“Silent film” may be an inapt description for Pablo Berger’s “Blancanieves.” Yes, the film is a beautiful homage to the silent films of the 1920s — shot in black and white in full-frame, with no spoken dialogue and only one sound effect, that of fireworks exploding in the sky.
But this film, which played Thursday on Day 1 of the Wisconsin Film Festival, is anything but quiet. It has an absolutely gorgeous score by Alfonso de Villalonga that is in many ways an equal partner to the images, highlighting and evoking the emotions of a scene or the motivations of a character. Like “The Artist,” this was an unusual but rewarding experience to see on the big screen.
“Blancanieves” literally translates into “Snow White,” and the film is a retelling of the classic fairytale, transported to 1920s Seville and the world of bullfighting. When the great matador Antonio Villarta is gored by a bull, and his pregnant wife dies during childbirth, Villarta falls into the clutches of scheming nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdu, who looks a lot like “Artist”‘s Berenice Bejo).
Encarna gets the ailing, wheelchair-bound Villarta to marry her, and he and his young daughter Carmen come to live with her. Encarna, it won’t surprise you, is a wicked stepmother, tormenting both and having designs to kill them both. Carmen escapes her clutches, but loses her memory and wanders into the path of a troupe of bullfighting dwarfs (six of them, but who’s counting?) Carmen, who the dwarves name Blancanieves “like the girl in the tale,” joins up with the dwarves, and soon discovers she has bullfighting talents of her own.
The images are sumptuous, from expressive close-ups of the main characters to frenetic quick cuts during action scenes, such as the bullfighting, which is truly scary at times. Berger plays with the “Snow White” tropes — there’s a poison apple, but Prince Charming isn’t who you might expect — and opts for less of a happy ending than we might expect.
And that score! Stirring orchestral movements during the most dramatic scenes, with flamenco guitar and handclaps to illustrate the energy and goodness of Blancanieves, while horror-movie theremin is employed for the villainous Encarna. No, “Blancanieves” isn’t subtle, but it’s an unforgettable time at the movies.
“Blancanieves” plays again at 7:45 p.m. Friday at Sundance, and a few rush tickets should be available at the door.