“Blancanieves” (the Spanish name for Snow White) is enchantment at 24 frames a second. Relocating the Grimm fairy tale to 1920s Spain, adding bullfighting and flamenco dancing to the mix, and shooting it in silent black-and-white, suggests some kind of camp folly.
There is a wry dash of self-aware melodrama in this movie, but also a strain of romantic, eerie fantasy akin to that other masterful Spanish fable, “Pan’s Labyrinth.” It’s the kind of delirium you eagerly join.
We open in Seville’s grand bullring, where a famous matador (Daniel Giménez Cacho) thrills us with his artistry before being distracted by a photographer’s flash powder and crippled. With his wife dead in childbirth, their daughter Carmen (played as a child by sparkling Sofia Oria and later by lovely Macarena Garcia) is raised by her domineering stepmother Encarna (Maribel Verdú, a cobra in black satin).
The film builds up tension and then plays its comedic cards strategically. When the coldly smiling Encarna invites Carmen to settle into her bedroom in their lavish villa, the title card reads, “You’ll find it quite cozy.” Cut to the world’s most dismal coal cellar.
Encarna wants to keep Carmen from her father, but the two meet secretly and he tutors her in the art of bullfighting.
In an image that condenses a decade into a blink, we meet the vibrant young-adult Carmen. Perceiving a threat to her regal lifestyle, Encarna moves to eliminate father and daughter. Carmen escapes, but her memory is gone. Fate sends a troupe of bullfighting dwarves her way, and she joins their act. The female torero becomes a sensation for her grace, style and bravery. When Encarna recognizes the mysterious bullfighter Blancanieves as the still-living Carmen, a fatal confrontation is inevitable.
Pablo Berger’s strange, delightful movie is pure cinema, a demonstration of how much can be conveyed with a paintbrush of light and shadow, exquisite framing, expression and body language. It looks like a forgotten classic, yet it’s fresh as morning.
The film’s black-and-white world (not truly silent, thanks to Alfonso de Vilallonga’s rapturous score, rich with character leitmotifs) creates a world of sublime magical realism. The story’s Prince Charming is not one we could have anticipated, yet he’s heartbreaking perfection.
The finale offers a melancholy Iberian perspective on what it could mean to live ever after. It might be happily, and then again … Most films are experiences to be ignored or at best forgotten. “Blancanieves” is a little classic to be treasured.