There is something rich and strange and generous in Matteo Garrone’s new live-action version of the Pinocchio story, for which the director and his co-screenwriter Massimo Ceccherini have gone right back to the original 1883 children’s tale by Carlo Collodi. They have given us a story that combines sentimentality and grotesqueness in a really startling way. It looks like a horror film. This Pinocchio could almost have one of the stories that Garrone dramatised in his freaky-fabular movie Tale of Tales, and the story is very different from the legendary 1940 Disney musical version – without which no one would care about any new remake or reinvention.
Walt Disney, for example, never had Pinocchio being brutally hanged from a tree by two swindlers who wanted to rob him. But one of the interesting things about this drama is that Pinocchio – the magical wooden puppet who yearns to be a “real boy” – gains this authentic humanness by being exploited, by suffering and finally getting reborn with skin and hair. In a stable, as it happens.
Pinocchio is played here with a disturbingly woodified face by child actor Federico Ielapi, and his father-creator Geppetto is played by the exuberant Roberto Benigni, who himself directed a Pinocchio film in 2002 and (a bit insufferably) played the lead. As the ageing and sad Geppetto, he is more under control, and there is something touching about his hyperactive comic persona being subdued.
Entranced and inspired by a visiting puppet show, Geppetto carves one of his own, and the melancholy, poor and childless man is astonished and delighted when he comes to life. He has a son. But Geppetto’s joy is short-lived when Pinocchio is taken from him, ending up first with the marionettes of puppet master Mangiafuoco (Gigi Proietti), from whom Pinocchio gets his freedom, only to be tricked and abused by two old rogues Gatto (Rocco Papaleo) and Volpe (co-writer Ceccherini). But Pinocchio is helped by a kindly cricket (Davide Marotta) and by a fairy (Marine Vacth) and by a bizarre gorilla judge (Teco Celio), whose topsy-turvy worldview is such that he will only look kindly on Pinocchio if he claims to be a criminal.
There is so much that Garrone’s Pinocchio appears to resemble: there’s a bit of Tod Browning’s Freaks (and a bit of Frankenstein), echoes of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the Old and New Testament. The moment when Pinocchio’s nose grows because he is lying is still fascinating. It’s a parable that has taught generations of little Disney fans never to fib. Audiences for this film, however, will notice that Pinocchio’s nose does not grow when he lies to the gorilla judge. The point is that the normalisation of lying is part of the humanising process. Pinocchio’s wooden face really is very strange. It does not look like that of any sort of boy, but rather a man or woman or cyborg in early middle age. There’s more than a touch of R2D2 about him, or even a lost figure from George Franju’s Eyes Without a Face.
In the end, Pinocchio is a parable of parenthood: when we have a child, there is something uncanny and strange about him or her, like a doll brought to life. In our hearts, perhaps, we can’t quite believe that this is a human being like us, who will come to have thoughts and feelings independently of us – become “real”, in fact.
Next year, Guillermo del Toro is due to bring out his own version of Pinocchio and it is inevitably rumoured to be “darker”, while Robert Zemeckis has his own adaptation in mind with Tom Hanks as Geppetto, which will probably, but not necessarily, be at the other end of the brightness dial. Well, we shall have to see how they turn out, though what I like about Garrone’s adaptation is that it doesn’t put a “dark” spin on a supposedly Disney-cute story, not does it want to reinvent or reboot an assumed family-brand wholesomeness. Pinocchio is a thoroughly bizarre story; Garrone makes of it a weirdly satisfying spectacle.
• In UK cinemas from 14 August.