I love it when you can say that watching a movie you’ve been dying to see for a long time can also be called research.
Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales (loosely adapted from Giambattista Basile’s 17th century collection Il Pentamerone) taps into the weird and wonderful legacy of the fairy tale tradition, reaching back to the earliest literary sources from the days before they were, as Tolkien put it, consigned to the nursery. Though all the recognizable fairy tale tropes (princesses, witches, monsters, spells, transformations, eucatastrophe, etc.) are there, Basile’s original tales and Garrone’s adaptation captures a freedom of spirit which can be difficult to grasp in the post-Disney age. I was struck by an interview with Bebe Cave, who plays the princess Violet, who stated in the behind-the-scenes featurette that one wouldn’t expect a fairy tale to be about someone who travels from safety and warmth through unspeakable horror to emerge victorious on the other side and return home, changed and broken, but stronger. I don’t mean to knock Cave, who I thought gave THE standout performance of the whole thing, but what a silly statement, for what is a fairy tale if not exactly that? Her comment just goes to show how much we still have to learn about this deceptively complex genre.
[SPOILER WARNING FOR THIS SECTION] The tales that were chosen (three, interwoven throughout the film) and the way they were adapted all converge satisfyingly around the struggles of women, both in the medieval and pre-modern world and now, both within stories and outside in the real world. The Queen desires a child, to the detriment of her ability to love and live outside of that purpose. The romantic Violet longs for marriage, but not to the monster her father ends up (inadvertently) choosing. The withered old sisters Dora and Imma sacrifice their relationship to each other for youth, beauty, and the admiration of a horny king. These women all struggle within and against the confines of a world which tells them what they should be: Maternal. Obedient. Desirable. All go to terrible lengths, and pay terrible prices, to achieve these dreams (or nightmares). The Queen and the two crones end up dead, alone, or disfigured, slaves to their lusts and jealousies. In the end, only Violet (whose story most closely adheres to the traditional “there and back again” fairy tale structure) achieves something like a happy ending, defeating her monsters (plural) and being crowned for the Queen she is, her inner state reflecting the outer.
As for the production itself, it couldn’t look more beautiful. Garrone channels Spielberg, Peter Jackson, and others before they abandoned practical effects in favor of computer graphics, and the movie is all the better for it. The withered old crones, gecko-like sea monster, and impossible giant flea have a weight and tangibility that can’t be faked. Green screens only come in to create the enormous vistas, which evoke the gorgeous matte paintings of Jackson’s LOTR films. There’s even a nod to The Princess Bride when an ogre carries Violet up what I can only assume are the Cliffs of Insanity, and though the effects here (30 years later) are obviously more convincing, they retain the charm of that earlier storybook classic.
An Italian film that received moderate praise, played at a couple of film festivals and only one screen local to me, this won’t be the easiest film to find, but I urge everyone to grab the chance to watch it if it crosses your path.