Pinocchio (2020)

Matteo Garrone’s surreal live-action fantasy takes the Italian classic Pinocchio disturbingly back to its original dark roots.

About a Boy

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

If you’ve seen Matteo Garrone’s previous film Tale of Tales, with its disturbingly lurid retelling of traditional Neapolitan fairy tales, you’ll have some idea what to expect from his Pinocchio. In 1940 Disney’s cartoon musical of a cute puppet and chirpy, wise-cracking Jiminy Cricket bowdlerised Pinocchio. However, Garrone’s live-action fantasy takes the Italian classic back to its original dark roots in an 1883 children’s tale, a political satire by Carlo Collodi.

It stars Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful) as the lonely, poor woodcarver Gepetto, who creates a little boy puppet who miraculously comes to life. Child actor Federico Ielapi (in wonderful prosthetic makeup that makes him look made of wood) is the puppet who wants to become a real boy. In his innocence, Pinocchio is taken advantage of and his goodwill is exploited: he learns the hard way to grow up and tell right from wrong.

Set in poverty-stricken rural Italian society in the 19th century, Pinocchio is a long, episodic film. Pinocchio skips school and joins a travelling puppet show. He’s conned out of his money by two tricksters, Wolf (co-writer Massimo Ceccherini) and Cat (Rocco Papaleo). He’s hanged by assassins and rescued by the Fairy, who grows from child (Alida Baldari Calabria) to adult (Marine Vacth), and lives with a kindly giant snail (Maria Pia Timo). He goes to the land of toys and is turned into a donkey. He ends up inside the belly of a giant shark, where he’s helped by a friendly tuna fish and learns to make amends to Gepetto for his mischievous behaviour.

There’s a talking cricket he ignores, who warns him not to make the mistakes he does. Surreally, animals appear as people and humans are animals or birds. Justice is represented by a monkey judge who punishes the innocent and rewards the guilty. It’s important to go to school, even if it means rote learning and beatings.

Pinocchio is a strange, violent, unsettling film for adults and, historically, a cautionary tale for children that’s unsuitable for them. The film is beautifully imagined, atmospherically shot in what looks like natural lighting, with unobtrusive special effects: the well-known growing-nose incident is strikingly handled here. It’s genuinely fascinating.

Something in Collodi’s morality story, embedded in the Italian psyche, taps into contemporary zeitgeist (even in recent British political cartoons of the prime minister), as perhaps did the Australian reimagining of the seaside booth puppet show Judy and Punch.

There have been many versions of Pinocchio over the years. Benigni himself made one in 2002 (playing Pinocchio). Next year, both Guillermo del Toro and Disney are due to bring out new versions. Del Toro’s is reportedly going to be even darker than Garrone’s: Disney’s, directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future), has signed Tom Hanks to play Gepetto.

Pinocchio is released on 14 August 2020 in the UK.

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