This may be a deeper dive than anyone who hasn’t already seen Tale of Tales will want to take, but here it is for those who do. First is more information about the work of Giambattista Basile, author of the film’s source material. Following that is a statement by the director, Matteo Garrone, concerning the film’s intentions and aspects of production. Both of these are from the press notes for Tale of Tales.
Tale of Tales by Giambattista Basile
Basile, Count of Torrone (cir. 1570-1632) was an academic, courtier and soldier to various Italian princes, including the Doge of Venice. He drew inspiration from popular oral traditions in Crete, and especially Venice.
A seminal narrative monument, Basile’s work comprises 50 tales. The first tale acts as a framework in which a group of people tell each other 49 stories over five days. In delightful language, using a style that blends eroticism and violence, the elegant and the grotesque, codes of honour and bawdiness, the author depicts with consummate skill and extraordinary vigour an incredible gallery of moral portraits and social mores. Yet the sorcerers and ogres, kings and princesses, dragons and enchanted animals in these stories have a naturalistic appearance, and Basile moves them through an accessible world, at once rich and poverty-stricken, one that is very physical and visceral. The backdrop for the tales is the everyday life of fully-fleshed men and women, in which extraordinary elements; the magical, the monstrous or miraculous, burst in.
Whilst other works written after the Decameron were made up of stories that could be called fairytales, such as The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, Tale of Tales is the first in which all the stories are fairytales. Moreover, Basile was the first writer to succeed in perfectly reproducing oral intonations. Tale of Tales inspired the Brothers Grimm two centuries later, for some of their most famous works including Cinderella, Puss in Boots, Donkeyskin, Sleeping Beauty and Hansel and Gretel. Through his taste for fantasy, Basile’s work, with its comic and sentimental aspects and frequent touches of horror, is several centuries ahead of authors like Hans Christian Andersen, J.R.R. Tolkien, or even the Harry Potter saga. But the Neapolitan dialect in which Basile’s tales were written explains why they remained virtually unknown to the wider world for some 200 years.
“This collection was for long the best and richest found in a nation. The author had a special talent for collecting them, and what’s more, an intimate knowledge of the dialect. The stories are told almost without a break, and the tone, at least in the Neapolitan tales, is captured to perfection. We can, then, regard this collection of 50 tales as the basis for many others.” -Wilhelm Grimm (1837)
“The Tale of Tales is the dream of a Neapolitan Shakespeare, obsessed with all that is gruesome, with an insatiable appetite for sorcerers and ogres, fascinated by convoluted and grotesque images, in which crudeness merges with the sublime.” -Italo Calvino
DIRECTOR’S NOTES by Matteo Garrone
The Choice of Basile –
I chose to tackle the universe of Basile because in his tales, I found that they blend between the real and fantastic which has always characterized my artistic endeavors.
The stories recounted in The Tale of Tales cover all of life’s opposites: the ordinary and the extraordinary, the magical and the everyday, the regal and the obscene, the straightforward and the artificial, the sublime and the filthy, the terrible and the tender, scraps of mythology and torrents of popular wisdom. The tales recount human feelings pushed to the extreme.
The approach to the tales: the real and the fantastical –
From the first reading of the 50 tales which make up the book, me and my fellow screenwriters faced numerous choices in choosing the stories that we liked most and then making them credible, concrete, as if we were seeing them take place before our eyes. Our approach was to search for something powerful, physical, shared and authentic, even in the stories in which the imagination was the most fired-up. In Basile’s work, there’s a great pleasure in the narrative, and that should also be a prerogative of cinema.
My previous films have been based on true stories, which I transformed to the limits of an almost fantasy dimension. Here, we did the journey in the opposite direction. We were inspired by fabulous situations that were brought on to a realistic basis through a process of subtraction, so the spectator can at each moment feel involved in the story, and become immersed in the adventures of our characters.
Modernity of the tales –
This process of subtraction had no effect whatsoever on the themes and the fundamental sentiments in the book, which still show all their surprising modernity. We were the first to be amazed by this. The horror, for example, is all there in Basile’s work; we really didn’t add anything. At the end of a long selection process, once we had chosen and created the connections between the tales, we realized to our great surprise that we had followed an invisible but very strong thread that linked them. Actually, it involved three stories about women, each at a different age in life. But what struck us even more was the capacity of these tales to capture some contemporary obsessions: the powerful desire for youth and beauty (which Basile even describes in a hyper-realistic manner, offering a satire on today’s cosmetic surgery, four centuries ahead of his time), the obsession of a mother who would do anything to have a son, the conflict between the generations, and the violence that a girl must deal with to become adult.
The language of the film –
We chose English, beyond mere production reasons (given that it’s a film with an international cast), but because that language is the way to make The Tale of Tales, this book on which some of the most famous fairytales in the world are based, accessible to the widest possible audience. The imagination of these tales goes beyond any limit, and in that respect Basile is a universal author. What’s more, the use of English means you don’t immediately identify the landscapes which form the backdrop of our story, and that avoids fixing the characters in a particular dialectal tone.
Faithfulness and betrayal –
Using English was not the only “betrayal”; we took some other liberties. But the rest is in the very nature of the fairytale, which is continually translated and reinterpreted. We found so many versions of the same stories. You can never be faithful to a tale: each time you tell it to a child so they go off to sleep, something changes. What we absolutely didn’t want to betray, what we tried to keep intact, was the spirit, that evocative power of the Tales, which has fed the universal imagination through the centuries, influencing writers like Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. And the language in which we wanted to transpose it was above all the cinematographic language – a language which can have its own specific richness, like that which we find in Basile’s work. If there can be a fantastic version of Shakespeare’s Tempest rewritten in Neapolitan by Eduardo de Filippo, we thought perhaps there could be a Basile in English. And let’s not forget that anyone who reads Basile today, even in Italy, reads the dual version, with the original text opposite the translation. It would a great thing if the film made people curious and encouraged them to read the book.
The special effects –
Like all the artistic decisions, whether the cinematography sets or costumes, the special effects were designed to give the film as much verisimilitude as possible, to lend it physical and emotional credibility. In particular, the work on the special effects was characterized by a purely artisanal creative path. We physically tried to create the fantastical creatures like the dragon and the giant flea, and to keep the digital intervention solely for touch-ups. It’s a way of working that allowed the actors to perform in close contact with these fantastic creatures and to get fully inside the skin of the character during takes.
Painting and cinema –
From a visual point of view, some of the film’s major inspirations come from Los Caprichos, the series of engravings by Francisco Goya. His marvelous illustrations really capture the soul which bursts forth from Basile’s work, and the atmosphere of the film: they provide a representation of grotesque humanity, at once realistic and fantastic, spiced up with many comic and macabre elements. As far as cinema is concerned, among the key references, I’d cite Black Sunday by Mario Bava, Comencini’s Pinocchio, Fellini’s Casanova, and Brancaleone’s Army by Monicelli.
A fantasy book with some incursions into horror –
I would define The Tale of Tales as a fantasy book with some touches of horror. In an indirect yet palpable way, these two genres – fantasy and horror – come through and can already be felt in my previous work: in The Embalmer and in First Love, the horror notes can already be clearly heard; in Reality, the fairytale mood inspires the stories as much as the style; and even in Gomorrah, beyond the realism of the situations, the tone of some episodes is that of a genuine dark fable. When you think about it, The Embalmer – which also has some grotesque and poignant aspects – actually resemble one of Basile’s tales: “Once upon a time there was a dwarf who stuffed big animals and who fell in love with a beautiful young man.”
The filming locations –
Our aim was to seek out real places that could nonetheless look like they were recreated in the studio. As such, we discovered some genuine natural locations that turned out to be perfectly adapted to the multiple reconstructions presented in the film. These are buildings and panoramas which appear to be the fruit of the most fervent imagination, but which really exist, and bear within them the signs of the period and the weirdness of those who designed them, or else the unpredictable work of nature with its materials, rocks, water, and plants. Besides some wonderful chateaus, I’m thinking of the Alcantara gorge, the Vie Cave, and the Bosco del Sasseto, which looks like a pre Raphaelite set.
The costumes –
Regarding the costumes, the film is inspired by the first Baroque period, when Basile wrote the book, but since this is not a film of historical reconstruction. We felt free to reinvent a fantasy world, while at the same time being careful not to appear “extravagant”. If we allowed ourselves some license, it’s because the Baroque is a varied and sumptuous style, which allows a lot of liberties and in itself sums up the previous periods, including the Gothic, the style with which the fairytale genre has always been associated.
Here are three variant posters that present the film in different ways.
Finally, here is a press conference for Tale of Tales when it was shown at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s conducted mostly in French, with English translation in voice-over. The film received a divided response from critics there. This is understandable; it’s not for everyone. As instructor Richard Brown told a film class I was in years ago, sometimes you get on the ride and sometimes you don’t. If you’re willing to let Tale of Tales take you where it will, it can be quite a trip, believe me. – Ted Hicks