Pablo Berger’s "Blancanieves" combines two movie trends: the updating of classic fairy tales and the rediscovery of silent film. Hollywood studios have lately been turning venerable children’s bedtime stories — "Little Red Riding Hood," "Hansel and Gretel" and of course "Snow White," Berger’s source — into special-effects-heavy action spectacles. Meanwhile, a handful of European directors (notably Michel Hazanavicius, in "The Artist," and Miguel Gomes, with "Tabu") have been drawn to the archaic glamour of monochrome images, boxy frames, heightened gestures and unheard dialogue.
What unites these tendencies might be a desire to find a way toward the new by means of the old, or else a more basic nostalgia, a longing for magic and wonder in a cynical time.
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"Blancanieves" deftly blends cinematic antiquarianism, period atmosphere and primal emotions. Set in Spain in the 1920s, it replaces the spooky northern European romanticism of the Brothers Grimm with a swooning, tragic sensibility. The Snow White character, Carmen, is the daughter of a bullfighter (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) and a flamenco dancer (Inma Cuesta), and her story hums with jealousy, vanity and other volatile passions.
Many of these pulsate in the heart of Carmen’s stepmother, Encarna (Maribel Verdu, seen in "Pan’s Labyrinth" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien"), a delectably wicked villain who is transformed before our eyes from a love-struck nurse to a perverse and murderous gold digger.
Encarna marries the girl’s father after he is paralyzed by a bull named Lucifer. Carmen, played as a wide-eyed, soft-featured child by Sofia Oria, is comforted by the companionship of her father, her grandmother (Angela Molina) and a mischievous rooster named Pepe — this film’s answer to the scrappy terrier that was everyone’s favorite part of "The Artist."
There are dwarfs, too, who befriend Carmen. Also a poisoned apple, though no magic mirror and, strictly speaking, no handsome prince.
Though Berger conjures lovely antiquarian images, "Blancanieves" never quite achieves the uncanny, haunting intensity of the silent films it so studiously and lovingly mimics.
In that respect, it is very much like "The Artist," which was enjoyable without quite managing to be a great movie. Its emotions felt simplified, rather than enhanced, by the discipline of silence. While "Blancanieves" is less self-conscious, it communicates the delights of pastiche rather than the thrill of original creation, a secondhand movie love that is seductive but not entirely satisfying.
By A.O. Scott, New York Times