Most homages to silent movies either try to replicate the intricate gags of slapstick comedy or the dreaminess of silent-era expressionism, but Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves takes a somewhat different tack. Though shot in black and white and set in the ’20s—and though Berger relies on some montage and superimposition techniques that Sergei Eisenstein and F.W. Murnau would readily recognize—Blancanieves still feels modern, with a style of visual storytelling that owes a lot to music videos and the European New Wave cinema of the ’50s and ’60s. Berger also shows a dark wit and a faith in old-fashioned melodrama that puts Blancanieves more in the camp of Pedro Almodóvar than Guy Maddin’s golden-age pastiches. (And aside from being silent and a period piece, the movie has almost nothing in common with The Artist.)
Macarena García stars as the daughter of famous bullfighter Daniel Giménez Cacho. After Cacho is rendered paraplegic in the ring, García joins a band of dwarf bullfighters, escaping the clutches of her vain, taskmaster stepmother Maribel Verdú, in a knowing riff on the Brothers Grimm’s “Snow White.” Blancanieves’ plot is gimmicky, but Berger mainly uses it as a line on which to hang one craftily shot and cut setpiece after another, starting with a thrilling opening sequence that begins with Cacho getting dressed for a fight, continues with him strutting around the ring with raw confidence and sexuality, and ends in the chaos of a goring and a bloody surgery, intercut with García’s birth.
With a slower pace and a different soundtrack, Blancanieves might’ve played as a challenging art film. Instead, it moves to the beat of the flamenco music that runs under its more action-packed scenes, as Berger actively looks to engage viewers’ emotions. Because Berger doesn’t hold exclusively to the visual grammar of the classic silents, some may wonder why Blancanieves had to be a silent movie at all. But by draining the film of almost all dialogue (save for a few inter-titles) and trying to construct a clear narrative out of pictures alone, Berger gives himself permission to go broader with the dramatic moments. The villains are more villainous; the tragedy is more tragic. Yet what makes Blancanieves such a wonder is how well Berger handles the smaller, more grounded scenes, such as when Verdú discovers that her stepdaughter has been sneaking into Cacho’s room when she sees light flashing through the upstairs window, reflecting off Cacho’s spinning wheelchair as his little girl helps him “dance.” Silent or sound, that image is just beautiful.