Bullring star Antonio is gored by his last opponent in the ring while his pregnant wife watches. A montage of the two in different hospitals tightens until the life/death tension ends with the mother dying, the daughter alive and the father alive but paralysed. Young Carmencita (precocious Sofia Oria) grows up with her grandmother as her father cannot bear to look on her for recalling his grief. When granny dies she and her pet rooster (yes!) are limo-ed off to the country mansion of the rich but quadraplegic Antonio. Oh, during the montage we kept seeing the beautiful but sinister face of the nurse Encarna emoting with increasing venality on hearing that the patient is rich and his wife has just died.
Encarna, now the second Mrs Antonio, seems to greet the young Carmencita happily until showing the girl her new digs, a coal cellar (she's already banished the rooster, Pepe to the coop). Carmencita goes to work and with some fine cinematic styling she chases after Pepe and finds her father. As the reunion is unstoppable the wicked Encarna (busy with a series of B&D trysts) can do nothing but watch as Antonio schools Carmencita in the art of the matador. Time passes, including a brilliant sequence of the Carmencita practicing the moves with the cape while hanging our the sheets and, in a flourish, reveals herself to the be beautiful young woman version of Carmencita. Too much. Encarna has her rubbed out by the chauffeur. Or does he? She is revived on the riverbank by a handsome young man ... who is one of a travelling troupe of bullfighting dwarves (yes, bloody really!). They call her Blancanieves, Snow White.
And it goes where you expect but the point of telling such a familiar tale is the difference you can make in the telling. There is a near gothic whimsy to this film, a great sense of motion both visual and narrative. Magnetic actors like the two young Carmencitas and some pretty breathtaking wrangling with the bloody rooster as well as a constantly striking art direction and a score that is neither anodyne nor intrusive, we have a silent film that doesn't have to plead its pedigree to work. Oh, you can see Todd Browning and Abel Gance in there, for sure, and certainly their admirers like Jodorowski and David Lynch. The thing is that you don't have to. A child would understand and enjoy this film (if not find its darker elements a tad too .... dark).
Also, apart from the frequently stunning cinematography, the wide shots of the bull ring in Seville are breathtaking. And there's even a Zeppelin! Day. Made.
Berger has retold Snow White in a way that warrants a retelling. There is nothing of the most famous Disney version. He has made a silent film that works not despite its potentially alienating format but because of them. I'm beginning to wonder after this, The Artist and half of Guy Maddin's career, if nascent filmmakers should prove themselves with a silent piece before going any further. I know this has resolved me to seek out more silent movies.