Director: Matteo Garrone
Writers: Matteo Garrone, Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti, Massimo Gaudioso
Cast: Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly, Shirley Henderson, Toby Jones, Vincent Cassel.
I don’t use the word masterpiece very often. But when it’s warranted, it’s warranted. This movie is a masterpiece. All the more surprising for a movie that should never have been made. Why do I say this? Because the source material makes it the unlikeliest of movies to find funding, add the choice to film it in English and I was apprehensive and confused because the reasoning made no sense.
Tale of Tales is based on Giambattista Basile’s 1630’s collection of fairy tales Pentamerone (also known as Cunto de li cunti). Never heard of him? I would be extremely surprised if you had. In spite of the fact that this collection of fifty stories contains some of the earliest versions of some well known fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm get all the glory and the attention, leaving Basile in the dust, so to speak. And yes, I did say that there are fifty stories in the book. How do you adapt such an intimidating work? Leave it to an Italian to perform such a feat, it’s not the first time directors from the peninsula have tackled works of fiction that would seem to staggering to attempt. In the 70’s Pier Paolo Pasolini made three movies based on books containing multiple stories (Boccaccio’s Decameron, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights). In 1984 the Taviani brothers made the film Kaos based on several Pirandello short stories, and just this year they also took a hint from Pasolini and made their own version of the Decameron. Is it a surprise that another Italian would try to work on a similar work, then?
Matteo Garrone, in his English language debut, starts off by making a brilliant and inspired decision and only focus on three stories from the source material: The Enchanted Doe, The Flea, and The Flayed Old Lady. He also finds a very organic way to intertwine the three stories and instead of telling one at a time, he instead weaves the narrative throughout. The first of the stories centers around a sad queen (Salma Hayek) incapable of conceiving a child, which is all that she desires from the world. Her husband (John C. Reilly), on the advice of an intimidating and disquieting stranger, must kill a sea dragon so that his wife can eat its heart, but only after it has been cooked and prepared by a virgin. Both women become magically and immediately pregnant and their identical sons have a bond that seems incapable of being broken, in spite of the queen’s objections to the friendship. The second story has a king (Toby Jones, who is excellent here) who enjoys the company of a flea and nurtures it until it grows to amazing dimensions. Once dead he uses its hind as a competition: whoever can identify the mysterious skin may have his daughter’s hand in marriage. Obviously the winner is an ogre, much to the dismay of the young girl. The last story has a philandering king (Vincent Cassel) who hears and falls for a beautiful singing voice but doesn’t see that it belongs to an old hideous woman who has an equally unattractive sister she lives with. The women devise a scheme to trick the king into bed, but when one of the sisters is found out she is thrown out of the castle’s window. Thankfully the fall doesn’t result in death, and thanks to some magic provided by a mysterious woman the sister is rendered young and beautiful and captures the eye of the king who doesn’t recognize her as the hideous creature he had banished from his room moments earlier.
The stories evolve in the way that fairy tales do, each one culminating in surprising and delightfully twisted and gruesome endings, reflective of the baroque period in which they were written. The attention to detail by Garrone and his team is impressive. The costumes are gorgeous, the colors throughout the film are saturated to nearly animated levels, the set designs and locations are breathtaking. Someone watching the movie who doesn’t know any better might think that the setting choices are generated by computers, but in fact they are all real locations that can be found around Italy: nearly impossible looking bridges, beautiful and desolate castles, towns that look and feel trapped in a past that should have been lost centuries ago – all captured by some of the most artistic cinematography I have ever seen. The music by Alexandre Desplat (just coming off of his first Oscar win) is haunting and majestic. The movie is pure brilliance and throws the viewer into a magic realm in which dragons and ogres are as real as the humans interacting with them. As I said, this movie is a masterpiece and although on paper it never probably should have been made, I am so glad that it was.