[8 July 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
One hates to be brash about it, but just what in the hell happened to Roberto Benigni? For most Americans, their first chance to witness this one time witty whirlwind work his ferociously funny magic was in either Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law or Night on Earth (where his non-stop verbal barrage confession to a dead priest was priceless). He crafted a few foreign film feasts that Western audiences responded to with favor and fiscal approval (The Monster and Johnny Stecchino). But after a three-year hiatus, he went and did something absolutely deadly to his livelihood. He returned to the big screen with an awful piece of offal that stained the memory of the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust. This concentration camp as comedy club kiddie circus was called Life is Beautiful and as a “love it or hate it” historical hemorrhoid it should have been the final word from this overly earnest buffoon.
Unfortunately, critics and money paying people had to go and sanction his misguided vision by making it a box office hit and awarding the dork two undeserved Oscars. And as the proverbial saying goes, a monster/demon/Pandora’s box was born/unleashed/opened. Five years, $45 million dollars (that’s more umpteen billion lire than Italia has a right to spend on anything, including gelato or Prada) and an unhealthy dose of national pride later, Benigni unveiled Pinocchio, his latest cinematic cesspool, on an unsuspecting world. It’s the kind of overreaching retch inducing drivel that only a semi-competent filmmaker with carte blanche, unlimited artistic license and bocce balls the size of the Coliseum could conceive.
Never mind that, just a year before, Stephen Spielberg (with a little spiritual guidance from Stanley Kubrick) reworked the story of Pinocchio and his desire to be real into a parable about childrearing, playing God, and the responsibility and burden of love in the future shock masterpiece A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. And who cares that Disney’s 1941 cartoon classic, while not 100% on point with everything Collodi, is considered by most to be the House of Mouse’s most gripping and gorgeous production.
So even with a bionic ear probing the farthest reaches of the pop culture galaxy, it’s hard to imagine that a single sound in favor of another trip down Growing Nose Boulevard was warranted or needed. But not according to the Italian scallion. Apparently, most Mediterraneans think Uncle Walt welched on his warrants when he turned their country’s folklore into a slick, saccharine exercise in show tunes. They wanted to see the real Pinocchio. They wanted to feel Collodi’s words come alive and longed to see someone interpret his political and social satire skills in the ways only a native Neapolitan or son of Sicily could. And the boot nation took one look at the man who made the systematic slaughter of millions of undesirables look like a very special episode of The Little Rascals and said “Si!”
Indeed, it is Benigni’s intent with his new Pinocchio to do for the classic piece of Italian children’s literature what Peter Jackson did for Tolkien’s Ring trilogy, or the KBG did with most of Russian history. It wants you to forget Disney’s little animated massacre of their much-loved marionette and mandates you embrace its new reconfigured and retooled fool. On the surface, Benigni has succeeded in spades for what he set out to do. He has created a lavishly stunning, sweeping story of the little wooden doll’s many adventures on the road to boyhood and has kept integral as many of Collodi’s original ideas as possible. And that means a decided readjustment for those who are novice to the native Pinocchio.
This version of the firewood friend is not a newborn naïve simpleton open to the world experience. Instead, he is a brash and bratty blowhard, speaking first and learning the consequences later. It means that the threats, the evil possibilities and dark penalties that the original puppet had to face (catching on fire, hanging, drowning) remain intact, keeping all the grim in the non-brothers fairy tale. It’s even episodic, like the original purpose of the author’s efforts (before it became a book, it was serialized for months). But what most Pinocchio purists will applaud, aside from the literal translation and attention to detail, is the overall look of the production. Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio is a drop dead gorgeous work of dazzling art and set design that, unfortunately, acts like the proverbial sparkles on a dog flop.
Indeed, this is one retelling of the classic children’s story that feels inert, unappetizing, and downright revolting. And the saddest part about the putrid Pinocchio is that in its original Italian language version, the movie is an incredible artistic masterpiece of cinema, pure and simple. Benigni creates images, compositions, and set piece moments that surpass anything he’s filmed before or is likely to capture in the future. More than once you will literally have your breath taken away by what you see. Like those unbelievably beautiful Pageant of the Arts re-creations where actual human beings are used in combination with makeup, sets, and effects to remake the great masterworks live on stage, Pinocchio uses movie making of the highest order to bring the make believe world of the little wooden puppet to life on the silver screen.
With the creativity and skill of Cinecitta Studios to the brilliant camera and lighting work of Dante Spinotti, and the genius production design of Danilo Donati (a Fellini favorite), Benigni has done the next to impossible and created, as a filmmaker, a kind of living lithograph, both a tribute to and a technological time capsule with the look, the feel and the style of old artisan illustrators. Sequences where Pinocchio crosses the countryside to find Gepetto, wanders a wooden glen, or climbs a rock along a stormy beachhead to signal the old woodcarver are unbelievable. Even better are moments of quiet quaintness: the look of a village, the delicacy of a butterfly, and the regality of rain. From the mind-boggling lushness of the green grass to the colorful chaos of Playland, Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio is hands down one of the best looking imaginative statements as a movie ever made. Too bad then that all this luxurious trapping is for a total travesty.
For you see, in no uncertain terms, Pinocchio the film is awful. Incredibly bad. Disconcertingly terrible. The juxtaposition of unbridled beauty with offensive onscreen antics makes this film a rotten rollercoaster ride into repugnant ridiculousness. Frankly, there is only one reason why the movie does not work, cannot work, and will not work to save its sawdust. And it’s a one-word answer as well: casting. Benigni, not content to make a movie that surpasses many of the most artistic visions of his far more celebrated colleagues, expands his hyperactive hubris and hires himself and his wife to star in the movie.
Never before in the history of the word “miscasting” has a case of nonsensical narcissism and nepotism totally doomed a film. Now, some can argue that even though she looks like she’s moments away from an untimely death, the wrinkles, waddles, and bags under her eyes do not diminish (greatly) Nicolleta Braschi’s ethereal qualities. But the fact of the matter is that she’s too damned old to be the Blue Fairy. Granted, there is no age specification to play an enchanted entity, but she seems so tired, so dragged out and disheveled that she’s more like a fairy grandmother than godmother. And since her doting husband loves to hold his camera on her haggard face for long, loving close-ups, we get plenty of time to make our own inner plastic surgery suggestions (a little eye work, chin tuck, etcetera).
She’s not as decrepit as Carlo Giuffre, who plays Gepetto like he has both feet and a buttcheek already in the grave, nor is her look as hopelessly hackneyed as the hirsute mutton chopped chumps Fox and Cat. But if this were the magical entity the robotic David ended up finding at the bottom of the ocean, he’d have every right to return to Dr. Know and ask for his credits back. The bigger problem with the film, in a nutshell and case, is the aged, balding Benigni. Instead of addressing the fact that the agitated hambone only has one acting style (let’s just call it “energetic”) and he’s about as childlike as a colonoscopy, the dumbass does what his ego dictates and before you know it, the whisper thin five o’clock shadowed adult stick figure with a body that would make pre-pubescent gymnasts jealous is playing a puppet.
The minute Gepetto puts the finishing gouges on this man-sized marionette (even if his look is more Collodi correct) and Roberto’s bratty blathering starts to stream of conscious, we understand just why this movie is going to implode like a star on supernova. It’s not that he’s bad as the lying, inconsiderate selfish puppet, it’s just that he looks like a badly dressed kid’s party clown from Cirque du Soleil. The movie’s rationale for how a matured adult male can play the enigmatic wooden being is simple: like the Emperor’s New Clothes or Bush’s Foreign Policy, the film figures that the more people on screen who simply agree that he’s a load of lumber, the sooner the audience will accept it. So everyone constantly refers to Roberto as a puppet.
They recognize that he is one automatically, even though there is no attempt to make him even remotely puppetlike: no makeup wooden joints, no stiff body movements, nothing but a strange white pancake powder effect on Roberto’s face that makes him resemble an emaciated Bob Dylan on the Hard Rain tour. With his non-stop chattering and deranged dolt in a duncecap appearance, Benigni single-handedly destroys Pinocchio. He is so enraptured in what he is doing for his native mythology that he’s too blind or busy to see how incredibly irritating and irrational his performance appearance is. And it is fatal.
There are other things about Pinocchio that don’t quite work, that seem out of place and insular for something supposedly so universal. The exact nature of the Blue Fairy is never explained. She is capable of turning day into night, but seems genuinely hurt when things she could obviously control (Pinocchio’s donkey fate) cause her concern. Pinocchio’s wild mood swings and erratic decisions also grow tiresome after about ten minutes. Collodi obviously meant this as an allegory about learning to grow up responsible and trustworthy; that message is only beaten about your head and shoulders a hundred times, but we never get the feeling that Pinocchio actually grasps this idea. He’s more like Pavlov’s dog: Gepetto’s desire for a cup of milk a night has basically force labored the notions of caring and concern into the woodenhead’s higher memory functions.
It’s not just the mixed tone of tirades, mock terror, and tinsel that kill this film. We also have unnecessary moments that seem inserted only to up the manipulative melodrama factor. When Pinocchio sees the fairy’s grave and understands that it is he who killed her, the copious tears the trite Timbertoes explodes into seem more than over the top. And the last-minute donkey deathbed scene is a complete piece of calculated cry creator. There is no need for the asino to show up here, as by this time we assumed a similar fate for the jackass. From the complete waste of the Cricket character (who we don’t expect to be Jiminy, but we also don’t expect to be so stiff and dull) to the anti-climatic fish rescue, Pinocchio has the distinction of being the first lavish production that feels like it took ten years to create and ten minutes to script.
The beauty of the visuals and the complexity created in the individual’s imagination could compensate the viewer with a movie they won’t soon forget. And yet, there he would be, the only puppet client of the Hairclub for Men with prostate issues. It’s only fitting that the failure of Pinocchio falls on the sloping shoulders of its megalomaniacal mentor: it proves that, given enough film, a faux genius will hang himself every time.