It’s nice to see that in this time of “reimagined” childrens’ stories from Jack and the Beanstalk to Alice a filmmaker can import a classic tale into a brand-new template and retain the dreamy dark beauty and cruel logic (for none of those old stories were light-hearted in their original form) that always fascinated audiences. Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves takes the Snow White story first popularized by the brothers Grimm and still best known from the 1937 animated Disney film, strips it of its medieval Germanic forest setting, and recasts it as a florid, theatrical, black-and-white silent melodrama set in 1920s Spain. But even though the unemployed and gullible waif Snow White is now a tomboyish girl named Carmen who dreams of being a great bullfighter like her father, Berger’s film is still closer to the original tale’s spirit than last year’s dreadful action throwaway Snow White and the Huntsman.
The film opens on Carmen’s father Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho), performing his deadly dance in the Seville bullfighting ring while the crowd swoons, fans-a-flutter. With his warm smile, dancer’s grace, and noblese oblige, he’s a matinee idol with the soulful eyes of a poet. One ugly mishap later, he’s in the hospital, paralyzed, his wife dead after childbirth. A beautiful nurse, Encarma (Maribel Verdú, from Y tu mamá también), takes a little too much interest in Antonio’s fate. A few years later she’s Antonio’s new wife, living in splendor at his estate and cuckolding her wheelchair-bound husband while consigning his daughter Carmen (Sofia Oria) to a life of dirty servitude. Later, when Carmen grows up (played as a young woman by Macarena García), Encarma will decide that simple cruelty isn’t enough: her gorgeous stepdaughter must die.
Berger neatly sidesteps the current vogue for digging into classic villains’ motivations. Encarma’s evil seems driven by little more than being a naturally vicious and greedy character who wants everything and wants it now. She enfolds herself around furniture and helpless characters like some grasping, avaricious spider. Curiously, for a film so obsessed with beauty, Berger ignores the spine of the fairy tale, with the mirror that reminds the vain stepmother of Snow White’s charms, and so drives her into a murdering rage. Instead of depriving Blancanieves of its depth, however, the simplicity of Berger’s approach actually gooses the drama and keeps it from being a throwback curiosity like The Artist.
In a neat trick, Berger is able to puff up the plot by using tongue-in-cheek cue cards and performances rife with exaggerated flourishes without suggesting that it’s all some gag. This isn’t an easy feat to pull off, particularly with the dervish of diva that Verdú whips up for Encarma, a greyhound-thin vision of dominatrix camp couture, all knife-sharp cheekbones and runway-ready outfits. Even the style of the filming itself, with its expressionist angles and great gleaming spaces (all the interiors are luxuriant, full of dark woods and windows flooded with bright sunlight) backgrounded by a lush orchestral soundtrack, ably presents itself as an honest rendering of a grand old gothic tale, and not some Tim Burton-esque exercise in style for its own sake.
Because of the trust that Blancanieves places in the potency of its source, it’s able to get away with some drastic detours along the way (no mirror, no huntsman per se, and a very late though worthwhile introduction of the seven dwarves). By the time the film arrives at its grand theatrical finale, you’re almost prepared for Berger’s last great twist. Almost.