Set in 1920s Seville, the film follows Carmencita, the daughter of a bullfighter and a flamenco-performing mother who dies during childbirth. After a catastrophe in the bullring, Carmen’s father marries his nurse, the gaunt Encarna (Maribel Verdu), who transforms into a nightmare stepmother and a witch of a wife, not to mention a bit of an S&M enthusiast.
A lot happens in less than two hours. Despite the familiarity of the fairy tale framework, there are so many inspired plot detours that it would be a shame to divulge too much. It’s probably safest to reveal how closely the story follows the Brothers Grimm source material. Yes, the evil Encarna makes Carmencita miserable when she’s a little girl (played by Sofia Oria) and attempts to have her killed as she approaches adulthood (Macarena Garcia). There is a poisoned apple and a roving band of little people who come to the heroine’s aid, but there also is bullfighting and flamenco dancing and a trusty sidekick, Pepe the rooster.
The story is rich and constantly evolving yet somehow manages to avoid feeling overly busy. Wordless performances can be risky, and not just because a modern-day silent film will inevitably draw comparisons to “The Artist.” (Rest assured, this movie feels like an entirely different entity, both darker and more dynamic than the 2011 Oscar winner.)
Conveying emotion with just facial expressions and body language would lead some actors toward caricature to get the point across, but that’s rarely the case here. Even Encarna, a true fairy tale villain built of pure evil, doesn’t feel wholly one-dimensional. It certainly helps that Verdu is a captivating performer who flits between portraying a laughable vamp and a terrifying one.
The cinematography and soundtrack compensate for the dearth of words. Each shot is artfully arranged, between sweeping landscapes and aerial views of a bullring. The chaos of a chase is transmitted with quick cuts, and wistful emotion by close-ups of tearful, smiling eyes. The music, which is heavy on castanet clicking and often carries the staticky sound of an old record, perfectly complements the stunning scenery and the nostalgic air.
It seems incongruous somehow that the best way to revive an old fairy tale would be to look back rather than forward. Maybe it’s a sign that bells and whistles only accomplish so much. Good storytelling is what really matters.
PG-13. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains violence and sexual situations. 104 minutes.