Unlikely as it might have seemed initially, the Oscar-winning The Artist clearly showed that a silent movie can appeal to a certain kind of audience just as much, if not more than many talkies.

Based on the Snow White fairytale, Blancanieves (Spanish for 'Snow White') is another in the silent category. Set in Seville in the early 20th Century, it dramatises the life of a female bullfighter called Carmen or, as she is affectionately known, Carmencita.

Shot in black and white, the film opens with a charming sequence of images from 1920s Spain, including what seems to be a sepia photograph of a small Spanish city by a river, Aranjuez perhaps.

When you look closely you see that the river is almost imperceptibly flowing, which lends a beautiful sense of illusion. It also subtly prefigures all manner of fairytale licence and romance to come.

The bullfighter Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho) prepares to enter the ring for yet another encounter in his legendary career. Among the capacity crowd is his pregnant wife Carmen de Triana (Inma Cuesta), a flamenco singer and dancer.

Before facing the bull, Antonio deftly throws his montero, or bull-fighter's cap, up to his wife, which she fails to catch. You just know this is a bad omen. Seriously gored in the bull-fight, Antonio is rushed to hospital while his wife goes into labour and is rushed to the same hospital.

She dies giving birth to a girl, also to be called Carmen or affectionately Carmencita  (played by Sofía Oria as young girl and by Macarena García as a young woman.) Meanwhile, Antonio is being cared for by the calculating Encarna (Maribel Verdú from Y Tu Mamá También) a wicked witch masquerading as a nurse.

Aware of his wealth and fame, the social-climbing, ruthless and sadistic young nurse manipulates the bull-fighter's sad situation - he is now paralysed - to her own advantage.

Now that her mother is dead, Carmencita is reared by her maternal grandmother, Doña Concha. La Doña is played by Ángela Molina, the sultry young seductress in Luis Buñuel's 1977 classic, That Obscure Object of Desire.

Carmencita will face much hardship and suffering before she too becomes, almost accidentally, something of a legend in the bull-ring, like her father.

A lush, sympathetic score, with elements of Flamenco song and guitar help to make Blancanieves a refreshing and visually seductive masterpiece. Apart from the film's delightful sense of airy transport, there is also Carmencita's loneliness and struggle against impossible odds that reminded this viewer of Federico Fellini's brilliant La Strada, which also concerned a travelling show. Blancanieves is an absolute must-see.

Screening at the IFI and Light House Cinema, Dublin.

Paddy Kehoe

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