Its title and story may stem from “Snow White,” but “Blancanieves” is nothing like the soulless, effects-laden action spectacles that the thought of yet another fairy tale-rooted movie brings to mind. This Spanish melodrama is a modestly scaled, exquisitely black-and-white, emotionally rewarding take on the Brothers Grimm fable.
It is also a classy, quirky salute to silent-era cinema.
Written and directed by Pablo Berger (“Torremolinos 73”), the film, like “The Artist,” celebrates silent movies and presents itself in the form of a silent movie.
But aside from containing an animal in a pivotal role, Berger’s film proves a wholly different experience and is more affecting, mostly because it captures the Grimms’ grasp on humans’ dark and bright sides.
Set in a meticulously re-created 1920s Spain, the story brings its heroine, Carmen (Macarena Garcia), into the world amid double tragedy: Her matador father, Antonio (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), has been severely gored by a bull, and her flamenco dancer mother (Inma Cuesta) dies in childbirth.
After a joyful period spent with her grandmother (Angela Molina), 7-year-old Carmen moves to her father’s estate, which is ruled by Carmen’s stepmother, Encarna (Maribel Verdu). No mirror here. Encarna is a sadistic fashion glutton who controls her wheelchair-using husband and treats Carmen like a slave.
Flash-forward to a grown-up Carmen surviving two attempts on her life. She joins a troupe of dwarf bullfighters and finds her calling in the ring. Her fame and glory ignite Encarna’s wrath, of course.
Wicked stepmothers rarely abound with dimension, and Encarna, while played with relish by Verdu, is no exception. By allowing this evil monster to dominate, Berger shortchanges deserving supporting characters, including the dwarfs (one of them serves, sort of, as the story’s Prince Charming).
But the movie is nonetheless a modest jewel. It’s both an homage to early cinema and a triumph-over-adversity fantasy that isn’t afraid to juxtapose hope with horror.
Credit an efficient combination of gorgeous cinematography by Kiko de la Rica, a tonally varied score by Alfonso de Vilallonga, and expressive silent-style performances by the entire cast (including a rooster).
Unlike “The Artist,” which, while entertaining, suffered from relentless rosiness, “Blancanieves” takes its characters to compellingly unsettling places. When it conveys joy, it can sparkle.
Berger’s references to films that share ingredients with this one, including Disney’s Snow White classic, will please film buffs. A fairy-tale ending, though hardly a Hollywood one, is among several examples of how Berger uses familiar elements from the Snow White tale unpredictably.
The Grimms would approve, and silent-cinema fans and anyone looking for something different and inspired should, too.