Darker, more demented but true to the book

Michael O’Sullivan

THE WASHINGTON POST – What is it about Pinocchio?

Italian writer Carlo Collodi’s 1883 children’s book – a fable about a wooden puppet who yearns to become a human boy but who must first prove himself worthy through selflessness – has been called a metaphor for the human condition.

The story has proved resonant enough to receive numerous film adaptations, including Disney’s animated 1940 classic and a live-action 2002 version directed and starring the then-50-year old Oscar-winner Roberto Benigni in the title role.

Netflix has also announced a reportedly darker stop-motion version to be co-directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson (The Fantastic Mr Fox).

So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that there’s another one.

What may come as a bit of a shock is that the film is directed by Matteo Garrone, the Italian filmmaker behind the excellent and violent 2008 crime drama Gomorrah – and that the new film again features Benigni.

Roberto Benigni (L) and Federico Ielapi in ‘Pinocchio’. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

No, not as Pinocchio this time, but as the woodworker Geppetto, who becomes the adoptive father of the puppet when it springs to a semblance of life after he carves its features out of a tree trunk. (The title character is played by Federico Ielapi in this English-dubbed, live-action version of the Italian original, which features ingenious – and sometimes creepy – makeup and prosthetics instead of CGI.)

If the new Pinocchio resembles anything – and it certainly is its own thing – it will be reminiscent of Garrone’s Tale of Tales, an adaptation of Giambattista Basile’s 17th-Century anthology of fairy tales, for anyone who saw that unsettling 2015 work.

One image from the new film that is burned indelibly in my head: a scene in which Pinocchio, recovering from being hung from a tree by the treacherous Cat and Fox (Rocco Papaleo and Massimo Ceccherini), is nursed back to health by the Blue Fairy (Alida Baldari Calabria), who introduces herself by telling us that she’s dead.

Meanwhile, a group of rabbit undertakers – actors in bunny masks that look like rejects from a Donnie Darko production-design meeting – show up with a child-size casket for the protagonist. Puttering around in the background is a snail-woman (Maria Pima Tino), complete with shell, sticky tail and – er, eye stalks, I presume, sprouting from her forehead.

It’s all so upsetting.

But also, kind of cool, in a nightmarish way. One wonders what a very young audience will make of this uncanny valley of talking creatures rendered by actors – owl, raven, tuna fish – some of whom (like the familiar cricket, at whose head Pinocchio hurls a mallet) are portrayed by little people in costume and outlandish makeup.

There is also a theme of the mistreatment of children that is likely to alarm sensitive viewers.

Garrone’s film, co-written by Ceccherini, follows Collodi’s book more closely than Disney’s, although it takes a few minor liberties in its path toward delivering the worthy moral: Kids, listen to your parents, go to school and think of others before yourself. Fairy tales have always held the threat of darkness as punishment for misbehaviour, and this Pinocchio is no exception.