“The tale is not beautiful if nothing is added to it.”1
Matteo Garrone’s eighth film seems, at first glance, to be a significant departure for the director. Garrone made his breakthrough with 2002’s The Embalmer (L’imbalsamatore), cemented his reputation with breakthrough-hit Gomorrah (Gomorra, 2008), and won Cannes’ Grand Prix for his most recent film, 2012’s Reality. His films have generally been based on real events and populated with non-professional and amateur actors. For Gomorrah and Reality, Garrone cast, respectively, a genuine Camorra gang boss and a former hitman still serving life in prison for a triple murder. Such an approach inevitably seems at odds with a project based on a 17th century collection of fairy tales, one which also marks Garrone’s first English language work. For the first time, in what seems like an abrupt volte-face, he’s also working with established actors. In a sense, though, with Tale of Tales (Il Racconto dei Racconti, 2015), the director has remained faithful both to his own established concerns and the spirit of the text he’s adapted.
The text, Giambattista Basile’s Lo Cunto de li Cunti, overo Lo Trattenemiento de’ peccerille (1634-36), translated into English in 1848 as The Pentamerone, or The Story of Stories: Fun for the Little Ones, contains the first literary iterations of Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, Puss in Boots and Rapunzel. Published posthumously and pseudonymously, it consists of 49 fairy tales and one framing story, also fantastical. The collection, despite its subtitle and fantastical subject matter, is not aimed at children, a fact periodically foregrounded in Basile’s phraseology if not in its content (in the tale entitled The Flea, for example, people flock to meet a king’s challenge from “the asshole of the earth”).
Essentially a record of an oral tradition, one of the key virtues of Basile’s work was responsible for restricting its wider reach – it’s written in baroque Neapolitan, dense of allusion and peppered with vulgarity. In the introduction to his Italian Folktales, Italo Calvino described Lo Cunto de li Cunti as “il sogno d’un deforme Shakespeare partenopeo…in cui il sublime si mischia con il volgare e il sozzo” (“the dream of a deformed, Neapolitan Shakespeare”2 …in which “the sublime mingles with the vulgar and filthy”3). Nevertheless, Lo Cunto de li Cunti was a touchstone for Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, whose Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812) popularized the same tales Basile first captured on the page, some 40 years before the latter was first translated into German, while praising the richness of Basile’s work and its unadulterated quality.
It was this quality that drew Garrone to Tale of Tales, which he’s described as “a reckless, even masochistic, choice”4. Besides wanting “to get into trouble, as usual,” the director was attracted to the “fantastic environment, the fantasy genre, which is not so common in Italy. I wanted to explore this genre while keeping a very personal look.”5 Thus, Garrone explains, it’s not necessarily the dramatic departure it seems. Instead, Tale of Tales represents a simple reconfiguration of his established approach, “that blend between the real and fantastic which has always characterized my artistic endeavours.”6 While Gomorrah and Reality drew upon real life and transposed the reality “into a sort of magical context,” with Tale of Tales, “I did the exact opposite. I started from magical elements and I tried to give them as much as realism as possible.”7
Garrone’s film is split into three distinct but interwoven sections – The Queen, The Flea and The Two Old Ladies – which correspond with Basile’s La Cerva Fatata (The Enchanted Doe), La Pulce (The Flea), La Vecchia Scorticata (The Old Woman Who Was Skinned). Garrone and his writing collaborators (Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti and Massimo Gaudioso) threaded in elements from elsewhere in Basile’s collection, but otherwise discarded 47 tales, including all the most familiar – not to mention exhaustively retold – fairy tales. Their guiding principle was to look for “something powerful, physical, shared and authentic, even in the stories in which the imagination was the most fired-up.”8
In an introduction to her 2007 translation of Lo Cunto de li Cunti, Nancy Canepa describes how Basile’s “pervasive punning and wordplay” and “urbane manipulation of Baroque conceit … may constitute a simulation of the need, on the part of the oral storyteller, to use every means at his disposition – and the showier the better – to keep his audience’s ears perked.”9 Garrone and his collaborators, meanwhile, intended to honour the spirit of Basile’s work, if not its specificity, “and the language in which we wanted to transpose it was above all the cinematographic language – a language which can have its own specific richness, like that which we find in Basile’s work.”10 The resulting trio of tales, not coincidentally all female-focused, startled the writers with their capacity to capture contemporary obsessions, including “a satire on today’s cosmetic surgery, four centuries ahead of his time.”11
Italo Calvino asserted that the value of a tale “consists in what is woven and rewoven into it”, and thought of himself “as a link in the anonymous chain without end by which folktales are handed down, links that are never merely instruments or passive transmitters, but…it’s real ‘authors.'”12 And anyway, as Garrone himself insists, “you can never be faithful to a tale: each time you tell it to a child so they go off to sleep, something changes.”13
Sean Welsh, June 2016
This article was originally commissioned as a programme note by GFT.
1. Old Tuscan proverb, quoted, with a nod to Gherardo Nerucci, by Italo Calvino in his introduction to Italian Folktales (London, England: Penguin Books, 2000) pxxi
2. Sometimes translated, more benignly, as “odd, Mediterranean Shakespeare”.
3. Italo Calvino, introduction to Italian Folktales (London, England: Penguin Books, 2000) pxv
4. Matteo Garrone, as quoted in ‘Cannes: How Game of Thrones Influenced Tale of Tales’
5. Matteo Garrone, ‘Cannes 2015: Five Questions for Tale of Tales Director Matteo Garrone’ by Ariston Anderson
6. Matteo Garrone, Tale of Tales Director’s Notes
7. Matteo Garrone, ‘Cannes 2015: Five Questions for Tale of Tales Director Matteo Garrone’ by Ariston Anderson
8. Matteo Garrone, Tale of Tales Director’s Notes, ibid.
9. Nancy Canepa, introduction to The Tale of Tales (New York, New York: Penguin Books, 2007) pplviii-lix
12. Italo Calvino, introduction to Italian Folktales (London, England: Penguin Books, 2000) pxxi
13. Matteo Garrone, Tale of Tales Director’s Notes, ibid.