In this era of fairy-tale prequels, sequels and spinoffs, how often do we encounter stories of wicked queens, licentious kings and captive princesses in which we don’t already know what happens next? That’s the thrill of Matteo Garrone’s “Tale of Tales,” a lavishly realized and long-overdue adaptation of three stories from 17th-century Neapolitan scribe Giambattista Basile’s “Pentamerone,” which predates and even inspired many of the classics in heavy rotation today, from Rapunzel to Cinderella. Whereas Walt Disney mostly overlooked Basile, the brothers Grimm were big fans, and the sheer volume of bloodshed, off-color coupling and dark comedy clearly puts Garrone’s film in the category of adult-skewing fairy tales (but not that sordid subgenre of softcore exploitation movies that issued from Italy in the ’70s), which seems likely to result in the director’s largest international showing yet, aided by its cast of familiar faces and English-language script.
Garrone’s decision to shoot in English seems curious for such a culturally specific project as this. After all, Basile’s “Pentamerone” represents a compendium of folk narratives believed to have been circulating in Naples during his lifetime (though a great many he probably invented outright). The poet’s five-volume collection aggregated 50 fantastical stories — full of ogres, witches and assorted creatures — in his native Neapolitan language, reflecting the region’s local attitudes via its mix of bawdy humor and cautionary violence, only to be given over to this motley mix of accents for export purposes.
After a series of contemporary features inspired by real-life events — his masterwork being the 2008 organized-crime opus “Gomorrah,” which won the Grand Prix at Cannes — Garrone leaps back in time to a period of fickle monarchies, in which the rulers of three neighboring kingdoms have their impulses put to the test when magic enters the picture. In the domain of Longtrellis, a red-bearded king (John C. Reilly) and his melancholic queen (Salma Hayek) are living unhappily ever after, given her inability to bear children, until an ominous figure offers them a dangerous bargain. Next door in Highhills, a nitwitted king (Toby Jones) fixates on an unusually talented flea, allowing it to distract him from the task of finding his daughter a suitable husband. And just around the corner in Strongcliff, the oversexed crown (Vincent Cassel) falls madly in love with an old crone, mistakenly assuming that her beautiful voice, heard from afar, would be an accurate predictor of her physical appearance.
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Though these three royal families can occasionally be spotted visiting one another for funerals or coronations, they otherwise keep to themselves, supporting an interwoven structure in which Garrone is able to cycle among the three stories at will. Luckily, each is fairly compelling in its own right, and though the overall package tends to run a little longer than necessary, it’s more engaging than it might have been had it stacked the episodes one after the other.
As it happens, this isn’t the first time Garrone has juggled multiple Neapolitan stories: In “Gomorrah,” the director aggressively cut back and forth among five separate strands, which makes “Tale of Tales” feel downright classical by comparison. Meanwhile, the director’s intervening project, “Reality,” served as a bridge of sorts, spinning one man’s obsession with TV celebrity into a grand moral fable. With this project, because few readers are up to speed these days on Basile’s work, Garrone and his co-writers are free to lift what they like from the poet and invent the rest. They’ve certainly remained true to the spirit of the source material, which deemed rape and murder to be suitable subjects for kids.
In the Longtrellis tale, Hayek’s character sends her husband off to slay a sea monster, believing this will be the cure her barren condition. The king has been instructed to cut out the beast’s heart, which must then be cooked by a virgin and devoured by the queen — which she does with gusto, forgoing utensils and digging in with her teeth, a blood-drenched carnivore at the center of an otherwise white dining room. Grimmer than Grimm, this particular episode could just as easily be a precursor to W.W. Jacobs’ “be careful what you wish for” parable “The Monkey’s Paw.” However, while one could probably predict that her desires have unforeseen consequences, the particulars must be seen to believed.
Court amusements provide a recurring motif here, and over in Highhills, the king himself looks almost jester-like before his subjects. Princess Violet (Bebe Cave), on the other hand, demonstrates a natural intelligence and ferocious independence lost on her bobble-headed father. When the king discovers a special flea, he dedicates his full attention to raising the little bugger, which swells to the size of a coffee bean at first, and later grows as big as a baby triceratops — rendered cuter than one might expect by the pic’s hit-and-miss visual-effects team. When it comes time to marry off Violet, he distractedly promises her hand to the first ogre that comes along. In Basile’s version, Violet is rescued by an old woman (Alba Rohrwacher) and her sons (among them Italian comic Massimo Ceccherini), though the writers have modernized things and empowered their distressed damsel in the process.
Far and away the most contemporary of the tales, however, is the one set in Strongcliff, whose decadent king spends his time hunting game and deflowering his female subjects. In a post-orgy haze, he wanders the streets, where a stranger’s singing sets his heart racing: the seducer seduced by an unseen voice, mistaking its source for someone more to his usual standards than the old hag, Dora (Hayley Carmichael, under heavy makeup), to whom it actually belongs. He must have her, but she is shrewd, arranging to visit the king in darkness — and suffering the consequences when he discovers her true appearance.
Though it cleverly addresses the world’s ongoing obsession with youth and beauty (a theme also explored by fellow Italian director Paolo Sorrentino in the concurrent Cannes entry “Youth”), serving up a couple of turns so twisted one can’t help but laugh out loud, this last story doesn’t quite hold up to the standard set by the other two: If broken off and told alone, the episode would surely cave in on itself. And yet, the macabre final image, of the singer’s sister (Shirley Henderson) striving to match Dora’s good fortune, feels worthy of a “Twilight Zone” zinger.
As engaging as all three tales can be, they’ve lost whatever didactic dimension they once held. That liberates audiences from trying to extract a moral message, but also leaves the stories feeling less potent as social allegories. In Longtrellis, albino “twins” born to different mothers discover that their bond is stronger than blood. In Highhills, the royal family manages to find a happy ending on exceptionally grisly terms. And in Strongcliff, it’s anyone’s guess what the takeaway was supposed to be.
Taken together, the parables serve primarily to entertain — an effect that has as much to do with Garrone’s command of the cinematic language as it does the content itself. Backed by producer Jeremy Thomas, that great enabler of lavish period epics, Garrone has created a sumptuous world within the available means. The digital flourishes don’t always work (several CG-“enhanced” landscapes and a phony-looking tightrope rescue sequence border on eyesores), but Peter Suschitzky’s sweeping camera makes the most of gorgeous practical costumes and sets, while Alexandre Desplat’s score elevates the entire experience and further unifies the disparate threads. One can’t help be reminded of Pasolini’s “Trilogy of Life” with such a project, and though the material is tamer (but only just) and less poetic, Garrone’s technique runs circles around that of his predecessor.