Photo: ‘Pinocchio’/01 Distribution
‘Pinocchio’: A Fairytale Classic
‘Pinocchio’, an 1883 children’s novel written by Italian author Carlo Collodi, is a touchstone of world literature. Its influence can be seen in films from ‘A.I.: Artificial Intelligence’ to ‘Shrek’. Even Rian Johnson’s recent whodunnit ‘Knives Out’ references the classic tale, in the form of a heroine who vomits whenever she tells a lie. ‘Pinocchio’ has become quite a hot commodity in recent years. The Walt Disney Company, whose definitive 1940 adaptation is perhaps the only version with which American audiences are intimately familiar, has a live-action update in the works, with Tom Hanks playing Geppetto and uncanny valley-enthusiast Robert Zemeckis directing. Meanwhile, a Jim Henson Company production directed by Guillermo del Toro, planned since 2008, has been announced by Netflix for a 2021 release. Appropriately for a story considered to be a hallmark of Italian literature, an Italian production has beaten both of these American adaptations to the box office.
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This ‘Pinocchio’, directed by Matteo Garrone, bears only the most superficial resemblance to the Disney classic. In keeping with the company’s brand, the Disney version shaved away the knots and blemishes in Collodi’s idiosyncratic folktale, rendering it an exquisitely crafted yet sanitized confection. For better and for worse, Garrone’s ‘Pinocchio’ is decidedly unsanitized. Garrone, whose 2008 gangster film ‘Gomorrah’ is one of the best Italian films of the 21st century, brings a didactic moral sensibility to this recounting of the wooden puppet’s crimes and misdemeanors. Garrone previously primed himself for the fairytale-adaptation big leagues with 2015’s fantastic ‘Tale of Tales’, a loose collection of macabre fables told with a distinctly adult sensibility. His ‘Pinocchio’ is ostensibly meant to pass as family fare, but it seems unlikely to appeal to most children–it’s far too anarchic and ghoulish.
A Darker Take on the Tale
Instead, this ‘Pinocchio’ is best suited for adult fans of the Gothic aesthetic of Tim Burton, or for devotees of the ‘dream logic’ of David Lynch. Those familiar with the source material, or even the Disney adaptation, can likely guess at some of the scenes that Garrone amplifies for maximum creepiness. Pinocchio’s transformation into a donkey and his experience inside the belly of a giant dogfish are quite gut-wrenching. Pinocchio’s talking cricket ally (Davide Marotta), here rendered as a Collodi-accurate century-old curmudgeon who lives in Geppetto’s wall, is reminiscent of The Man From Another Place from David Lynch’s ‘Twin Peaks’. The Fox (Massimo Ceccherini), who along with his Cat companion (Rocco Papaleo) befriends and betrays Pinocchio, is a vulgar yet seductive monster in the style of Willem Dafoe’s ‘Wild at Heart’ villain Bobby Peru.
The Disney incarnation of Pinocchio, released not long before America began sending troops to fight in World War II, has its protagonist achieve his transcendence to ‘real boy’ status through an act of heroic self-sacrifice. It’s a solid piece of not-too-subtle wartime propaganda on Disney’s part that also happens to provide the film with a terrifically cinematic climax in the escape from the mouth of Monstro the whale. This version has the maternal Blue Fairy forgiving Pinocchio’s willfulness and truancy on the spot–essentially, the American Pinocchio discovers a get-rich-quick version of redemption. Garrone’s film is much more old-fashioned in its morality. Geppetto (Roberto Benigni), the Blue Fairy (Marine Vacth), the talking cricket, and other voices of conscience remind Pinocchio that his path to atonement will come only through steadfast obedience, good grades, and hard work.
Atmosphere and Prosthetics
This shift in focus renders Garrone’s film more atmospheric than thrilling, hewing closely to the original story’s serialized structure. Pinocchio is given instructions, he gets in trouble, and he gets rescued. Wash, rinse, and repeat. In its exploration of the bygone norms of Italian society, ‘Pinocchio’ is a bit of anthropological curiosity. As a student, Pinocchio must promptly and correctly answer questions in order to avoid having his knuckles rapped and being forced to kneel on dry chickpeas scattered on the schoolroom floor (not that this has any actual impact on the wooden puppet, who is incapable of feeling pain). Poverty is an omnipresent threat to nearly all characters in the film–Geppetto literally sells the shirt off his back in order to procure a schoolbook for Pinocchio, and Pinocchio is hung from a tree and nearly murdered over four coins he has swallowed for safekeeping. Yes, the film does get that dark.
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The film is admittedly very interesting to look at. The crumbling towns and cities of central Italy are beautifully lensed by cinematographer Nicolai Brüel, Dimitri Capuani provides wondrous sets, and ‘Harry Potter’ veteran Mark Coulier contributes impressively unnerving prosthetics and makeup. The film’s reliance on prosthetics rather than digital effects is commendable–the giant snail (Maria Pia Timo) who occasionally nannies Pinocchio is rendered in particularly slimy glory. Unfortunately, this approach reveals some obvious limitations. Several animal characters, such as Judge Gorilla (Teco Celio) who sentences Pinocchio to hard time for the crime of being innocent, are required to act in sweaty pantomime due to the restrictions of their prosthetics. A comedic scene in which four black rabbit pallbearers slip in the giant snail’s slime is robbed of some of its punch due to the characters’ forcibly subdued expressions. The Fox and the Cat, perhaps due to their more significant presence in the narrative and also a disgusting scene in which they gorge themselves on meat on Pinocchio’s dime, are given less animalistic features, instead being presented as men with whiskers. While this allows the actors more range, it also disrupts the film’s visual consistency.
Benigni Steals the Show
Even Pinocchio himself is impacted by the encumbrances of prosthetics. Child actor Federico Ielapi is plastered with a convincingly wooden face, but this often makes the character seem emotionless and remote. When coupled with Pinocchio’s frequent disregard for others, this makes him seem a bit like a pint-sized sociopath. It’s fascinating and at times quite funny, but it does make it difficult to root for the little creep. The lion’s share of the viewer’s sympathy is more likely to rest with Geppetto, played by renowned Pinocchio superfan Roberto Benigni. Not only does Benigni’s bravura performance here redeem him of the misstep that was his own adaptation of ‘Pinocchio’, it also carries the film.
Benigni’s desire to care for Pinocchio despite his transgressions gives this shaggy film its beating heart–few actors are better at paternal wholesomeness. When Geppetto disappears early in the film, the puppet’s desperation to see him return is the one thing that makes it possible to relate to the mischievous miscreant. Plus, Geppetto delivers my favorite line in the film, transcribed here without context: “What a nice person that tuna was, eh? Had I known he was also in the shark, we could have had a nice chat together.”
‘Pinocchio’ is currently playing at select theaters.
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