Once upon a time there was a little girl who had never met her mother, and she grew up being hated by her evil stepmother. She learned her father’s art, a famous bullfighter, and one day she ran away to become a legend. Set in 1920s south of Spain, Blancanieves is a tribute to silent films.

Silent Snow White saga a thing of black and white beauty.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Pablo Berger’s supremely stylish black-and-white silent-era homage Blancanieves might not have the crowd-pleasing song-and-dance moments that helped bring mainstream acceptance to Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist, but it’s a work of supreme beauty and soaring emotion that should play well with discerning audiences.

The film shifts tone with exceptional and efficient grace

Blancanieves tells the story of Snow White (the film’s title translated) within the context of 1920s bullfighting in the Seville region of Spain. Berger bets on a rich visual style to smooth over the harder-to-adapt elements such as dwarves and poison apples, and heightens the experience with a particularly dense musical accompaniment (courtesy of Alfonso de Vilallonga) and succinctly-placed interstitial title-carding that makes every (un)spoken word count.

Whereas Hazanavicius embraced Hollywood convention to tell his silent story, the Spanish auteur (making his first film since his 2003 debut, Torremolinos 73) honours the great European silent era with flourishes that recalls shadowy German expressionism, French extravagance and Spanish epic-cinema; there are clear parallels to the legacies of compatriot filmmakers from the era, Ricardo Baños, Juan de Orduña and Florián Rey.

The film kicks off with a moment of tragic romanticism that sets a suitably melancholy tone: revered matador Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giminez Cacho) acknowledges his pregnant wife, Carmen (Inma Ciesta) in the crowd, as the bull takes advantage of the split-second distraction to gore him into quadriplegia. As Antonio goes into surgery, Carmen goes into early labour, and dies. Nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdu), the film’s spectacular villain, envisions a life of wealth, and woos recovering widower, Antonio. The mother-less child Carmencita (stunning child actress Sofia Oria) is kept from her morose father by the conniving Encarna and is raised by her grandmother, Doña Concha (Angela Molina).

Carmencita re-establishes a bond with her father by stealth, and he teaches her the principles of bullfighting. These are some of the film’s most beautiful moments and are captured with an enticing mix of filmmaking joie de vivre and heartfelt sentiment. Recalling Robert Aldrich’s black-hearted classic, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Encarna dominates Antonio with a bitter, vicious cruelty, ultimately chasing Carmencita – now a beautiful young woman embodied by a deeply expressive Macarena Garcia – from the home.

The comedy is heightened with the introduction of a bullfighting team of dwarves, who incorporate Carmencita into their act once her prowess becomes apparent. But Encarna, bearing the tainted fruit of legend, is not about to let the heiress to Antonio’s estate pose a threat to her ill-gotten gains.

The film shifts tone with exceptional and efficient grace, sometimes from scene-to-scene. From high-camp comedy (a transvestite dwarf matador gets a lot of laughs) to subtly-staged tragedy (the film’s final frames drew an audible gasp from the audience), Berger’s stunning, if slightly overlong, film captures just how effective silent-era storytelling can still be.