Five years ago, Italian auteur Matteo Garrone made his English-language debut with “Tale of Tales,” a bloody, imaginative take on Italian writer Giambattista Basile’s 17th century fairy tales. The movie featured exuberant turns from John C. Reilly, Salma Hayek, and others. These days, Garrone regrets that decision.
“If I could go back, I would probably make ‘Tale of Tales’ with Italian actors,” he said in a recent phone interview. “I think it’s very important to keep the cultural identity of every country in its films. This was an Italian project, taken from one of the best books of Italian fairy tales. But it looked like I was taking other actors because we don’t have good actors in Italy. This is wrong.”
Now, Garrone is making up for that decision. With “Pinocchio,” he has adapted another definitive Italian fairy tale, this time with an all-Italian cast. Following its 2019 release in Italy, he has prepared an English-language dub using only accented Italian actors. Roadside Attractions releases the English-language dub on Christmas Day, and will open a subtitled version in the original Italian at select arthouses in January, mirroring the hybrid approach for the UK release from August.
For Garrone, this isn’t sacrilege. While moviegoing purists often deride dubs in America, the practice has been commonplace for English-language movies released in other markets around the world for generations. “We’re used to seeing movies from America and England that are dubbed, and there is absolutely no problem with that,” he said. “Instead of dubbing a movie from United States in Italian, we dubbed a movie with Italians for the United States. We tried very hard to make a version that is as good as the original. I’m very happy with it.”
Garrone knew that “Pinocchio” would have a hard time playing to younger English-speaking audiences if they couldn’t keep up with the subtitles. “I believed that we could do a very good job without losing anything about the original version, because we dub using Italian actors who dub in English, so we don’t lose the Italian accent,” he said. “I know that kids will enjoy the movie dubbed and won’t pay attention to that.”
However, Garrone’s argument assumes that American parents will want their kids to watch this eerie, at times downright unsettling take on the material rather than, say, the 1940 Disney version readily available on streaming platforms. Garrone’s “Pinocchio” already topped the Christmas box office for its Italian release last year, but when it premiered internationally at the Berlinale in February, some U.S. buyers were wary of the movie’s more disturbing moments, including one nightmarish scene that finds the wooden protagonist (Federico Ielapi) hung from a tree by a group of criminals after he escapes to the countryside.
Garrone stands by that decision as well as many of the other scarier encounters that Pinocchio has after fleeing the small town where carpenter Gepetto (Roberto Benigni, who played Pinocchio in a version he directed 20 years ago) lives. “The fact that it is sometimes dark is very important,” Garrone said, referring back to author Carlo Collodi’s original 1883 tome. “Collodi wanted to show kids how dangerous and cruel the world around them could be,” Garrone said. “It was a warning to them to be careful and follow the advice of people that love you. The dark side is connected to this aspect — the consequence of Pinocchio’s bad decisions.”
The movie relies on a sophisticated set of practical effects and prosthetic makeup over CGI, resulting in a haunting and often psychedelic vision of the boy who comes to life and the colorful beings he encounters along the way, from the dyspeptic Talking Cricket to a maternal snail. Regardless of who watches it, the movie is a wonder to behold. “We tried to have simple, funny moments as well as a lot of action and try to keep the soul of the book, which talks to kids as well as adults,” Garrone said.
Though Garrone has never tackled children’s movies before, his work frequently combines naturalistic storytelling with hints of otherworldly forces at work. “I loved this project because I could mix my approach to realism with something that is a little surreal and abstract,” he said.
It remains to be seen how much this version of “Pinocchio” will compare with others in the pipeline. Next year will see the release of Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion version for Netflix, and Robert Zemeckis has a motion-capture project in the works with Disney. Garrone was reticent to comment on these upcoming interpretations. “I’m confident they will pursue something that is different from what I’ve done,” he said. “I’m not the first to adapt ‘Pinocchio’ and I know I won’t be the last. I have no problem with it at all.” He added that the story had timeless reverberations: “It’s connected to the past, talks about today, and is relevant to the future because the characters are sort of archetypes of our society.”
Garrone also hesitated to say much about previous “Pinocchio” interpretations — possibly learning his lesson after telling the Telegraph earlier this year that “Walt Disney betrayed the story” — though he said the character appealed to him ever since his own childhood, when he saw the 1972 Italian miniseries starring Luigi Comencini. Garrone didn’t read the original book until decades later. “That was the challenge, to adapt a story that everyone seems to know but make it surprising and let people discover the story of the original book,” he said. He was thrilled to build a team of makeup artists and practical effects technicians as an alternative to the surge of live-action adaptations of animated classics (or, in the case of “The Lion King,” photorealistic variations).
“It’s always strange to me — a little bit out of tune — when I see a realistic animal that talks in the language of human beings,” he said, and chuckled. The “Pinocchio” supporting cast includes memorable figures like the Fox and the Cat, who look like humanoids with whiskers and furry ears. “We tried to make them more anthropomorphic — a little bit human, a little bit animal,” he said. “In this way, it looked a little less strange.”
Despite the movie’s commercial and critical success in Italy, the country failed to select “Pinocchio” as its official Oscar submission, and instead went with the rather surprising choice of “Fire at Sea” filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi’s experimental documentary “Notturno,” which explores several troubled lives in a war-torn region of the Middle East. Garrone, whose “Dogman” was the Italian submission last year, shrugged off the snub. “I don’t think it would be elegant of me to say anything about this,” he said, adding that the submission committee simply didn’t respond to the movie. “It’s a matter of personal taste and luck, whether or not they like your version of cinema,” he said.
However, he saw potential for the movie to crack other categories this season, given that several of its below-the-line contributed have already been validated by the Academy. That includes prosthetics designer Mark Coulier, who previously won Oscars for his work on “The Iron Lady” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and composer Dario Marianelli, who won for “Atonement.” And Garrone was hoping that costume diesinker Massimo Cantini Parrini, who won a Donatello award in May, would have a shot as well. “I know the movie will qualify for all the categories, so I’m very confident there will be a lot of possibilities for the movie,” Garrone said.
In theory, “Pinocchio” marked one of the biggest turning points in Garrone’s career since his mob movie “Gomorrah” became an arthouse sensation 12 years ago. “Pinocchio” was his highest-grossing movie in Italy as well as one of his most acclaimed. But that momentum hasn’t made it easy to assess his next moves in the midst of a pandemic. “It’s not easy, in this dramatic moment, to find a new project,” he said. “Things are changing so quickly, so I’m not in a rush to find anything.” Still, he’s reading scripts and keeping his standards high. “I always feel attracted to difficult projects,” he said. “When I work, I’m always happy.”
Roadside Attractions will release “Pinocchio” only in theaters on December 25.
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