This year’s crowded field of Snow White movies has a winner, at least in terms of quality, in Pablo Berger’s delightful “Blancanieves.” Conceived as an homage to silent cinema, with black-and-white lensing and no spoken dialogue, the film may strike some as having a tad more emotional heft than the similarly constructed “The Artist.” The success of that French charmer may whet the appetites of niche auds for more of the same, making this very Spanish take on the fairy tale a strong contender for specialty distribution worldwide.
Berger, who made his debut a decade ago with 1970s porn-biz satire “Torremolinos 73,” here sets the retro clock back even further, using the setting and cinematic style of mid-1920s southern Spain (with some liberties). Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giminez Cacho of “Bad Education”) is the nation’s most famous bullfighter, married to leading flamenco dancer/singer Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta). When he’s gored in the ring, she goes into premature labor and dies giving birth to a daughter. He recovers, albeit physically paralyzed and inconsolable over the loss of his beloved; little Carmencita (Sofia Oria, a most appealing child thesp) is raised by her doting grandmother Dona Concha (Angela Molina).
Granny passes away, however, and the girl is sent to live at her father’s imposing country ranch, under the thumb of nurse-turned-second wife Encarna (Maribel Verdu), who schemed her way into the marriage. While Encarna swans about as lady of the manse, enjoying an occasional kinky romp with the chauffeur (Pere Ponce), Carmencita toils as a servant and sleeps in a basement hovel. She’s forbidden from seeing her pa; yet eventually they meet and form a warm if secret bond.
Wanting no rival heir after papa’s none-too-accidental demise a few years later, Encarna orders her stepdaughter killed. But Carmen (now played by ingratiating young TV actress Macarena Garcia) survives, rescued and taken in by traveling novelty act the Bullfighting Dwarves. While the trauma of the attempted murder has erased her memory and identity, she begins to recall the bullfighting tips learned at her wheelchair-bound dad’s side, becoming a rare female practitioner of the bloody art. Resulting fame soon attracts hostile, jealous notice from the stepmother who’d assumed her dead, and who’s become a sort of society quasi-celebrity herself. (Paco Delgado’s costume designs are at their most humorous in the outrageous fashions she creates for vain Encarna.)
Eschewing supernatural elements, Berger’s tight script stays faithful to the familiar tale in spirit while changing a few specifics: Notably, there’s no magic mirror, but there is a poison apple, and Prince Charming is no dashing stranger, but rather the most earnest and handsome of the dwarves (Emilio Gavira as Jesusin). The usual happy ending is exchanged for a more poetic, melancholy close.
Sweet without being sugary, the story’s interpretation also hews close to late-1920s film conventions (including a 1:85 frame aspect ratio) without being slave to them. Kiko de la Rica’s lensing in particular usefully diverges at times from strict period technique, though never too conspicuously. Perfs are excellent, with Garcia and Gavira especially winning, while established names Cacho and Verdu make impressions that are memorably poignant and steel-toed campy, respectively.
Design and tech contributions are first-rate. Alfonso de Vilallonga’s highly participatory score is a wonder, evoking vintage Hollywood orchestral splendor while adding such fillips as flamenco claps and a theremin. Intertitles on the print screened at Toronto were in English.