Director – Matteo Garrone – 2019 – Italy – Cert. PG – 125m
In cinemas from Friday, August 14th, on BFI Player rental from Monday, December 14th
Impoverished woodcarver Geppetto (Roberto Benigni) decides to make the greatest puppet the world has ever seen, tour the world with it and make his fortune. A wood merchant lets him have a log because it seems to have a life of its own. Unaware of its animate properties, Geppetto begins carving his puppet, a life-sized representation of the son he’s never had.
After he starts talking to it as its “Babba”, he is surprised when the puppet (nine year old Frederico Ielapi) talks back. Geppetto names him Pinocchio. No sooner has he carved the feet than Pinocchio runs out of Geppetto’s workshop to discover the world. In many ways, that defines the character and the story to come. The innocent Pinocchio is forever in pursuit of his own gratification, prey to the perils of the world around him and initially devoid of any sense of morality, something he struggles to learn throughout the course of the story in his quest to become a real boy.
There have been numerous versions of Pinocchio in film, television and theatre since it first appeared as a written serial in an Italian newspaper in 1881. The best known is Disney’s landmark, animated Pinocchio (1940) which that Studio plans to remake as a live action movie.
Italian film maker Matteo Garrone would appear to have the story in his blood and although he’s made gangster films like Gomorrah (2008), his Pinocchio is closer to his Tale Of Tales (2015). Unlike that film it’s a story for children. With its underlying ideas about morality and good and evil, it’s not just a family film but also a film that doesn’t insult the intelligence of adults.
While it occasionally deviates from its source material, the script for the new film uses much of the material from the original story. At one point, for instance, the puppet visits the courthouse to complain that he has been tricked out of some money only to be threatened with prison by the monkey judge “because you’re innocent”. If the film is child-friendly, it contains complex ideas.
Benigni makes a great Geppetto, constantly fussing over his little boy but he’s only in the opening and closing twenty minutes so it’s down to child star Ielapi to carry the proceedings in the bulk of the film, which he does admirably.
Many of the other characters – the fox and the cat who want to con the puppet out of his money, a cricket who lives in Geppetto’s house, a kindly snail woman – are rendered by actors in make up. I was reminded of the recent Blu-ray release The Mad Fox (Tomu Uchida, 1962) which does something similar with human actors playing foxes. There’s no attempt to make them look unlike human actors, yet we suspend our disbelief and it works. Such, when it’s done right, is the magic of cinema.
Other creatures, such as a giant shark, a tuna fish it has swallowed and (children who turn into) donkeys eschew this approach in favour of something at once more realistic and fantastical, although the tuna has a pretty obvious human head and engages both Pinocchio and Geppetto in conversation. There’s also a fairy with blue hair.
The overall palette is earthy, brown or green land- and townscapes, with Pinocchio’s muted red coat and hat blending in rather than standing out. Really bright colours are few and far between, but it works bringing to life a late 19th century Italian world. The film is beautifully edited and the pacing never forced. Although the story remains familiar, the telling here is fresh and the film is entrancing.
Pinocchio is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, August 14th, on BFI Player rental from Monday, December 14th.