From the moment I saw the impeccable world-building that I witnessed in Gomorra, I knew that Matteo Garrone was both a talented and ambitious filmmaker. While his Italian crime drama was signature in its portrayal of the many different facets of the violence and drug smuggling of a single “kindgom” (the notorious Italian mafia Comorra), in his latest feature, one completely stripped from the real world into into its own parallel universe fantasy, Tale of Tales sees Garrone juggling many kingdoms at once. The title of the film is a play on words, it both implies that the particular “tale” this movie tells is comprised of several tales, and also, that its creator, Matteo Garrone, is a bit of a showman, a confident auteur declaring that this particular movie, is one above all.
Well, as they ask in the sports world, can you back up your talk? In the case of Tale of Tales, Garrone more than achieves the magnum opus its title suggests. This movie is a wonder, a horror, a weird and disgusting, but at the same time warm and endearing little bed-time story for grown ups. It follows in the same footsteps as Guillermo Del Toro’s 21st century masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth in that it imbues a world of terrible violence and nastiness of character with a whimsicle child-like wonderment and dazzling visuals that could easily pass for Lord of the Rings. There is nothing cheap about this film, despite its relative obscurity (mainly due to lack of a wide release in the U.S. insofar), and it manages to create terror and mystique in equal amounts, guided by Garrone and company’s off-the-hinges creativity, adapted from European folk-tales collections from the 1600’s, titled Pentamarone penned by poet Giambattista Basile, but also original in its own way of taking these many sources and weaving them into each other to create one tale or many tales.
The movie is structured in 3 different parts.
The first is the story of a Queen (Salma Hayek) who longs for a child. Her husband, the King cannot give her one, so they seek the advice of a Necromancer (dark wizard) who tells the King he must defeat a giant sea-monster, rip out its heart, have it cooked by a virgin and give it to his wife to consume thus she will bear a son.
The second is the story of a pathetic, weak, and short statured king (Toby Jones), who grows attached to a pet flea he keeps and feeds. His attachment to the flea is so strong it comes at the detriment of his own daughter who is left neglected. His daughter seeks a husband to run away with, but the King, a posessive and lonely man, does everything he can to prevent his daughter from leaving the castle.
The third story is that of a nymphomaniac King (Vincent Cassell). He sleeps with many women every night, multiple at the same time, yet feels empty that he has not found a single women who he deems worthy of committing to. He hears a voice one night of a sweet girl, who he is instantly aroused by. Little does he know that the girl is a hideous wench. The wench attempts to trick the King into sleeping with her using only her voice. Their dangerous game leads to unexpected consequences.
These premices are juicy in and of themselves, but Garrone’s ability to tangle them along with each other makes them that much more fertile ground for building a seductive fantasy world. Coupled with lush painterly cinematography by Peter Suschitzky (known for: Star Wars V: Empire Strikes Back, and a bunch of Cronenberg films) that makes you wish these places and castles were real, Garrone’s direction and plotting set up suspense perfectly, like the end of episodes where things are left hanging and switches to a different channel to build that story up, and then goes back to tie things together.
The weirdness of the the film also cannot be just shrugged aside. There are moments of abject horror and strangeness that occur in the movie that border on surreal. It’s interesting though because this film is supposed to be a fantasy movie, yet, in many stretches feels like a period-piece. The juxtaposition of staged historical drama (political power play, family issues, love, sex) with moments of strange other-worldly powers (wizards, giant flees, magic spells, trolls, etc) keeps us on our toes. Unlike Lord of the Rings and more like Pan’s Labyrinth, the film switches between a world which we can relate to stories we’ve heard about empires and kingdom’s past with stories we’ve read in ficitional novels. This keeps both aspects of the film ripe and provides many moments of ample surprises. Just when we think the movie is settling down like a James Ivory character drama, it shakes us up with something out of the worlds of Dante or Beowulf.
Richly layered and illustrated, Garrone’s Tale of Tales is the best fairytale for adults I have seen since Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth plus one of this years greatest cinematic marvels, and its creativity and immensely beautiful world-building is worth investing your time into. It is confrontational, and its weirdness and uniqueness of character can surprise you if you are expecting your typical Hollywood fantasy movie, but that’s what makes this tale, of many tales, worth remembering.