by Glenn Lovell
If you swooned over the Oscar-winning “The Artist,” boy, do I have an offbeat import for you. It’s called “Blancanieves” (Spanish for Snow White) and, like that earlier French film, it’s a subtitled silent told in luscious black-and-white. Where director Pablo Berger trumps “The Artist” is in the story department: Berger’s yarn is an alternately charming/alarming fusion of Grimm fairy-tale, Pedro Almodóvar satire, and for the spooky, bittersweet finish, Todd Browning’s 1932 classic “Freaks.”
It’s not exaggerating things to say “Blancanieves” — Spain’s entry in last year’s Oscar pool — has everything we were looking for, but didn’t completely find, in “Snow White and the Huntsman” and, as good as it was, that recent return to Oz.
Set in and around Seville in the 1920s, Berger’s tale opens with the flourish of a Sunday afternoon bullfight. Striding into the arena is legendary matador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho). The crowd cheers Olé! at his every pass. Then, after dedicating the bull to his very pregnant wife, the unthinkable happens: Villalta is horribly gored. In the first of many twists, the wife dies during childbirth and Antonio survives as a cripple — attended by his nurse-soon-to-be-wife Encarna (Maribel Verdú), who has designs on his fortune and hacienda … but not his daughter, Carmen (the equally photogenic Sofia Oria as a child, Macerena Garcia as a young woman).
Played with lip-smacking glee by the sensuous Verdú (“Pan’s Labyrinth”), Encarna taunts her paralyzed husband and imprisons his daughter, who’s forced to shovel coat and scrub floors. With Villalta soon out of the way, the evil stepmother plots Carmen’s demise. The girl escapes — but not before receiving a nasty knock on the head. She’s rescued by a troupe of little people that tours the provinces as the Bullfighting Dwarfs. Dubbed Blancanieves, “like the girl in the tale,” Carmen angers the former star of the troupe when she’s given top billing as the toast of Seville.
Will Encarna hand off the poison apple before Carmen regains her memory — and the family fortune? Will one dwarf find true love, another retribution? Berger, whose previous feature was a farce about unemployment and porno, piles on the cliffhanger moments and bookends his story with stunning widescreen panoramas of Seville’s Coliseum.
“Blancanieves,” like the best silents, is visual storytelling of a very high order, with few intertitles to slow the action but plenty of strategically placed harbingers, such as a pricked finger, a pet rooster and a dropped montera. It’s both lusty and heartfelt, fiery flamenco and spirited country jig. But don’t go expecting a Disney-fied fable. Berger seasons liberally with S&M and the kind of morbid touches we recall from vintage Bunuel. His last act even takes us into the realm of expressionistic horror and, for you genre aficionados, the aforementioned “Freaks.”
BLANCANIEVES ✮✮✮✮ With Maribel Verdu, Giménez Cacho, Sofia Oria. Written, directed by Pablo Berger. 104 min. PG-13 (for suggested hanky-panky and violence)