Two recent mini-genres combine in Spanish director Pablo Berger’s gimmicky, sometimes affecting oddity. The first – meta-celebrations of the glories of pre-sound cinema – faded after its brief 2011 heyday with “The Artist” and Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.” The second – modernized rehashings of classic fairy tales – peaked, one hopes, with “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters.”
“Blancanieves,” Spanish for “Snow White,” is, by my count, the third rejiggered go-round of the Brothers Grimm tale over the past year alone. But Berger has outdone the other versions in inventiveness by setting his in the bullfighting circuit of 1920s Spain and by shooting it in the monochrome, silent mode of that era. He benefits from Macarena García as Carmen, the film’s stand-in for the Grimm heroine; she cuts an elegant figure in her toreador outfit, as sleek and superficial as the scenery. She has a face that rewards close-ups — a cross between Valentino and Louise Brooks. But they not only had faces back in those silent days, they also had souls. “Blancanieves” just has style.
And, inevitably, dwarfs. They are the downfall of every Snow White adaptation, even Disney’s. Though not as noxious as the ones in Tarsem Singh’s “Mirror, Mirror,” for example, they still come off as freak show caricatures that deflate any magic the film might have spun prior to their arrival. And, in fact, the first half of the movie, before the full fairy tale mechanism kicks in, does cast a spell of its own. Antonio Vellalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a strutting matador, prepares for the ring, a ritual of elaborate dress-up and fetishistic icons. But as soon as the guy with the camera and the flash-pan shows up at the ring, eager to snap his picture, you know Don Antonio somehow will be undone by the darned newfangled media, suggesting that it will soon supplant the live spectacle of the corrida. He gets gored and paralyzed, and his traumatized, pregnant wife dies giving birth to little Carmencita. Presented with his newborn daughter, the bereft man turns away.
Meanwhile, Encarna, the nurse tending Don Antonio, seduces her patient with TLC. She marries him, usurps his life, destroys his dignity, and, to complete her emasculation of the poor man, starts wearing a necktie. Only Carmencita, whom Encarna has consigned to the coal cellar, stands between her and Don Antonio’s fortune. Played by Maribel Verdú, who bears a distracting resemblance to Bérénice Bejo from “The Artist,” Encarna exudes malevolence. She’s the best thing in the film, especially when she emulates Medea with Carmencita’s beloved pet rooster, Pepe.
But her worst intentions come to naught as Carmencita, now grown up into Carmen, escapes Encarna’s plot to kill her. She ends up amnesiac and in the company of the dwarfs, who are performers in a troupe of miniature bullfighters. Though without memory, she retains her father’s skills, and soon becomes a pre-feminist sensation in the sport.
We’re still waiting for the poisoned apple at this point, but before it arrives a few brief scenes deviate from expectations. One of the dwarfs, Rafita (Sergio Dorado), distinguishes himself from the bunch. It’s the way he looks at Carmen, a gaze aching with adoration and despair. He comes a little too late into the picture to make much of a difference, but had Berger gone deeper into Rafita’s sad passion he might have passed beyond the safe frontiers of Disney and into the twisted realm of Buñuel.