Opening a full year after its intended release date, at a cost almost double its initial $ 9 million budget, Francesco Nuti’s “OcchioPinocchio” is by no means the debacle its tormented production history would suggest. But neither is this liberal, modern reworking of the classic Italo fairy tale quite the beguiling jaunt it could be.
Boldly accomplished but wildly overlong and somewhat solemn as entertainment, Nuti’s three-year labor of love nosed in on holiday wickets with moderate success, driven by the director/star’s local popularity. Further editing would help whittle pic down to exportable size.
Producer Vittorio Cecchi Gori shut down filming three times as the budget and shooting sked spiraled out of control before, during and after U.S. location work. Threatened dismantling of sets at Cinecitta created more uncertainty over completion. Nuti reportedly tried to buy the production from Cecchi Gori early in 1994. Cameras cranked up again last fall, with post-production barely finished in time for the Dec. 23 release.
An eccentric, sorrowfully comic chronicle of an innocent at large in an unaccommodating world, the film has a quirky charm that’s dwarfed at times by its colossal treatment. Luciano Ricceri’s prodigious production design and the vast landscapes of an unnamed, imaginary setting (shot in Texas, Louisiana and Tuscany) are unfailingly impressive. But they often risk swallowing up characters who might have thrived in more intimate surroundings.
A protracted opening sequence that vaguely recalls “The Hudsucker Proxy” introduces hard-nosed old banking magnate Brando (Joss Ackland). A suicide note from his hated brother reveals the existence of a son (Nuti) who has grown up in an isolated hospice for chronically ill oldsters. Staff and patients refer to the slow-witted, industrious orderly as Pinocchio.
Thrilled to have an heir, Brando whisks him away to his domain, prompting an extremely funny first encounter with the banking bigwigs. Faced with a crowd of fossilized tycoons, Pinocchio immediately starts digging graves around the estate to prepare for the change of season, which traditionally upped the hospice’s mortality rate.
When the company shrink pronounces him unlikely to adapt to a life of privilege, Pinocchio flees the city, teaming up with tough cookie Lucy (Chiara Caselli), who witnessed a murder and is now the prime suspect. The pair’s odyssey takes them across an eye-catching landscape — mixing towering urban jungles with dust-bowl hick towns and verdant countryside — as they encounter shady characters loosely paralleling figures from the original fairy tale.
While it’s all intriguing in a gently melancholy way, there’s something unsatisfying about the development of the central duo’s flight. This flaw could still be corrected in the editing room.
Caselli’s character also presents problems. Frequently disrobed, and only fleetingly sympathetic, she has a harshly sensual, feline grace that’s compelling but somewhat distancing, making the tragedy of her outcome register on a rather hollow level.
On camera, Nuti leaves all his previous screen work trailing behind him, proving genuinely touching as Pinocchio blindly participates in both honorable and criminal pursuits, guided by his own childlike moral rules. Much more low-key than usual, Nuti relies largely on facial expressions, with intermittent outpourings of amusing, Tuscan-accented verbiage. Remaining cast members are on-target, especially Ackland, who lends a dark double edge to his joyless patriarch.
Aside from the lackluster choreography of some action scenes and car chases, Nuti’s direction is focused and authoritative, especially given the leap in scope this represents from his previous features. Admirable support comes from Maurizio Calvesi’s graceful, sweeping camerawork, which spryly embraces the widescreen canvas, and from Giovanni Nuti’s rich, tuneful score.
Ricceri’s sets are consistently inventive, particularly the riverside skeleton of an abandoned factory (the fairy tale’s belly of a whale), in which Brando and the cops ultimately track down the fugitive couple.