Almost two centuries before Grimm's Fairy Tales, there was a collection of 50 stories called the Pentamerone, or Tale of Tales, that first assembled the tales later reimagined by the Brothers Grimm as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel and many others. Written by the Italian poet Giambattista Basile and published posthumously in 1634 and 1636, Tale of Tales has languished in relative obscurity due in part to the little-known Neapolitan dialect in which Basile wrote.
A new English translation of Tale of Tales — the first since 1932 — just hit bookshelves, timed to coincide with the U.S. release of award-winning Italian director Matteo Garrone's film adaptation of Basile's work. In the grand tradition of both literary and cinematic fairy tales, Garrone's Tale of Tales takes many liberties with its source material. The film presents three related stories that retain the kings, queens, spellcasters and fantastic creatures of Basile's original work yet pulls back on the fantasy. Aimed squarely at a sophisticated adult audience, the lavish Tale of Tales generates a vibe that's closer to magical realism than the fairy tales of old.
The film moves among the three stories and avoids the episodic structure of the literary Tale of Tales. Each story focuses on one or two female characters facing difficult circumstances in three neighboring kingdoms. The Queen of Longtrellis (Salma Hayak) is willing to risk her own life and that of her King (John C. Reilly) for the chance to bear a child. The Princess of Highhillis (Bebe Cave) only desires an appropriate husband but suffers at the hands of her negligent, distracted father and King (Toby Jones). Two elderly sisters (Shirley Henderson and Hayley Carmichael) long for lost youth and mount a dangerous deception after the lascivious King of Strongcliff (Vincent Cassel) mistakes one of them for a young maiden.
Leisurely paced and more than two hours long, Tale of Tales invites viewers to savor its lush visual details. A sea monster and a giant pet flea are handmade works of art crafted and shot without benefit of computer graphics. The film's gorgeous settings consist mostly of real-world locations like Sicily's stunning Alcantara Gorge and historic palaces chosen for their fairy tale-worthy aesthetics, all shot by legendary cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (Star Wars: Episode V — The Empire Strikes Back). The international cast — working from an English-language screenplay intended to broaden the film's appeal — appears to relish the chance to romp in Garrone's organic yet fanciful world.
The visuals also support the stories' themes, which mostly explore the perils of vanity and self-obsession and repeatedly mix the sublime with the grotesque. Tale of Tales is bawdy, violent and inappropriate for small children, even though the title of Basile's original work — when fully translated — includes the phrase "entertainment for the little ones." But human struggle and adult themes always lie just below the surface of the best literature for children. That's where Garrone finds the material he needs to make these stories relevant to modern audiences — and why 400-year-old fairy tales continue to resonate even as times change.