The Artist set the bar for modern-day rethinking of silent movies, and Pablo Berger's Blancanieves energetically leaps over that bar into a new dimension, combining the broad outlines of the Snow White story with a meticulous evocation of early-20th-century Spain and its music. The result is a completely enchanting fairy tale about the vicissitudes of fate, in live action and glorious black and white.
As in all unforgettable bedtime stories, scenes of tenderness and comedy alternate with those of cruelty and deceit in the chronicle of Blancanieves, born Carmencita (played as a child by Sofía Oria), daughter of a famous but unfortunate bullfighter (Daniel Giménez Cacho). On the very day of the little girl's birth in Sevilla, her mother (Inma Cuesta) dies on the operating table and her father is gored in the bull ring, effectively dooming Carmencita to be raised by her wicked stepmother. The decadent Encarna (toothy Maribel Verdú from Pan's Labyrinth, in a wonderfully over-the-top performance) treats the disabled father with contempt only surpassed by the humiliation of the unwanted child. Thus raised as a servant in her own home, the strong-willed grownup Carmen (Macarena García) sets out to right her wrongs as Spain's first female torero.
Bilbao native filmmaker Berger obviously admires the great silent directors — the credits thank F.W. Murnau, Jacques Feyder, Carl Dreyer, and Victor Sjöström, among others. That said, he fearlessly endows his fairy tale with much of the same pathos and over-acting of the period, particularly in Carmen's interaction with the little people's circus troupe, Los Enanitos Toreros, in which she finds a home. Twenty-first-century American audiences are not accustomed to such naked sentimentality, but Berger makes it work. Cinematographer Kiko de la Rica's visuals are lush, and the music by composer Alfonso de Vilallonga, with sparkling flamenco tunes by guitarist Juan "Chicuelo" Gómez and singer Sílvia Pérez Cruz, adds to the mournful fantasy of Carmen's tale of woe. The film's ending is something Tod Browning could be proud of.
Correction: The original version of this review misspelled the last name of composer Alfonso de Vilallonga.