Berger's black-and-white silent film is a charming delight, a new version of the Snow White story set in 1920s Seville against a backdrop of bullfighting.
Antonio (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) is Seville's most celebrated bullfighter, and as he nears the end of a daring attempt to take on six bulls in sequence, there is a horrible accident, and he is badly injured. The shock sends his young wife into labor, which she does not survive. With baby Carmen serving as too vivid a reminder of his wife, Antonio sends the child to live with her grandmother (Angela Molina), while gold-digging nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdu) sinks her claws into Antonio's fortune. Grandmother eventually dies, as grandmothers do, and Carmen (played as a child by Sofia Oria) is sent to live with Encarna, who refuses to let her see her father and turns her into a household servant.
Carmen eventually grows up to be a lovely young woman (now played by Macarena Garcia), and the rest of the story plays out with all of the familiar elements -- the evil stepmother's attempt to take her life, the rescue by a troupe of dwarves (only six in this version, and they're bullfighters), the poisoned apple, the glass coffin -- showing up in unexpected ways.
Maribel Verdu as Encarna is the movie's strongest asset; she's having a ball playing the evil stepmother, and walks right up to the line of camp without ever quite crossing it. It's a gleeful performance, and Encarna is a far more vivid character than Carmen, who is occasionally a bit too blandly sweet and naive (but then, such is the nature of fairy tale heroines).
The score by Alfonso de Vilallonga is a lovely mix of orchestral music and lively flamenco, filled with guitars and hand claps. And Berger's screenplay and direction embraces the sentiment and the melodrama that are inherent to the story, but never let those elements become too drippy or gooey.