Film Review | Tale of Tales

Matteo Garrone's cherry-picked adaptation of a Neapolitan fairy tale anthology is a rich and beautiful fantasia that is bound to reward repeat viewings

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Teodor Reljic
27 June 2016, 8:00am
Babe in the woods: Stacy Martin lucks out after a spot of misfortune in this topsy-turvy fairy tale adaptation
Babe in the woods: Stacy Martin lucks out after a spot of misfortune in this topsy-turvy fairy tale adaptation
 

One of the highlights of last year’s edition of the Cannes Film Festivals has finally made it to our shores, and although its divisive critical reception could be somewhat justified, it remains a rich and beautiful fantasia that is bound to reward repeat viewings.

Matteo Garrone, who became one of the most celebrated contemporary Italian film directors after the release of the groundbreaking Gomorrah – adapted in turn from the mafia-expose novel by Roberto Saviano – returns with something that’s apparently, completely different.

Abandoning the gritty documentary style of his blistering debut, he turns his lens to the Baroque Neapolitan folk tales of Giambattista Basile – whose work was acknowledged as an influence even by the Brothers Grimm – and cherry-picks three of their number, combining them in a way that the end result ends up looking more like an anthology film than a conventional feature.

Picking three stories from Basile’s Pentamerone – ‘The Flea’, ‘The Flayed Woman’ and ‘The Queen’ (the latter starring Salma Hayek and John C. Reilly) – Garrone weaves a sumptuous tapestry that’s deeper, richer and wilder than anything the sanitized Disney versions of fairy tales could possibly come up with.

Eat up: Salma Hayek plays a queen driven to extreme dietary choices by circumstance
Eat up: Salma Hayek plays a queen driven to extreme dietary choices by circumstance
Getting certain films months later than (most of) the rest of the civilized world is largely annoying – especially for local cinephiles who can’t seem to catch a break unless it’s the Valletta Film Festival period. But it does have one subtle advantage: being able to gauge the critical consensus of the film in question. And Garrone’s film had the dubious honour of being a high-profile work by a celebrated director on the rise: a fact that raises expectations to a ridiculous degree.

And now that the dust has settled and the critical consensus deemed ‘mixed’ – a sign of an interesting experience, if nothing else – we can perhaps sit back and take in Garrone’s gory, sexy and surreal mash-up in a more sober mood.

The most common reservation appears to come down to the fact that the three chosen stories woven into the overall narrative aren’t all that well connected, and that the pace of the entire thing is somewhat lingering and slow. More than anything else, what this shows is a lack of experience and understanding of traditional fairy tale narratives: not just those of Basile, but of any of the other anthologies in the European tradition.

Instead of stretching or shoehorning the stories into the conventional three-act, ninety-minute Hollywood-friendly structure, Garrone succeeds in approximating the experience of reading such stories. Like other classical works of literature who tap into the same primordial storytelling mode as fairy tales – Boccaccio’s Decameron, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and the Thousand and One Nights – these are stories that are only loosely interconnected, providing a rich fount of themes and cultural preoccupations.

Along with his clutch of co-writers – completed by Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti and Massimo Gaudioso – Garrone shows himself to be keenly aware of what makes the stories truly relevant and enduring. Shrewdly picking the stories that focus on the experience of women in particular, parenthood also emerges as a significant theme in two of them, so accusations that the film’s structure is ‘random’ don’t really hold water. That’s not to say the stories are adapted verbatim, but the changes are implemented in the same spirit as the various translations of stories, folk tales and the enduring tales of the oral tradition have been altered across the ages – with spontaneous alternations, as if by natural progression.

And my god, is it stunning to look at. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky deserves all the awards. All of them.

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Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...