It’s become apparent, over the best part of the past decade, that the Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone has an eye, a nose and a taste for excess. His breakthrough work, 2008’s Gomorrah, exposed – in quasi-documentary fashion – the hold exerted by organised crime over one Sicilian housing estate, while establishing Garrone’s fondness for sprawling, multi-character frescoes. Frame by frame, you felt him succumbing to that excess in 2012’s Reality, a blaring state-of-the-Berlusconi-and-Big Brother-nation address that made Paolo Sorrentino’s recent output look quietist by comparison.
With his first English-language feature Tale of Tales, Garrone’s stretching his canvas further still, attempting to film at least some of the Pentamerone, the sprawling compendium of myths and legends assembled by the 17th century poet Giambattista Basile. Basile’s book set out the state of the Italian nation as it was circa the Middle Ages: it has a literary analogue in the work of the Brothers Grimm, and a cinematic one in Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life, although Garrone displays a predilection for luscious, gory effects that mark his take as very much a product of the Marvel age.
So it is that we’re introduced to the Queen of Longtrellis (Salma Hayek, more imperious here than Hollywood has ever allowed her to be), who sees her husband succumb to a sea monster before raising an albinoid son who proves an even bigger nightmare; to the King of neighbouring Highhills (Toby Jones), who forsakes his daughter upon falling hard for his pet flea; and to the lusty King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel), introduced performing cunnilingus on two damsels simultaneously (who says men can’t multitask?), before finding himself unknowingly bewitched by a pair of crones.
The themes in these carefully selected strands – birth, death, courtship, parenthood, ageing – are as big as one might find in any better-known fairytale, yet Garrone maintains a playfully ironic tone throughout. Though he knows he has it within his playbox and his preferred post-production house to create wonders, our storyteller keeps his tongue firmly in cheek, alert to the fact that, in this day and age, it might be considered a little silly, even unseemly, for a grown man to be dealing with jugglers, ogres and other monsters.
This puckish quality certainly provides an alternative to the monolithic self-seriousness of the superhero movies we’re meant to take as gospel nowadays; the result is never less than diverting and occasionally transporting. But is Tale of Tales properly enchanting, as the best fairytales are? I’m not so sure. Garrone ensures his Tale barrels along; he’s dextrous indeed in weaving together competing narrative strands.
Yet the diverse postmodern texts the film recalls – The Princess Bride, P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, the Harry Potter series, Game of Thrones – realised that the spells they cast would amount to nothing if they didn’t stop their yarn-spinning long enough to allow sincere feeling to bleed into the material. Two hours of pastiche is both a lot and not enough to give an audience: the artificial colours and preservatives tend to wear off very quickly, leaving us to chew over something with a decidedly plasticky aftertaste.
Garrone can still dot his canvasses with choice moments, great faces, dazzling images: a Rossetti redhead awaking in a forest, a man walking a burning tightrope. Yet set Tale of Tales against the immersive, full-strength, hell-for-leather vision of medieval life unfurled in the recent Russian epic Hard to Be a God, a decades-in-the-making experience that permitted no sniggering irony whatsoever, and it begins to look a touch insubstantial, perhaps even childish: a novelty one might hand to a toddler, a comic strip on the back of a bubblegum wrapper.
Tale of Tales is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming on the BFI Player.