Tales of Tales

My head spun when I saw the film Tale of Tales last week and only realized afterward that it was directed by the very same Matteo Garrone who made Gomorrah in 2008.

Gomorrah (which is one of a dwindling number of features you can watch and re-watch on Netflix streaming) felt like a cinematic beating. A sprawling, Neapolitan-language gangster film set in the Naples housing projects, with “Martin Scorsese presents” splashed across it, it felt like you were tapping the same main root that Mean Streets had come from – but even more shocking in its violence, and even more unwieldy in how diffuse its several narratives are.

tale-of-tales

Salma Hayek with John C. Reilly (on left).

I liked Gomorrah (written by Garrone, Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio, Massimo Gaudioso, and Roberto Saviano based on Saviano’s book) just as much when I re-watched it this week as I did in the theater. Its hyper-realism feels like an urgent wake-up call, and the de-centeredness of the story something like a magazine profile of organized crime as seen by its low-level operatives, some with tragic falls, some with more subtle compromises.

Tale of Tales is based on another Neapolitan book, by the 17th Century folklorist and author Giambattista Basile. (It’s funny to think that, while the Pilgrims in Massachusetts were splitting hairs about salvation, ever fearful of witchcraft, another Christian across the ocean was writing about witchcraft and magic, committing Rapunzel and Cinderella, among others, to paper for the very first time.) Filmed in English, the script is again by Garrone, Braucci, Di Gregorio, and Gaudioso.

Tale of Tales, though I enjoyed it, is a lot harder to love, I suppose because the fairy tale setting makes my expectations go through the roof. You don’t have to tell me what the world of fairy tales is like; it’s full of witches and princesses and ogres, I know that. So you don’t get a pass if you make merely situational drama.

When I watch a fairy tale I want a Freudian slap across the face, not an exercise in trying to weave some thematic coherence out of loose-ended stories. I couldn’t help but compare it to the Jacques Demy film Donkey Skin (1970), one of his under-watched films after Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and also (true confessions) The Princess Bride. They’re all three a bit second-rate with special effects compared to their contemporaries and clearly labors of love. Donkey Skin is a tight narrative with a clear protagonist and through-line, whereas Tale of Tales talks around the through-line and makes you surmise it.

Tale of Tales 2

One of the memorable images from Tale of Tales is the (newly) young princess in a moss-covered wilderness, red on green, a palette Garrone used in Gomorrah: blood gushing from gangster’s heads onto an Astroturf patio. Like Gomorrah, Tale of Tales is gruesome and a bit moralistic. Even when you see the payoffs coming, you’re still in suspense. Garrone is the center of a circle of writers on top of their game, making stories that are clearly theirs. Even if it’s not my game, I have to say “Bravo.”

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