Where The Artist paid loving homage to the past with a wink to the present, Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves, a radical reimagining of the Snow White fairy tale, is the genuine article: a black and white silent film, set in 1920s Spain, that uses the camera tricks and effects of the era and almost never cheats. What’s more, unlike Hollywood’s recent plunderings of classic fables for modern audiences ( Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, Snow White and the Huntsman, Red Riding Hood), Blancanieves is a true adaptation and not an appropriation. The film uses the Brothers Grimm story as a foundation for an original story, although most of the iconic elements are accounted for (the wicked stepmother, the poisoned apple, etc.).
There is no talking mirror, and the stepmother never turns into a witch, because Blancanieves is grounded in reality. Most of the things in the film could happen in real life — unlikely, sure, but possible. Carmen (Macarena García) is the young beauty disowned by her father Antonio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a famous bullfighter rendered quadriplegic after an accident and heartbroken over the loss of his wife, who dies while giving birth to Carmen.
The greedy and manipulative Encarna (Maribel Verdú), a nurse at the hospital where Carmen was born, sees an opportunity and swoops in, marrying Antonio for his fortunes and keeping him hidden in his bedroom while she romps around their mansion and poses for magazine photo shoots. Carmen is forced to sleep in a dirty cellar and perform menial tasks, until Encarna decides she needs to do away with the girl and sends her into the woods with a hired killer assigned to murder her.
Blancanieves, which won 10 Goyas (Spain’s equivalent of the Oscars) and was a smash hit in its native Spain, has traces of a kinky undertone and an uncommon willingness to embrace the darkness inherent in this fairy tale (the movie reminds you just how grim the Brothers Grimm could be). There are dwarves, of course, but they don’t sing, and one of them is either a cross-dresser or a really ugly woman.
The changes and curves added to the familiar story make Blancanieves much more engrossing (and moving) than just another Snow White retelling. García strikes just the right balance of vulnerability and strength as the innocent heroine, while Verdú makes the evil Encarna both campy and menacing: She’s a dangerous vamp, and so much fun to watch. But the real magic in Blancanieves is in the filmmaking — the way Berger keeps the memory of Carmen’s childhood pet chicken alive via superimpositions, the skull head that flashes briefly on the surface of the poisoned apple, the horned shadow of a 500-pound bull as the animal encroaches on its victim. Blancanieves is funny, inventive and daring enough to change the story’s ending, going out on a note of sweet, unexpected melancholy.