Now that “The Artist” demonstrated that audiences could not only sit still for a silent movie, but could also entertain and win Oscars, getting another silent film funded, shot and distributed got that much easier. And by “that much,” I mean better than zero percent. Fortunately, the Spanish feature “Blancanieves” makes for a worthy addition to this sub-genre of retrofilm, in some ways a response to the death of celluloid and the dominance of the digital image. In several shots in Pablo Berger’s film, there was a hair in the gate, down in the left hand corner, a shocking reminder that this feature is indeed shot of the preferred medium of the 20th century.
The story, however, is straight out of the Brothers Grimm, as it is a Seville-based retelling of “Snow White,” with nods to Disney’s classic retelling. But it is also modern, feminist, and decidedly Spanish tale.
We begin in the bullfighting ring, where a champion matador is gored and paralyzed in front of his pregnant wife, a famous flamenco dancer. She dies in childbirth, and the grandmother raises the child in a happy home, while the paraplegic father is whisked away by a wicked caregiver (Maribel Verdu) who seeks his fortune. When the grandmother dies, Carmenita (Sofia Oria) is sent to live under this wicked woman — forced to do menial tasks, made to sleep in a rat-infested basement, and forbidden to see her father on the second floor.
If you’re wondering where the seven dwarves come into all this, don’t worry, they do. It’s better to enjoy the film without comparing it to Disney, however, as there isn’t a Prince Charming to be seen.
Instead, once a grown-up Carmen (Macarena Garcia) escapes death and flees into the forest, she re-emerges as a bullfighter, ready to do justice to the memory of her father. She also sports a delightful boyish haircut, and eyes that seem kissed by morning dew, like a peppy version of Renee Jeanne Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”
Shot with style and energy by Kiko de la Rica in sharp and high-contrast black and white, the film looks wonderful, borrowing from German Expressionism, Luis Bunuel, Ansel Adams, Surrealist cinema, “Citizen Kane,” and years of gothic and film noir tales.
The score by Alfonso de Vilallonga carries the film, creating more of a tonal atmosphere than a precisely timed work. There’s flamenco and even a bit of Nino Rota near the end when a marching band appears.
Director Berger relishes the freedom that silent film awards him, with a freewheeling camera, plenty of close-ups, double-exposures, and a flashback sequence edited so fast its a reminder how radical early directors like Dziga Vertov could be in that once-nascent medium, and how bizarre it still seems now.
“The Artist,” despite its silence, really felt like a film of the early sound era, with its traditional structure, camera placement and storytelling. But like Guy Maddin’s films, Mr. Berger’s fairy tale creates a more believable period piece, the kind that so excited the Surrealists with those flickering, waking dreams on the screen.
(Note to the sensitive: Despite the bullfighting ring setting, the film diverts from any animal cruelty on screen)
* * 1/2
Starring: Maribel Verdu, Sofia Oria, Macarena Garcia
Length: 104 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for some violent content and sexuality
Playing at: Plaza de Oro