Film Review: Matteo Garrone’s ‘Pinocchio’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

There have been a vast number of interpretations of Italian author Carlo Collodi’s classic 1883 children’s novel The Adventures of Pinocchio, but filmmaker Matteo Garrone may have crafted the definitive one with his 2019 adaptation. The director, known to many for his wicked Felliniesque adult fantasy Tale of Tales, writes the adapted screenplay alongside Massimo Ceccherini with Italian cinema icon Roberto Benigni taking the role of Geppetto and child actor Federico Ielapi starring as Pinocchio.

Poor carpenter Geppetto (Benigni) begins to carve an enchanted log into a puppet and is soon amazed by the fact it speaks. Dubbed Pinocchio (Ielapi) by his babbo or father, the living puppet is soon faced with a number of challenges after being kidnapped by a travelling puppet theatre. He soon begins to attempt a journey home to Geppetto whilst facing the devious intentions of a number of curious creatures seeking to exploit him.

Garrone’s adaptation is truly mesmerising in its willingness to embrace the sheer macabre strangeness of Collodi’s original text. The filmmaker crafts a visually enchanting, often grotesque picture using an array of practical effects which give the film a distinctive handcrafted style – ultimately more satisfying than any CGI heavy adaptation. Tonally Pinocchio is incredibly adult – this tale of a young living puppet exploited by deceptive adults/creatures around him – his kidnapping by the travelling puppet show, the corrupt intentions of two feline conmen, and his transformation into a donkey at the hands of a strange Fagin-like figure – all disturbing scenarios which the young puppet encounters. This is a narrative trajectory stranger and more sinister than that of any other children’s tale (perhaps reminiscent of Return to Oz in that sense) and Garrone embraces this wholeheartedly.

This gothic children’s tale veers into near Jodrowskian territory with its celebration of the ‘grotesque’ and other-worldly. Practical make-up effects and the ensemble of curious supporting creatures, including a slime oozing human snail, owl doctors, living puppets, a giant green cricket, and rabbit undertakers – all seemingly crafted with stunningly intricate prosthetic effects and character make-up design. These characters inhabit an almost medieval rural Italy – captured in stunning cinematography by Nicolai Brüel – a world which fully transports us into the strange, macabre fantasy of Garrone’s vision. It’s lavish and entrancing, in its woozy dreamlike handcrafted aesthetic.

Garrone and Ceccherini fill this fantasy with gentle humour, which when paired with the dark fantastical narrative matter creates a distinctive and original tone. Whilst performances from Begnini and even child star Ielapi are ripe with impressive comic moments – both actors pack a heartfelt sweetness into their roles, showcasing a believable bond between the carpenter and his lost puppet son. For Begnini in particular, this is a particularly sweet redemption after his previous flirtation with the Pinocchio material after writing, directing and starring in a much maligned 2002 adaptation.

Pinocchio is a beautifully macabre and lavish fantasy that truly transports us to another world. Well-pitched, investing performances, a fantastical and surreal Italian landscape, and full conviction to the strangeness of the source material ensure that Garrone’s adaption of Pinocchio is a firm contender for the definitive cinematic adaptation of  Collodi’s classic novel.