Italian fantasy film wins Cannes hearts

The Cannes Film Festival competition saw its first hit on Thursday with the Italian-made, English-language "Tale of Tales", a bloody Gothic fable that drew comparisons with the best of Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton.

Italian fantasy film wins Cannes hearts
Italian director Matteo Garrone, Mexican actress Salma Hayek and US actor John C. Reilly. Photo: Bertrand Langlois/AFP

Capitalizing on the current popularity of fantasy, not least the blockbuster “Game of Thrones” series, director Matteo Garrone tracks the fortunes of mad monarchs, desperate queens and the denizens of their dark, enchanted kingdoms.

Garrone, 46, picked up the runner-up prize in Cannes in 2008 for his Mafia saga “Gomorrah” and in 2012 for his reality television send-up “Reality” and is among 19 contenders gunning for this year's Palme d'Or, to be awarded on May 24th.

“Il racconto dei racconti” tells four loosely interconnected stories, with a cast including Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly, Vincent Cassel and Britain's Toby Jones.

The film is based on the work of Giambattista Basile, an Italian count who in the 1600s produced a volume of 50 tales based in part on oral traditions he had collected in Crete and Venice.

Two centuries before the Brothers Grimm began striking fear into the hearts of children, Basile brought to life a world of sorcerers, ogres and fearsome beasts.

Garrone said he found something “Shakespearean” in the tales that were at once ancient and “extremely modern”, which led him to make the picture in the international lingua franca.

“I thought filming this in English would give it a more universal dimension,” he said.

“I tried to go back to the origins of cinema with images that would surprise audiences,” said Garrone, who began his career as a painter.

'Dances on razor's edge'

Reilly plays a besotted king who agrees to do underwater battle with a giant sea monster because a soothsayer has told him that if his childless wife (Hayek) eats the creature's heart, she will immediately become pregnant.

Hayek said she nearly vomited during the incessant takes of her devouring a hyperrealistic model of the bloody organ, made in part of Italian pasta.

She said despite the fantastical aspects of the story, many women may relate to the depiction of the more primal aspects of motherhood.

“If you're Mexican or Lebanese or Italian, this obsession for the child, the overwhelming love for the child, is something that many women can understand,” she said with a laugh.

Jones, best known for appearances in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, the “Captain America” series and as Truman Capote in the biopic “Infamous”, plays a monarch with a restless daughter and a frightening case of empty-nest syndrome.

He begins nurturing a flea with his own blood that quickly balloons to giant dimensions, supplanting his wayward daughter in his affections.

The third strand of the story involves a randy king who is duped by grizzled spinsters into falling in love with one of them, with comic and tragic results.

Early reviews after a press preview ahead of the film's red-carpet premiere later on Thursday gave it a strong boost as the Cannes race got underway.

Peter Bradshaw of London's Guardian newspaper gave it five out of five stars, calling it “fabulous in every sense”.

“It is gloriously mad, rigorously imagined, visually wonderful: erotic, hilarious and internally consistent,” he said.

“The sort of film, in fact, which is the whole point of Cannes. It immerses you in a complete created world.”

US movie website Indiewire called the movie “Monty Python by way of Tim Burton and 'The Princess Bride' with “some of the best… effects this side of 'Pan's Labyrinth'” by Cannes jury member Guillermo del Toro.

Britain's Daily Telegraph said that “Tale of Tales” was “the kind of film you've spent 10 years wishing Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton would make”.

The movie “dances on a razor's edge between funny and unnerving, with sequences of shadow-spun horror rubbing up against moments of searing baroque beauty. The result is a fabulously sexy, defiantly unfashionable ready-made cult item,” its reviewer Robbie Collin said.

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Seven classic films to watch for an Italian Christmas

What to watch over this year's quieter than usual Christmas holidays – whether you're in Italy or just missing it.

Seven classic films to watch for an Italian Christmas
Italian Christmas cinema is a whole genre of its own. Photo: via Pexels

Vacanze di Natale (Christmas Holidays)

Let’s just get this out of the way, shall we: this 1983 farce is the original cinepanettone or ‘cinematic Christmas cake’, the name given to a particular genre of Italian Christmas comedy that’s every bit as sugary, festive and familiar as a loaf of panettone. 

They’re less Hallmark romcom, more Carry On film, with visual gags, double entendres and questionable attitudes aplenty. Good taste it ain’t, but they at least have the advantage of being easy to understand even if your Italian is limited.

Vacanze di Natale is the mother of all cinepanettone, a culture-clash comedy about rich Milanese colliding with a rough and ready Rome family over a ski break in the Alps.

Other classics of the genre – most of which star the same two comedians, Massimo Boldi and Christian De Sica – include Natale sul Nilo (Christmas on the Nile), Natale a New York (Christmas in New York), and Natale a Rio (Christmas in Rio). Yes, there’s a formula.

Natale in casa Cupiello (The Nativity Scene)

At the exact other end of the spectrum is this classic family drama by Neapolitan playwright Eduardo De Filippo, written in 1931, adapted for Italian TV in 1977 and now appearing in a new version this year on Rai 1.

‘Christmas in the Cupiello house’, as its original title translates, tells the story of the Cupiellos, two parents in Naples whose children’s desires threaten to pull the family apart. Things come to a head on Christmas Eve, as the father of the family attempts to demonstrate to his son the importance of the traditional presepe, or nativity scene. 

Tune in to Rai 1 on December 22nd for the new version, or find the 1977 classic online.

La Freccia Azzurra (The Blue Arrow)

This lovely 1996 animation, based on a fairy tale by Italian children’s author Gianni Rodari, was repackaged for American audiences as How The Toys Saved Christmas – but watch the original to find a story based around ‘Italy’s Santa’: La Befana, the witch who brings Italian children gifts the night before Epiphany (January 6th). 

La Befana (who was turned in the American version into a kindly grandma with a toyshop) falls ill the evening she is due to deliver her presents, allowing her dastardly assistant Scarafoni to step in. He secretly plans to sell off the toys – including the Blue Arrow of the title, a model train – to rich kids, but the toys have different ideas and conspire to deliver themselves to the children who deserve them most.

Set in a town based on Orbetello in Tuscany in the 1930s, it’s elegantly animated, beautifully scored and very, very charming.

Regalo di Natale (Christmas Present)

If you’re looking for something more substantial than a cinepanettone, this 1986 psychological drama is more main course than dessert.

Four old friends and one wealthy acquaintance meet for a game of poker on Christmas Eve. As the rounds unfold, we learn why each player is determined to win, and why their friendships have turned sour. 

It’s comic too, but with depth and an intriguing narrative that make it a compelling alternative to the usual festive fare. If you enjoy it, there’s a 2004 sequel: Il rivincita di Natale, or Christmas Rematch. 

La Banda dei Babbi Natale (The Santa Claus Gang)

This good-natured comedy from 2010 stars comedians Aldo Baglio, Giovanni Storti and Giacomo Poretti, a well-known comic trio who have been making films together for more than 20 years.

Here they play three hapless pals from the same bocce (boules) team in Milan, who end up in jail on Christmas Eve after being mistaken for a gang of burglars who, like them, are dressed in Santa suits. They find themselves recounting the various personal tribulations that have brought each of them there in order to convince the chief inspector (perennially likeable Angela Finocchiaro) that they’re innocent.

It has plenty of what Italian comedy does best: lots of silliness, self-deprecation, and a warm heart that never slides into total schmaltz. 

Parenti Serpenti (Dearest Relatives, Poisonous Relations)

Darker but possibly even funnier is Parenti Serpenti (literally ‘snake relatives’), a black comedy from 1992 that lays bare the cynical truth about many family Christmases: everyone’s terribly glad to see their relatives, so long as it’s only once a year.

The family in question have reunited at their parents’ home in Sulmona, Abruzzo, and the celebrations are going smoothly until the elderly mother announces over Christmas dinner that she and their increasingly senile father no longer want to live alone, and their four adult children must decide which one of them will take them in in exchange for a share of their pension and inheritance of the house. 

The children and their spouses end up competing among themselves to prove why they’re unsuitable to look after their ageing parents, airing long-hidden grievances and secrets in the process.

Don’t watch if you want your cockles warmed, do watch if you have a dark sense of humour – or if you want to be reminded why big family Christmases aren’t necessarily all they’re cracked up to be.

Trading Places (Una Poltrona Per Due)

Why is a Hollywood movie on this list – especially one that isn’t exactly considered a Christmas classic in English-speaking countries?

Because this 1983 identity swap comedy has wormed its way far deeper into Italian hearts than arguably anyone else’s. It became a fixture on primetime TV in Italy in the late ’90s, airing almost every Christmas Eve on Italia 1, and continues to attract millions of viewers each time, regularly beating more recent festive offerings.

Most people say it’s essentially because Italia 1 worked out it was cheaper to buy the rights for an older movie, and the viewing public are creatures of habit. But is there more to it?

I’d argue that Trading Places – or ‘One Armchair for Two’, as it’s known in Italy – is actually the perfect Italian Christmas film: a bit slapstick, very ’80s and deeply cynical (think A Christmas Carol but where Scrooge doesn’t abandon his money-grubbing ways, just teaches Bob Crachit to game the system too). Our two heroes – a down-and-out hustler played by Eddie Murphy, who in a bizarre social experiment ends up stepping into the shoes of wealthy banker Dan Ackroyd – triumph by being that most Italian of qualities, furbo (‘crafty’ or ‘smart’). 

Parts of the film haven’t aged well (the N-word, blackface, jokes about sexual assault…), but if you can ignore those it remains a satisfying screwball comedy (as well as an excellent demonstration of how insider trading works, which you can’t say about too many Christmas movies). You can catch it on Italia 1 this year, as usual, at 9:30pm on December 24th. 

Other Hollywood Christmas films that are firm favourites in Italy include Mamma, ho perso l’aereo (‘Mummy, I missed the plane’ – Home Alone), Mary Poppins (watch the Italian version just to marvel at the ingenious translations), Gremlins, and Il Grinch (you can probably guess that one).