BlancanievesEven for those not well-versed in Spanish, Blancanieves is easy to understand as a translation of “Snow White.” What may not be as obvious is that it could have been released under the English title Snow White and the Seven Bullfighting Dwarves. The film, which was Spain’s official entry for the 85th Academy Awards, brings up the important question of how a silent film can ever really be in a foreign language. The intertitles are now English, of course, but the language of the film is the image, which is universal. Writer/Director Pablo Berger works not off of Disney’s version but the Grimm Brothers’ original—if you can call a transcription of a folk story “original”—in a manner that is respectful, but unafraid to make wild changes. The bullfighting is one of them.

The strongest part of the story, omitted from the original tale, is the relationship between Carmencita (Macarena Garcia), who will become Blancanieves, and her father, the estranged and esteemed bullfighter Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho). Confined to a wheelchair, he is at first entirely absent from his daughter’s life; she bears her dead mother’s features. But fate reunites them, and under the watchful eyes of his new wife, a classic evil stepmother, the two form a relationship—and he teaches her how to bullfight. His wife later pushes him down a staircase, killing him, and leaving Carmencita, like all good fairytale heroines, alone in the world.

We see her horrible childhood, with a stepmother that served to her her own pet chicken for dinner, who kept her in a cellar and made her shovel coal: the whole nine yards. The murder of her father—her introduction into adulthood—leads up to a series of events, which culminate in a final bullfight in Sevilla’s grandest ring. The poisoned apple comes in later than one would expect, and the ending is a radical shift from Disney’s and Grimm’s, but that much more effective for it.

The choice of silent black-and-white is unquestionably a self-consciously “retro” one. Blancanieves, however, sticks to the format without necessarily sticking to the form. Many of the images are hand-held close-ups that would have been odd or impossible in the era the film’s stock evokes. This is not necessarily a weakness; it holds the film back from mimicry (or parody) and emphasizes that distinctive choice as a choice like any other, and one which better serves the story. At times, though, the modern editing rhythms really do take away from the film, robbing the audience of an opportunity to get a good look at the period details and beautiful images. This is particularly apparent in the climactic bullfight, which is cut around the fact that performing a bullfight would have been too dangerous.  But the sequence exhibits little in the way of choreography and doesn’t prove Blancanieves’ grace and skill in the ring—for a moment there, she’s just an actress instead of a bullfighter.

This is particularly disappointing, because if there’s one thing to be said for this format, it’s that it manages to work on a purely emotional level, at least when done well—tugging on heartstrings in ways which more contemporary films usually don’t. For a modern audience this might come as a bit of a shock, because it all sounds sort of quaint. But maybe that’s the fun of it, and nearly all of the time Blancanieves manages to restore that antiquated and nostalgic sense of childlike wonder most films forego in favor of irony and distance.