Matteo Garrone brings Pinocchio back to its darkest roots

We spoke with the Italian director about his dark, weird adaptation of the classic fairytale, starring Roberto Benigni as Geppetto.

The story of Pinocchio has become so ingrained in culture the world over that any announcement of a new Pinocchio project of any stripe is often met with puzzlement. What could possibly be left to be said about Pinocchio — what hasn’t been explored in this story of the wooden puppet whose nose grows when he lies and dreams of becoming a real boy? 

In turn, one does not necessarily associate the name of Matteo Garrone with adaptations of hugely popular children’s stories. Best known for the gritty crime drama Gomorrah and the dark fairytale Tale of Tales, Garrone has approached Carlo Collodi’s classic with a dark, sometimes aggressively strange tone that lays bare the inherent darkness of most fairy tales… but especially this one.

“When I read the book, I saw there was the possibility of making a movie that could be unexpected for the audience,” says Garrone. “It was unexpected to me, reading the book as an adult. Everybody thinks they know the story of Pinocchio, but we went back to the roots of the real story and the first illustrations. The challenge was this: to make a movie that was surprising for kids, for adults and also entertaining, funny, dramatic… Of course, before making the movie, I saw the other adaptations. But I felt there was the possibility to do something different from the others. The strange thing is that the best way to be different from the other was to go back to the original book. It seems strange, but it’s like that. It’s also a story that I grew up with. I made my first storyboards of Pinocchio when I was five years old! It took 45 years to make the movie.”

Roberto Benigni as Geppetto in Pinocchio

Roberto Benigni stars as Geppetto, a poor carpenter living in the Italian countryside who decides to build a wooden puppet as a potential money making endeavour. A lonely bachelor, Geppetto wishes that his puppet could be a real boy that he could raise as his son — and, much to his surprise, his dream comes true. The puppet, named Pinocchio (Federic Ielapi), is a wide-eyed innocent who’s easily convinced by strangers to do things that won’t necessarily benefit him. In order to protect him, Geppetto insists that Pinocchio attend school like a real boy, which eventually leads the gullible Pinocchio on a picaresque journey through all of the world’s dangers.

Garrone offers a very faithful adaptation of Collodi’s original story, but one that does absolutely nothing to soften the edges and the darkness inherent in what is essentially a morality tale for children.

“The most important lesson for Collodi to give to the children was to pay attention and be careful of the violence in the world around them,” says Garrone. “That’s why sometimes there are scenes that are very violent, because they’re warnings. Don’t trust people that say everything is easy, don’t trust people who try to convince you of things. Be careful. Collodi taught the kids how important it is to follow the advice of your parents, and how dangerous it is to be weak to temptation. But I also think that’s the reason why the story is so popular – because Pinocchio is so weak, like we are sometimes. It’s easy to empathize with him. I think it’s a story full of archetypes. It talks about us, about the future, about the past.”

“The original book was a story written for a kids’ magazine,” he continues. “Every week, a chapter. After 15 weeks and 15 chapters, it ended — with Pinocchio hung from a tree. That was the end. He died! The kids complained to the editor. (laughs) They didn’t want the hero to die like this. The editor convinced Collodi to continue the story, which led him to invent the fairy. It’s a story that he wrote step by step, without knowing how it would end.”

Garrone’s Pinocchio is unusual in that it stars Benigni, who directed his own adaptation of the book two decades ago. Benigni’s Pinocchio, in which the middle-aged actor and director played the titular role, wasn’t very well-received, but he proves to be a remarkably moving presence as Geppetto in Garrone’s version.

“For me, it was a very incredible gift to have Roberto as Geppetto,” says Garrone. “Roberto grew up in Tuscany, just beside where Collodi wrote Pinocchio. He grew up in a very poor family of farmers, with six people in a room. No one knows the poverty and the dignity of the story of Pinocchio better than Roberto. He was the ideal Gepetto. He told me that Francis Ford Coppola wanted to make a Pinocchio in 1999 and wanted Roberto to play Geppetto. Roberto had accepted, but Coppola wound up not making that movie — fortunately for me! He’s an incredible Geppetto because he can be so human, so funny and dramatic. We had a lot of fun on the set. He taught me a lot and gave me a lot of help. (…) He’s an incredible actor. I can say this because I worked with him. He can do the same take 10 times and he’s always fresh, always alive and always so precise. In the editing, I rarely knew what to choose, because they were all so perfect. It’s something very rare! It happens sometimes that an actor will do 15 takes and one of them is usable and the other 14 are a disaster — but with Roberto it was difficult to choose.”

Pinocchio opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, June 11. Watch the trailer here:

Pinocchio, directed by Matteo Garrone

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