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Tale of Tales Movie Review

Title: Tale of Tales 

Director: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly, Christian Lees, Jonah Lees, Alba Rohrwacher, Massimo Ceccherini, Laura Pizzirani, Franco Pistoni, Giselda Volodi, Giuseppina Cervizzi, Jessie Cave, Toby Jones, Bebe Cave, Guillaume Delaunay, Eric Maclennan, Nicola Sloane, Vincenzo Nemolato, Giulio Beranek, Davide Campagna, Vincent Cassel, Shirley Henderson, Hayley Carmichael, Stacy Martin, Kathryn Hunter, Ryan McParland, Kenneth Collard, Renato Scarpa. 

Kings, princesses, monsters, ogres, dark fairytales drenched with curses and magic that comes with a price, populate Matteo Garrone’s new cinematic endeavour, through the screen adaptation of a seventeenth-century collections of tales by Italian poet and courtier Giambattista Basile: ‘Lo cunto de li cunti’ (Pentamerone), i.e. ‘Tale of Tales,’ or ‘Entertainment for Little Ones.’

The Baroque stories manage to mix real and surreal, with many metaphorical usages. Not to forget that the ‘Tale of Tales’ was the first book of fairytales, written in the 1600s that has inspired many others to follow, such as the  ones by the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Anderson and Charles Perrault.

Fables after all revolve around archetypes, that make them universal through cultures and through time. Hence the four screenwriters (Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Citi, Matteo Garrone, Massimo Gaudioso), approached with great humanism three female stories, where desire is what drives characters. Some of the bodily transformations in the seventeenth century tales seem to anticipate our contemporary obsession with plastic surgery. Just as modern, are the family conflicts, egotism, and coming-of-age stories, that resonate strongly in today’s world.

The three inspiring tales are La Cerva Fatata (The Enchanted Doe), La Pulce (The Flee), La Vecchia Scorticata (The flayed old lady), that have been freely adapted with elements of other tales by Basile, as well as a touch of artistic license.

In the first segment ‘The Queen,’ the king (John C. Reilly) and queen (Salma Hayek) have tried everything to have children, without success. One night a necromancer provides the risky solution: the queen must eat the heart of an aquatic dragon, cooked by a maiden. This will come at the cost of a life, but the queen manages to bare her son Elias (Christian Lees), and at the same time the former virgin will give life to a boy, Jonah (Jonah Lees), who looks identical to the young prince, whose destiny will be intertwined with his putative twin.

In the second segment ‘The Flee,’ the king (Toby Jones) captures a flee that becomes his beloved pet, fed on blood and steaks, that gradually metamorphoses into a gigantic Kafkaesque domesticated creature. When the Siphonaptera deceases the monarch decides to excoriate its skin and give his daughter (Bebe Cave) in wife to whomever will be able to guess the skin’s provenience. An ogre (Guillaume Delaunay) solves the charade and thus the princess, who wanted to discover the world, will miss her old life in her gilded cage.

In the third Segment ‘The Two Old Women,’ the lustful king (Vincent Cassel) is intrigued by a mysterious woman’s celestial singing. Adamant in seducing her he courts her outside her home, ignoring that she is just one of the two elderly laundress sisters Imma (Shirley Henderson) and Dora (Hayley Carmichael). The latter manages to spend the night with him in complete darkness, but when at the dawn of day he discovers her true appearance he has her tossed out of her castle and an incredible rejuvenating transformation will allow young Dora (Stacy Martin) to become queen, for sometime.

Matteo Garrone – known for his naturalist style in films such as ‘Gommorrah’ – explained that he chose to adapt ‘Lo cunto de li cunti’ because he was struck by the complexity of the characters, the visual richness in the tales and the peculiarity of the narratives. He also added that since his early movies focused on contemporary issues that he would morph into fantasy, the natural evolution was to shift to an utterly imaginative genre and try to breathe into it realism.

As a former painter he has managed to paint the images on the silver screen with fairyland verisimilitude. A great inspirer has been the Spanish romantic painter Francisco Goya. ‘Tale of Tales’ clearly evokes the world of the  ‘Caprichos,’ that Goya defined as “the innumerable foibles and follies to be found in any civilised society, and from the common prejudices and deceitful practices which custom, ignorance, or self-interest have made usual.”

The movie is an epic tribute to the history of fairytales with great care to the style of their portrayal. The very locations reflect the director’s intention to create an artificial truth, a realistic craftsmanship. All locations had to be real but look as if the settings had been recreated in a studio set. From Naples (Royal Palace, Palace of Capodimonte) to Apulia (Castel del Monte, Gioia del Colle, Mottola, Statte), from Tuscany (Sorano, Sovana, Sammezzano, Florence), to Sicily (Donnafugata Castle, Gole dell’Alcantara), from Abruzzi to Basilicata, hyperrealism rules.

This concept is clear-cut also in the work carried out by Leonardo Cruciano,  who handled the Art Department, Make-Up and Special Effects. The idea was to keep a visual effect that would evoke illustrations, welding flesh and painting. Digital effects were artisanal integrations of something that had to look as believable as possible, in reference to images of heraldry or depictions of seventeenth century landscapes. This is evidently shown in the way mythological creatures are represented in plausible aspects: the dragon gains the features of a dinosaur, a salamander, a marine animal, just as the flee looks like an anthropomorphic dodongo.

There are so many more intriguing stories from Basile’s book that could hint  Garrone’s intention to make a sequel or even a series. As a matter of fact he declared the screen fantasy depictions that influenced him were ‘Game of Thrones,’ Mario Bava’s movies and Monicelli’s ‘L’Armata Brancaleone’ (The Incredible Army of Brancaleone) for Vincent Cassel’s character, who evokes Vittorio Gassman’s ability of uniting comedy, drama and sensuality.

The film which is running for the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival (along with fellow Italian movies ‘Mia Madre’ by Nanni Moretti and ‘Youth’ by Academy Award for Best Foreign Film Paolo Sorrentino), marks Matteo Garrone’s English-language film debut; not to forget he won the Grand Prix at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival for his film ‘Reality.’

Technical: A

Acting: A

Story: B+

Overall: A-

Written by: Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi

Tale of Tales Movie Review

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Chiara Spagnoli Gabardi, is a film critic, culture and foreign affairs reporter, screenwriter, film-maker and visual artist. She studied in a British school in Milan, graduated in Political Sciences, got her Masters in screenwriting and film production and studied at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York and Los Angeles. Chiara’s “Material Puns” use wordplay to weld the title of the painting with the materials placed on canvas, through an ironic reinterpretation of Pop-Art, Dadaism and Ready Made. She exhibited her artwork in Milan, Rome, Venice, London, Oxford, Paris and Manhattan. Chiara works as a reporter for online, print, radio and television and also as a film festival PR/publicist. As a bi-lingual journalist (English and Italian), who is also fluent in French and Spanish, she is a member of the Foreign Press Association in New York, the Women Film Critics Circle in New York, the Italian Association of Journalists in Milan and the Federation of Film Critics of Europe and the Mediterranean. Chiara is also a Professor of Phenomenology of Contemporary Arts at IED University in Milan.

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