The Great Snow Whitening of 2012 is long past and happily consigned to memory, but let us stop briefly to pay homage to the third film of that calendar year to adapt the Grimm brothers' most famous fairy tale - the sweetly trivial Mirror Mirror and the wholly useless Snow White and the Huntsman preceded it - though one that didn't screen outside of its native Spain until 2013. I speak of Blancanieves, which is of course Spanish for Snow White, and I imagine that the untranslated title was solely to keep the film from being lumped together with the other two, marking it out as an arthouse film and no mere crowd-pleaser. Which is kind of odd, because of the three films, Blancanieves is far and away the most readily likable and straightforward. Indeed, one might accuse it of being straightforward to a fault: one keeps expecting it to be in any way, shape or form subversive or revisionist, but it never does anything remotely like this, nor suggest that it ever might. Gimmickry aside, it's a completely sincere and faithful adaptation of the story that plays out exactly as it would if you set a Germanic folk tale in 1920s Spain and filmed it in Academy-ratio black-and-white as a silent film.

So when I say "gimmickry aside", I'm not being at all fair, but that's kind of the fascinating thing about Blancanieves, that the silence, the setting, and frame size are all not used to abstract the story or render it ironic in any way. Writer-director Pablo Berger has made a story about a young woman and her heinous, envious stepmother that works on exactly the level it has worked for hundreds of years, without any modern attitudes getting in the way of the most primal emotions whipped up by the story. This is disappointing and even irritating, in a way, since it seems like the stylistic package - being a silent film especially - is overt and unusual enough that the film really ought to do something at all to justify it. And this does not happen. Blancanieves, across every element of design, production, and post-production, is an unbelievably skillful pastiche of silent film grammar, far better than The Artist or The Call of Cthulhu, to name the two most obvious examples of the same trick being played in the last decade; but it is even more "only a pastiche" than either of them.

I am, admittedly, the closest thing this movie has to an ideal target audience member, so being nothing but a pastiche is actually fine for me. It is perhaps less likely to be as fine for other people, though as a silent film, Blancanieves has the benefit of being an especially good one, synthesising a lot of techniques as they existed around 1927 throughout the world, and combining them in a way that was only ever really seen in the American films made by German immigrants at the end of the '20s: intense, Soviet-style editing skips down the lane hand-in-hand with special effects shots out of German Expressionism, with a reliance of close-ups seen mostly in Hollywood melodrama. That Berger did his research is beyond dispute: the cinematography is too clean and the acting a little bit too modern to really believe that this is a found object from the '20s (something the film never claims for itself, anyway), but those are pretty much the only tells.

In the meantime, it's sassy, urbane update of the Snow White story is rather delightful regardless of visual technique. In Seville, we meet a greatly beloved torero, Antonio Villalta (Daniel Giménez Cacho), and his happily pregnant wife (Inma Cuesta); he suffers a bull-related accident on the same day that she dies in childbirth - in which, indeed, she is possibly helped along that path by the nurse Encarna (Maribel Verdú), who has taken a liking to Antonio as he clings to life in the hospital. In short order, Encarna has the paraplegic Antonio in her clutches and his darling daughter Carmen (Sofía Oria) as scullery maid.

Years later, a jealous Encarna, hiding the truth about her husband, orders one of her lackeys to drown the now-grown Carmen (Macarena García), but the young woman clings to life long enough to be rescued by a gang of six bullfighting dwarfs. With her memory gone, they dub her Blancanieves, and her innate talent for bullfighting raises their act - Snow White and the Seven Dwarf Bullfighters, though they're aware of only being six - to national prominence. And it is because of this that Carmen and Encarna will eventually have their rematch.

This is, all in all, a fairy tale, and content to be absolutely nothing else; I find this immensely satisfying. Too many dark, edgy, hip, ironic, or sarcastic updates of old narrative tropes have made it hard to remember that these stories have outlived entire countries and cultures because they are so greatly appealing and true: they describe aspects of human experience that are ridiculously specific, heightened, and contrived, and all the more true and recognisable as a result. And certainly, Blancanieves is completely and unstintingly engaging on that front, particularly with such a great, unmodulated wicked queen in Verdú, who has, I am now convinced, one of the best faces in modern cinema (and she gets an absolutely perfect, imaginatively staged death scene of exactly the sort you want to end all your childhood bedtime stories), and an effectively wide-open protagonist in García, whose strain of blankness as an actress is better-suited to this role in this film than any kind of rigorously thought-through capital-A Acting would be.

Plus, it's gorgeous and sumptuous, with costume designs by Paco Delgado and production design by Alain Bainée that create a hugely stagey vision of 1920s Seville that is better than real, because it smacks of imagination and fantasy. Perhaps that's the justification for being a silent film, at that; it makes the film feel more timeless and artificial, and those things invoke more of a sense of possibility than naturalism does. The whole thing is about the creation of an otherworldly world in striking broad strokes, and this is achieved beautifully. If, in the end, it's "only" a fairy tale with some off-kilter trappings to freshen it up, it would do well to recall that fairy tales have been around longer than cinema itself, and should not be disposed of lightly.