Italian director Matteo Garrone’s dazzling fairytale triptych Tale of Tales depicts a world of kings and princesses, witches and dragons, sorcerers and ogres, but his film’s weirdly twisted fables are far far away from Disney’s sugar-spun realm.
We are far away, too, from the neo-realism of Garrone’s previously best-known movie, 2008’s Gomorrah, although that film’s matter-of-fact exposé of Mafia violence in the suburbs of Naples at times felt equally strange and otherworldly.
Here, Garrone weaves together three of the 50 fairytales collected by 17th-century Neapolitan courtier Giambattista Basile, an acknowledged influence on those later, better-known fairytale writers Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm.
In the first story, Salma Hayek’s barren queen finally gives birth to a son after eating the heart of a sea monster slain by her husband the king (John C Reilly), only for the virgin who cooked the heart to bear an identical baby boy to whom her son will become inseparable.
In the second, Vincent Cassel’s licentious king has his passions aroused by the singing of an unseen woman. However, she and her sister (Hayley Carmichael, Shirley Henderson) are old and ugly, and their ensuing deceptions have fateful consequences.
And in the third, intertwined with the other stories, Toby Jones’s self-indulgent king’s obsession with a giant flea leads to his young daughter (Bebe Cave) becoming betrothed to an ogre.
Basile’s tales are fabulously strange, but the mood of Garrone’s film is one of gorgeously grotesque realism, the weirdness grounded by the striking use of real locations. Who needs CGI when you have at your disposal such imposing settings as Sicily’s Alcantara gorge, the Vie Cave in southern Tuscany, Viterbo’s Bosco del Sasseto and, most eye-catching of all, the Castel del Monte, the enigmatic octagonal castle built in Puglia by the 13th-century Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II?
Yet what makes Tale of Tales so compelling, and grounds it even more in reality, is its core of emotional truth. It isn’t magic spells or enchantments that drive each of the tales but recognisably real human feelings. The characters may be fairytale figures but their desires – desire for a child, desire for youth and beauty, and desire for adulthood and independence – are just like ours.
Certificate 15. Runtime 133 mins. Director Matteo Garrone
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A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.