2015; directed by Matteo Garrone; adapted by Edoardo Albinati, Ugo Chiti, Matteo Garrone and Massimo Gaudioso; 134 mins
It’s always great getting to see bigger budget foreign films (this one’s in English but it’s an Italian movie so it still counts – fuck off!). The likes of Carlos, Che, Mesrine, The Baader Meinhof Complex keep me happy as a pig in the proverbial. Maybe because it’s always going to be that bit harder to get that kind of cash to do these projects so it generally comes made by filmmakers who really give a fuck about the end result. Tale of Tales is by Matteo Garrone, the director of 2008’s Gomorrah which was a really great, sprawling gangster movie showing the brash violence and insidious politics of the Camorra gangs in Naples. This has some surface, narrative similarities with that previous film in that it follows a plethora of stories with a thematic and geographical connection but which, otherwise, rarely cross paths. In the first story, Salma Hayek plays the queen of Darkwood (Selvascura) who is desperate but unable to conceive a son and hair. One night, a soothsayer informs her that her husband the King (John C. Reilly) must kill a sea dragon and cut out it’s heart so that she can eat it, thus becoming pregnant. The resultant birth, however, brings complications that no one could foretell.
In the second tale, Vincent Cassel as the randy king of Stronghold (Roccaforte) mistakenly shags an ancient hag, believing her to be yet another young conquest. Upon discovery of her real visage, the king has her thrown out of the castle window and she lands in a tree soon to be discovered by a wandering witch who turns her into a beautiful young maiden, soon enough found again and married by the same king.
Lastly, in the kingdom of Highmountain (Altomonte), Toby Jones plays a king who becomes obsessed by the welfare of a flea at the expense of his daughter, Violet (Bebe Cave), who he callously marries off to an ogre. It is in the following months that she finds the strength and cunning she needs to become a ruler in her own right.
These are all tales from the Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile, written in the 1600s and being the first printed collection of fairy tales and would later be a big influence on the Brothers Grimm. Gothic would be a wrong description for the aesthetic at play here – it’s more of a mixture of the exotic (see Salma Hayek’s mediterranean-style palace) and the renaissance era clothing. This has been compared to the works of Pier Paolo Pasolini, in particular The Trilogy of Life, but to my shame, I have’t seen any of his work thus far so I cannot comment. It was all just very exciting to be watching a big fantasy, fairy tale movie that wasn’t an overload of CGI, didn’t just throw platitudes about destiny and heroism in your face and seemed to have a tactility that speaks of to plenty of realworld culture and history embedded under the very fingernails of the stories themselves. For example, early on when John C. Reilly gets dressed up in what is essentially an old deep sea diver’s costume cum suit of armour, it doesn’t feel like some half-arsed steampunk gimmick. The film exists outside of our world and yet these morality plays are completely informed by human experience and the visuals and art direction reflect that. They are tales set down to be at once fantastical and utterly believable like bible stories or Aesop’s fables. The actors all seem dedicated to doing this job to the best of their ability and – aside from one brief but glaring moment of Eastenders-worthy acting – really carry the audience along no matter what weirdness is unfolding. The real standouts were Shirley Henderson and Hayley Carmichael as the two old women, who allow the heart of their characters to overcome the mountain of make-up they find themselves under. The last thing I want to mention is the fight with the dragon. One of the best, most exciting duels I’ve ever seen in a movie and all the more surprising because it is so slow. The undersea element necessitates a slower pace and this really escalates the tension as blood and sand swirl around the king and the dragon appears and disappears from view. Particularly tense when we find ourselves locked in looking through the king’s P.O.V. Brilliant stuff and great to see Garrone doing something entirely different from what all other fantasy filmmakers out there are doing.