Roberto Benigni plays the woodcutter Geppetto, who crafts a puppet to replace the son he never had, in director Matteo Garrone’s live-action adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s beloved children’s book.
With Roberto Benigni as the woodcutter and rising child star Federico Ielapi as his walking, talking creation carved from a tree trunk, Matteo Garrone’s new Pinocchio brings genuine emotion to one of the most ambitious film adaptations to date of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 kid classic. Though nowhere near as scary as the director’s Tale of Tales, which was based on 17th century Neapolitan fairy tales at the limit of sadism, this is still an uncensored, unadulterated version of the book’s dark 19th century portrait of mistreated children. It’s one of those rare films that can attract mixed age groups, and both small children and adults were elbow-to-elbow at its Christmas opening in Italy.
The tale was made famous by Disney’s classic animated film from 1940, and Benigni himself directed a critically unpopular adaptation in 2002 in which he also starred as a bizarrely overage Pinocchio. Now in the works is Guillermo del Toro’s long-postponed stop-motion animation, which is scheduled to air on Netflix in 2021.
Garrone’s is certainly a landmark adaptation. Perhaps the film’s most striking accomplishment is how it manages to wed a realistic social setting populated by the poor, hungry rural population of 19th century Italy with the dreamy fantasy of the book. Collodi’s is an eerie tale of metamorphosis, of animals playing the role of human beings and humans morphing into animals. The very idea a wooden puppet who longs to become a real human boy is shot through with a mild frisson of horror, as well as the pathos that makes it an evergreen.
The monstrous creatures who roam the film under the extraordinary prosthetic makeup by Academy Award winner Mark Coulier may get a laugh of amazement, but they are monsters nonetheless. First among them, of course, is Pinocchio himself. Behind the puppet’s rigid wood-grained face are the shining eyes and movable mouth of 8-year-old Ielapi, who is eerily believable in his intermediate state of half-human, half-inanimate object. But in a world full of grandmotherly snails (Maria Pia Timo), gorilla judges (Teco Celio) and talking crickets (Davide Marotta), a talking wooden marionette is no big deal.
The story begins when the lonely Geppetto decides to carve a lifelike puppet. He works on a trunk of wood that has already demonstrated strangely animate properties and soon it takes the form of a human boy. Benigni plays the threadbare craftsman with unexpected emotional depth that recalls the paternal self-sacrifice he showed in his Oscar-winning role in Life Is Beautiful. When his creation comes to life, he joyfully proclaims Pinocchio to be his son, and he sells the clothes off his back to buy him a schoolbook so he can learn to read and write.
As sweet as he looks in his little red hat and short pants, Pinocchio is a mischievous, disobedient tyke who will do anything to avoid going to school. When he runs away from home, Geppetto sets off to find him, promising to search the whole world; this sets the stage for the puppet’s adventures to unfold.
In the screenplay by Garrone and Massimo Ceccherini, the episodic adventures run smoothly into each other, as Pinocchio’s rebellious free spirit reluctantly turns in the direction of school attendance and working for the sake of others. While in the film directed by Benigni there are mixed emotions about taming a child’s natural urge for freedom, Garrone’s attitude is more somber but also more realistic. As the director of Dogman and the feature version of Gomorrah well knows, social circumstances create their own restraints on childhood, which here, too, is a luxury that must soon be put away.
Kidnapped by Fire-Eater (Luigi Proietti), the ferocious boss of a puppet theater, Pinocchio is almost eaten alive. Next he meets the pair of swindlers known as the Cat (played by Ceccherini) and the Fox (Rocco Papaleo), who do their best to wheedle the trusting boy’s money away from him by convincing him to plant it in the ground and grow it into a “money tree.” This leads to the macabre scene of Pinocchio being hung from a tree to die, one of the pic’s most gruesome sequences, along with him carelessly burning off his feet in the fireplace.
Enter the Blue Fairy, a playful little girl who nurses him back to life with her slimy oversize companion, the Snail. Pinocchio’s big heart brims over. His display of affection to these maternal figures is especially touching in contrast to his lack of consideration for poor Geppetto. The next time he meets her, the Fairy is a beautiful young woman (French actress Marine Vacth) on a mission to teach him responsible behavior.
But he’s just a kid, after all, and it takes him time to learn from his mistakes. When one of his friends runs away to a land where boys can play and have fun all day, he follows him into a trap. The next morning, the children find themselves transformed into donkeys and sold into a life of slavery and hard work.
Pinocchio is infamous for his nose growing every time he tells a lie, a potentially boring device that is saved from repetition by appearing in only one scene. His sword-like proboscis is whittled back to size by woodpeckers.
At over two hours, the movie feels a little long, particularly in the early scenes when we’re getting acquainted with Geppetto and the town folks. The ending, however, is pure magic. Pinocchio has learned the value of sacrificing himself for those he loves, just as his father has done, and his reward is movingly recounted, but so quickly that sentiment wins out over sentimentality.
Mixing the golden fields of Tuscan wheat with the olive groves of southern Puglia, Nicolai Bruel’s cinematography is drenched in Italian atmosphere. The choices of sharecroppers’ communal farmhouses and poor Mediterranean villages by the sea remind the viewer of the hard times in which people lived. Other scenes are wantonly romantic: moonlit fields swept by Dario Marianelli’s lilting fantasy score.
5:41 PM PST 12/20/2019 by Deborah Young
Production companies: Archimede in association with Rai Cinema, Le Pacte, Recorded Picture Company, Leone Film Group
Cast: Roberto Benigni, Federico Ielapi, Rocco Papaleo, Massimo Ceccherini, Marine Vacth, Gigi Proietti, Alida Baldari Calabria, Alessio di Domenicantonio, Maria Pia Timo, Maurizio Lombardi, Davide Marotta
Director: Matteo Garrone
Screenwriters: Matteo Garrone, Massimo Ceccherini, based on the novel by Carlo Collodi
Producers: Matteo Garrone, Jean Labadie, Anne-Laure Labadie, Jeremy Thomas, Paolo Del Brocco
Executive producers: Alessio Lazzareschi, Peter Watson, Marie-Gabrielle Stewart
Director of photography: Nicolai Bruel
Production designer: Dimitri Capuani
Costume designer: Massimo Cantini Parrini
Music: Dario Marianelli
Editor: Marco Spoletini
Prosthetic makeup designer: Mark Coulier
Casting: Francesco Vedovati
Venue: Space Moderno Cinema, Rome
Sales: Hanway Films