For­get the fa­mous an­i­ma­tion; Mat­teo Gar­rone’s live-ac­tion Pinoc­chio re­turns to the source, writes Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - The Ital­ian Film Fes­ti­val opens in Syd­ney on Septem­ber 29 and also screens in Perth, Can­berra and Bris­bane.

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

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