-focus that makes the light seem to hang in the air. The snow-covered, unspoiled woodlands (somewhere in the Bohemian Forest) is put to good use filtering in the dappled sunlight and reflecting it ambiently off the snow-covered hillocks.
The film looks a little low-budget and dated from a modern perspective, but the lack of CG, shine and crispness give it a homely, earthy charm. The sets are not highly dressed, but the richness of texture from the wood grains, muddy slush and festive costumes makes the suspension of disbelief a pleasurable task.
If someone had described the soundtrack to me in advance, I would have sworn I was going to hate it, but it comes together well. The tracks are light modern takes on Renaissance era music with a lot of airy, elegant instruments (flute I could recognize for sure). It creates a pleasantly nostalgic feel, usually devoid of the sappy vocals that mar the final number. One can also detect the brief tinkle of bells at key moments, quite possibly a reference to the sound effect used for the magic earrings in “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.”
So, for anyone who found my scrooge-like ranting about holiday films to be a cop out, now they have something to watch for the Christmas season. It has just the right levels of escapist appeal and positive underlying values to ensure warm fuzzy feelings for families and young-uns. Plus, you can finally see what all those Czechs and Norwegians are talking about.