Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone burst onto the international scene a few years ago with “Gomorrah,” a scathing, multi-layered expose of the Neapolitan Mafia. He followed that up with a broader, but equally unforgiving look at modern Italian life, “Reality.”
His new film, then, seems like a change of pace, moving from reality to fantasy and drawing on fairy tales. In fact, though, as smoothly entertaining as it may be, “Tale of Tales” finds Garrone once again sketching humanity’s foibles in a way that allows for empathy but not excuses.
The movie tells three stories, each centering on a flawed monarch and each based on the writing of Giambattista Basile, the 17th-century author of “Pentimente,” a collection of fantastical tales for children that inspired the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault over a century later.
This is Garrone’s first English-language film, and he makes good use of his expanded cast options. In one tale a king (John C. Reilly) kills a sea monster and presents its heart to his wife (Salma Hayek) in the belief that it will make her fertile. In another, a selfish ruler (Toby Jones) values his pet flea, which grows to enormous proportions, more than his daughter, who he marries off to an ogre. Finally, Vincent Cassel plays the lustful leader of yet another land, who’s smitten by the voice of one of his female subjects, but aghast when he realizes post-coitally that she’s a wrinkly old woman.
(Let’s just take a moment to recognize the astonishing versatility of Reilly, who seems unafraid to take on any sort of role. Whether working with Judd Apatow or Paul Thomas Anderson, goofing it up as Dr. Steve Brule on “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!”, or popping up in European films like this one and the upcoming “Les Cowboys,” he’s always a treat. And that doesn’t even include his side career as a rootsy troubadour. So, yeah, three cheers for John C. Reilly, even though he bows out of “Tale of Tales” pretty early on.)
We’re fairly accustomed to fairy-tale revisionism at this point, either flipping the script on the sexism and other prejudices of the original texts, or to darkening them up into Gothic and/or Freudian nightmares. “Tale of Tales” is refreshing, and entertaining, because it restores the basic weirdness of these stories without being cynical about it. Garrone recognizes the inherent absurdity of these plots, but acknowledges the universal human truths they nonetheless portray.
This balance is maintained both through the performances, which are pitched midway between psychological realism and mythic iconography. And visually, the combination of barren, beautiful Italian locations and smartly interwoven special effects does the trick. (That Shetland-pony-sized flea somehow verges on cute.)
Even if you’ve had your fill of revamped Snow Whites and cheeky Cinderellas, “Tale of Tales” will surprise and delight. It’s not that far off in tone from an adult version of “The Princess Bride,” which is high praise indeed.
(133 minutes, not rated, opens Friday, May 20, at the Hollywood Theatre and the Living Room Theaters) GRADE: B+