This isn’t your great-grandfather’s “Snow White,” but formally it certainly resembles the sort of movie he might have seen back in the day—a silent, black-and-white melodrama filled with heightened emotion and eye-catching use of light and shade. In that respect “Blancanieves” is essentially a cousin to “The Artist,” but it’s too strange and moody piece to replicate the success of that crowd-pleasing (and Oscar-winning) Parisian homage to early Hollywood filmmaking. Cinema buffs will find it an intriguing curio, though.
The setting is 1920s Spain, and the heroine a little girl named Carmencita (Sofia Oria), daughter of famed matador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) and flamenco dancer Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta). When Antonio suffers a crippling injury at the horns of a bull in the ring, Carmen goes into labor and dies giving birth to the child, who’s turned over to her grandmother Dona Concha (Angela Molina) to raise. Meanwhile Antonio, confined to a wheelchair, foolishly weds Encarna (Maribel Verdu), the nurse who turns out to be more interested in his money than his companionship and fools around openly with the chauffeur Genaro (Pere Ponce).
Carmencita has a carefree childhood with her grandmother and her favorite pet, a scene-stealing rooster named Pepe, until Dona Concha dies and the girl falls under the control of her wicked stepmother, who becomes a Cinderella-like servant. But though she’s forbidden access to her invalid father, she sneaks into his room in one of the picture’s most entrancing scenes, and they develop a secret bond. No sooner does Antonio die, however, than Encarna directs Genaro to kill the girl (now played by Macarena Garcia). The sequence in which he attempts the deed is pretty terrifying, but she’s rescued by a travelling troupe of little people, who give comic shows as the Bullfighting Dwarves; and though she suffers amnesia as a result of her near-death experience, watching them leads her, now called Blancanieves, to remember the tips her father had given her, and she enters the ring herself, soon becoming a celebrity in her own right.
That attracts the notice of Encarna, now the very model of an ambitious pop-culture icon, and she plots to do away with the girl using a poisoned apple. She doesn’t quite succeed, however, and in a poignantly elegiac finale, the sleeping beauty is an attraction in a travelling carnival, lovingly tended by Jesusin (Emilio Gavira), the dwarf most devoted to her, while customers are invited to pay for the privilege of trying to awaken her with a kiss.
Obviously writer-director Pablo Berger has toyed with the element of the original tale, giving them a strongly Iberian cast and a tone very different from the Brothers Grimm. But most of the adjustments work well enough, juggling humor, pathos and menace to good effect, and Kiko de la Rica’s cinematography artfully employs the conventions of early twentieth-century filmmaking to give the film an entrancingly antique texture. The performances represent major contributions to the overall effect, with Oria and Garcia equally magnetic as the title character at different ages and Gavira nicely leading the colorful band of travelling players. Of course, as in a Disney cartoon, the quality of the villain is an important consideration, and Verdu’s extravagantly evil Encarna certainly fills the bill, with Ponce an able factotum in her malevolent plans.
As with “The Artist,” there’s a self-conscious artificiality to “Blancanieves” that keeps it from becoming a more than a cannily calculated stunt. But especially for those who appreciate actual silent films, it should prove an engaging one.