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Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Keep your nose out of this one


Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Roberto Benigni
Running time: 111 minutes
Language: Italian
Currently showing

The best people to review a children's film are children themselves. Last week, at the public parent-and-child screening for "Pinocchio," elementary school kids gathered with their parents to watch director Roberto Benigni's latest work following the worldwide success of "Life Is Beautiful." And the dominant reaction seemed to be one of plain bewilderment.

News photo
Nicoletta Braschi and Roberto Benigni in "Pinocchio"

The kids just couldn't understand why, in a children's film, no children appeared at all and Pinocchio was played by a 50-year-old -- Benigni himself. Many of the younger children got restless; a few fell asleep. One of the world's most beloved fairy tales, written for children, had been transformed into a raucous romp starring a bunch of adults in silly clothes.

There's a reason for Benigni's insistence on both directing and performing -- many years ago, on another movie set, he was nicknamed "Pinocchio" by Federico Fellini for his prankish ways. Fellini then revealed that he was eager to make a Pinocchio film and promised the role to his protege. But Fellini died before the project got off the ground. Benigni says in the production notes that he felt like he owed it to the master filmmaker to complete the film. And, despite his age, he felt confident he could pull off the role of the mischievous little boy puppet.

To an adult audience already enamored of Benigni, this may make perfect sense. But the film is in grave danger of alienating everyone else who goes in without knowing (or without giving a hoot) about Benigni's bonds to Fellini, such as the film's assumed target audience of children.

Benigni didn't get it all wrong. He persuaded Fellini's production designer Danilo Donati to work on the sets. Donati's creations are candy-colored artistic gems that demonstrate how good taste, imagination and sheer manpower can outdo digital effects.

Still, Donati's onscreen fantasy world can't cancel out the film's grating moralistic overtones, extolling industry as the highest virtue and warning against the dire consequences of straying from the straight and narrow.

Benigni shares the blame for this with Carlo Collodi, who penned the original story in 1881. Collodi was a government official in Florence, Italy, before switching to writing full-time. At the time, Italy was going through both depression and civil war, and this backdrop is reflected in his story: Wounded veterans and army deserters were wandering the streets and turning their hands to crime (symbolized in the film by the fox and the cat that lure Pinocchio away and steal his coins); children were often kidnapped or sold into slavery by their parents, or to traveling circuses (in the film, an evil magician turns kids into mules and sells them off); the vast number of poor could barely put one meal on the table per day (Pinocchio's once-a-day meal consists of a single pear).

In the face of all this, the government exhorted its citizens to study well and work hard, preaching that these were the only remedies to their ills (translated into: Don't be lazy, or terrible things will happen. Your nose will grow long or you'll become a mule!)

For some years now the trend among filmmakers has been to make the traditional fairy tale less cutesy and to zero in on the dark side ("Snow White," "Ever After"). Indeed, many children's stories contain elements of horror -- children and adults alike are bullied, starved and even devoured -- and "Pinocchio" is no exception. The little boy puppet who drops out of school and worries his father is duly beaten, threatened, almost murdered and turned into a mule, before he's reformed.

The problem is that in the process, it's hard to warm to Benigni's Pinocchio -- whereas a real child could have conveyed some genuine vulnerability (thereby arousing sympathy for his plight). Benigni often makes you feel like Pinocchio got what was coming to him. See how he treats the talking cricket (Peppe Barra) -- pounding him with a mallet, or crushing him under a heavy lid whenever the cricket tries to offer sound advice.

Nor is he much more likable in his moments of contrition. In the scenes where he pours out his regrets for being naughty to a kind fairy (Nicoletta Braschi), he's a precise caricature of an Italian husband who has gone astray and now find himself giving 1,000 excuses to his wife (in fact, Benigni and Braschi are married) knowing that if he talks long and loudly enough, she will eventually forgive him. Benigni swings between badness and boo-hooing regret a little too often, and this will surely exasperate children who can tell him straight off that kids aren't so dumb.

And when he finally sees the light, as it were, and becomes truly good, Pinocchio is rewarded with the great gift of turning human, complete with the human woes of worry, toil and growing old. Still, life is beautiful, says Benigni/Pinocchio. This time though, you just don't feel like believing him.

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