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pinocchio review
Matteo Garrone's take on the oft told tale.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Matteo Garrone

Starring: Roberto Benigni, Federico Ielapi, Marine Vacth, Gigi Proietti, Rocco Papaleo, Massimo Ceccherini

pinocchio 2020 poster

Written as a children’s book in 1883, Tuscan author Carlo Collodi’s 'The Adventures of Pinocchio' has been duly adapted within visual media roughly twice a decade since Disney’s imperial 1940 iteration. Casting an eye over the various TV shows and films listed on Wikipedia, what is striking is that almost all of the Pinocchio adaptations, unlike say the tales collected in Andrew Lang’s 'The Blue Fairy Book' published a few years later, are pseudo-period pieces set within the rustic circumstances of an Arcadian Italy. Movie versions of the story consistently revisit the novel’s stubbornly didactic picaresque within these medieval contexts, and don’t update its beguiling weirdness and binary moralities to more contemporary situations (in the way that, for instance, Hansel and Gretel or Sleeping Beauty have been appropriated for different audiences; an exception however, and a favourite, is the saucy graphic novel by Winshluss).

pinocchio 2020 review

Matteo Garrone’s live action adaptation comes to the UK following critical approval and domestic accolades, but, notably, no real box office success (not a coronavirus thing, either: Pinocchio came out in Italy last year, and just about matched its budget in gross according to imdb). With yet another cinematic iteration of Geppetto’s boy child coming out next year directed by Guillermo del Toro (Blade 2), there’s no strings on this kid!

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You begin to wonder, how many of these little wooden bullshitters does cinema need? This year’s version accordingly opens within the sort of visual folklore-porn which admittedly gets me every time: snowy mountain ranges with wooden huts tucked between rocky folds wherein cast-iron cauldrons steam and smoke. Geppetto (portrayed by Roberto ‘your mileage may vary’ Benigni, who actually played Pinocchio in his own 2002 adaptation!) is a kindly loner, who, when given a magic log, decides to carve out a puppet boy which then comes to life.

pinocchio 2020 review

I’ve always interpreted the ensuing enchantment as being a tulpa, created by Geppetto in a moment of sublime isolation and heartache over being old and childless (it is apparently quite possible that Collodi was gay). However, we don’t get much of that psychological depth in Garrone’s version, which seems in a lunatic rush to hit the major beats, the greatest hits, of the novel. The result is a rather superficial rendering of the tale.

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If you don’t know the story of Pinocchio already then this film may work, in the sense that it will fill a strange couple of hours with disturbing visuals and high-European fantasy. Forget Host, the Pinocchio character is the most terrifying thing on screen in 2020; an uncanny, blank faced little terror who makes Annabelle and co look like kid’s stuff and is surely a design flaw in what has been marketed as a children’s film (seriously, I will see him in my nightmares). Nonetheless, the set pieces seem slightly patchwork, and, for the already familiar, the film becomes a cover version, wherein you wonder how Garrone’s impressive visuals are going to realise the blue fairy, the donkey sequence, the massive fish. The answer is *spoiler* very well, indeed; a particular highlight is the Boschian snail woman who tends to the blue fairy. The spectacle of Pinocchio is best seen on a large screen rather than shrunk to a home viewing, which may well amplify its narrative shortcomings.

pinocchio 2020 review

Like Collodi’s book, the story here occupies a strange thematic locus between adult knowing and childish wonder. Collodi wrote Pinocchio as a specifically political allegory, the ramifications of which have been worn away with ongoing adaptation (a comparison is Frankenstein, published a decade and a half earlier, with a similar plot trajectory and provincial European locations, but with themes which have remained robust and evergreen in a way that The Adventures of Pinocchio’s did not). There is not much of that parabolic resonance lingering in Garrone’s film: almost all adults are monsters, while the kids are naïve idiots. What is in evidence is a mise-en-scene which could be borrowed from horror, specifically of the body kind: the donkey transformation scene is framed like An American Werewolf in London, Pinocchio’s mendacious nose extends and he helplessly knocks the crockery from a kitchen table in a scene which is more discomfiting than amusing. At one point the kid is actually hung from a tree to die! I’m unsure whether I’d let the (young) children in my family see this adaptation, which nonetheless retains the simplistic narrative patterning, the Todorovian structures and fairy-tale archetypes of stories for kids. Perhaps one day an auteur Geppetto will put together a Pinocchio that comes to life, shedding its ties to tradition and making its own real way in a strange, new world.

Pinocchio is on UK VOD/Digital now.

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