MISCHIEVOUS BOY IN THE WOOD
Forget the famous animation; Matteo Garrone’s live-action Pinocchio returns to the source, writes Philippa Hawker
Matteo Garrone’s new live-action version of Pinocchio, the opening-night feature at this year’s Italian Film Festival, is a beguiling, unpredictable mixture of the down-to-earth and the fantastic, the gritty and the ethereal. It was always going to be like that, the director suggests. “It’s part of my way of making cinema,” he says. “Sometimes I start from a story that comes from a very contemporary world, and then I bring it into the dimension of a dark fairytale [for example, his Oscar-nominated Dogman]. And other times I start with a fairytale and try to bring it into realism [his episodic English-language fantasy Tale of Tales, for example].”
When it came to adapting the famous children’s story that has been reimagined countless times, Garrone went back to the source, to the book by Carlo Collodi published in 1883. Everyone thinks they know the story, he says, and the Disney animation is famous worldwide. But there are many implications in this fairytale creation narrative, a tale of a solitary woodcarver, Geppetto, who creates a son out of a block of wood.
Garrone remembers the story from his earliest years. At the age of six he even drew a storyboard for it; he still has the drawing hanging over his desk. Every film he has made has had some element of this narrative of transformation, longing, connection and wonder.
When he was young, it was the wayward, heedless energy of Pinocchio with which he identified. “Now I am very close also to Geppetto because I have an 11-year-old son who is like Pinocchio,” he says.
Garrone’s Pinocchio, starring Robert Benigni as Geppetto, is as faithful as he could make it, he says. Many of the elements that are taken to be his own invention actually come from the book.
The setting is Tuscany, where Collodi came from. The realism of the original, Garrone says, lies in its depiction of poverty, of the straitened circumstances in which the woodcarver Geppetto lives. There is a dark side to the story, he acknowledges. “It teaches kids about the violence of the world around them and how important it is not to make wrong decisions,” Garrone says. But there’s also a sense of play.
Collodi’s story describes childhood in unsentimental, conflicted terms. Pinocchio has some attitudes that every child shares, Garrone says: “He wants fun and freedom, he can give way easily to temptation.” He’s also good-hearted and trusting, and the feelings for his father are strong and genuine.
The quest to become human isn’t a major part of this new narrative: Pinocchio is focused more on survival and on reconnection with his father, whom he loses when he runs away from home. He is in search of adventures and drawn to the performers in a travelling marionette show that has arrived in the village.
The look of the film comes from a combination of painstaking research and imaginative reach. Garrone researched images during the course of two years, investigating locations, photographs, paintings and illustrations from the time. And, he adds, “I made the movie with the feeling that I was talking about something of today.”
The non-human inhabitants of Pinocchio’s world have a tactile, material appearance. Characters such as the sinister Cat (Rocco Papaleo) and Fox (Massimo Ceccherini), who want to do away with Pinocchio, are recognisably human with animal traits: figures such as the large kindly snail (Maria Pia Timo) or the melancholy tuna (Maurizio Lombardi) who turns out to be a lifesaver have much more fantastical appearances yet clearly are played by actors.
“I tried to cast actors who can be funny and scary,” Garrone says. As it turned out, he adds, Ceccherini not only played Fox, he was also “very, very important; he helped me to write the script, to work on the comic aspect”, and ended up with a co-writing credit.
It took a while to persuade Benigni to take the role of Geppetto. Garrone had met him many years earlier. His father, Vito Garrone, was a theatre critic and one of the first to write at length about the work of the actor, director and comedian. They caught up in Cannes in 2018, when Matteo Garrone was there in competition with Dogman and Benigni presented the film’s star, Marcello Fonte, with the best actor award.
As a child, Benigni had loved Collodi’s story, and he had written, directed and starred as the title character in his own version of Pinocchio in 2002. It was the next film he directed after his Oscar-winning Life is Beautiful, but it was not well received.
Garrone had no doubts, he says, that Benigni was the perfect candidate to play the father figure in his film. “He grew up in a poor farming family in Tuscany, there were six in a room,” Garrone says, “His grandfather could have been Geppetto.” Benigni eventually agreed and even consented to wearing a beard, something he resisted for a while. “He said to me, a comic never wears a beard,” Garrone says.
The director had considered casting a young girl as Pinocchio and thought at first of Alida Baldari Calabria, who had a role in Dogman. He changed his mind, but she ended up playing a younger incarnation of Pinocchio’s guardian angel, the Fairy with the Turquoise Hair. To play Pinocchio, he settled on eight-year-old Federico Ielapi who gives a vivid, poignant performance, with the aid of make-up work from special effects expert Mark Coulier. As a child, Garrone says, Ielapi is “the opposite of Pinocchio, he’s very patient … very disciplined. It was tough he had to spend four hours every day in make-up before he went on set.”
Scenes from Pinocchio, above and left; below, the Pinocchio storyboard director Matteo Garrone made when he was six years old