“Blancanieves,” a Spanish retelling of “Snow White” through the lens of early-20th-century bullfighting culture, ends with a haunting, ambivalent image. It’s a shame that this largely charming movie didn’t have more touches of that melancholy throughout.
Shot in black and white and in faux silent-film style, like the enjoyably forgettable “The Artist,” “Blancanieves” introduces us to the great matador Antonio (Daniel Giménez Catcho, who played one of the pederast priests in “Bad Education”). Taking on six bulls in succession, he’s watched from the stands by his adoring, pregnant wife Carmen (Inma Cuesta) and her mother (Ángela Molina, of “Live Flesh” and “That Obscure Object of Desire”).
The day doesn’t go as planned. The baby is born, its mother dies, and Antonio retreats, a broken man, to a country estate — where he marries his maleficent, gold-digging nurse, Encarna (Maribel Verdú, of “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Y Tu Mamá También”). Abandoned by her grieving father, the young girl, also named Carmen (and played as a child by Sofía Oria and as a young woman by Macarena García, both stunning charmers), comes under the thumb of evil stepmother Encarna. The movie draws as much from “Cinderella” as from “Snow White” in its middle section, as young Carmen becomes the estate’s unpaid servant.
Well, you know where this is going. Sure enough, a group of little people enters the tale: six of them rather than seven, one in female drag. They’re pint-sized toreadors who challenge calves rather than full-sized bulls. Under the stage name of Blancanieves, our heroine joins them and heads toward her dazzling destiny in the ring.
The appeal of the movie is its re-creation and celebration of the then-groundbreaking tricks of silent film. You know, in-camera novelties such as superimpositions and wildly dramatic angles. But probably the best special effect here is Verdú, gamely icy in a series of outlandish gowns and mantillas. The movie also gets a great assist from the lively, flamenco-infused score by Alfonso de Vilallonga, who does well by the many moods that silent film requires.
So why, ultimately, is “Blancanieves” a little disappointing? Maybe it’s the bittersweet surprise of its last scene, suggesting opportunities missed. Or maybe it’s because it feels a little long, with too few emotional or thematic underpinnings to deepen its gloss on a familiar fairy tale.
Again, like “The Artist,” the movie uses engaging old film techniques, but in service of a recycled plot that lessens its impact. For eye-opening experiences, check out what Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin does with silent-film storytelling in outlandish works such as “Careful” and “The Saddest Music in the World.” By contrast, “Blancanieves” is a pleasant experiment, clearly made with love. But it’s a novelty act rather than a great work.
“Blancanieves.” With Maribel Verdú, Macarena García, Ángela Molina. Written and directed by Pablo Berger. Silent, with subtitles. Rated PG-13. 104 minutes. At the Tara.