Walt Disney filmed a version of Snow White in glorious colour in 1937. Over 70 years later, Pablo Berger has produced a modern version in glorious black and white and set predominantly in the 1920’s when cinematic sound was just a concept, colour a rarity and the screen width a very standard Academy ratio of 1.33:1. The influence of The Artist (2011) in reviving interest in earlier film formats and styles cannot be overlooked although Blancanieves’s concept of returning to the earlier form occurred before that film enjoyed huge success both financially and critically. Film is, at heart, a visual medium, where cinematography and editing technique are fundamental to the construction of the narrative. Blancanieves is a wonderful blend of art and entertainment that is sumptuous to look at and has sequences containing structured, rhythmic editing that recall some of the Silent Era’s most enthralling works. And, despite the re-invention of the story, its tone bears far more resemblance to the Grimm brothers’ Little Snow White (Schneewittchen) with its macabre tone; like Disney, the original text and other adaptations, the poisoned apple, magic mirror and dwarfish themes are present. So there are links to the past in more ways than one but this is a distinctly dark and modern take on a classic tale.

In Andalusia, tragedy is about to strike famous matador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho). He is distracted during a bullfight, an activity he normally excels at, is gored and ends up in hospital with permanently debilitating injuries, just as his wife Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta) gives birth to their first child. Then Carmen, as famous a flamenco dancer as Antonio is a matador, dies in labour. Antonio remarries his former nurse, the gold-digging Encarna (Maribel Verdú), a self-centred beauty who despises her stepdaughter Carmencita (Sofía Oria) and treats her cruelly -forcing her to engage in household chores, banning her from parts of the house and even threatening to serve the young child her cockerel friend Pepe for dinner. Carmencita’s only joy in life is her relationship with her increasingly troubled father and her grandmother Doña Concha (Ángela Molina). When her father dies, the wicked Encarna arranges for her stepdaughter’s demise in the forest at the hands of one of her brutal henchmen. But the feisty grown-up Carmen (Macarena García) is saved by a troupe of dwarf circus matadors and she joins them. She lost her memory during her attack, so they name her Blancanieves. Like father, like daughter, Carmen recalls her father’s teachings and becomes a successful matador in her own right. But news of her fame reaches Encarna who is thoroughly displeased to learn that her step-daughter lives…

Although silent in the sense that there is no vocal dialogue, Blancanieves does make full use of its soundtrack to enhance the experience, either through its score or related foley effects such as the bell chimes that intrinsically link into the narrative without denying the integrated marvel of a film where dialogue is strictly limited to intertitle cards. These sound elements also help enhance the editing which is – at times – as visually stunning as the cinematography. Rapid multiple cuts in time help construct incidents thematically and compositionally, either by recollecting past events, linking character reactions or providing intense scenes of action that rely on the strength of the format and the stunning black and white cinematography to demand the viewer’s attention, notably in cross cutting scenes of bull fighting as well as the scene depicting the attack on Carmen. These cuts and the pacing of the editing recall director Pablo Berger’s declared film hero Abel Gance (although with two screens fewer that director’s splendid Napoleon [1927]) as well as some elements of Russian silent cinema.

Art and fantasy combine in a marvellous adaptation of Grimms’ fairy tale with the emphasis on the grimness even if there are some delightful comic moments to help provide some balance to proceedings. Blancanieves received numerous awards in Spain, notably the Goya and Gaudí awards, although – bizarrely – it wasn’t short-listed for Best Foreign feature at the Oscars. Genuinely enjoyable and highly recommended viewing.