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‘Tale of Tales’: Do we need fables for adults?

by Giovanni Fazio

The current ideological system that governs our lives — call it late capitalism, the spectacle, or just Babylon — is most devious in its ability to take any and all resistance, any deviance from the hamster wheel of consumerism, and repackage it as just another product, whether that’s Che Guevara T-shirts, “fair-trade” coffee at Starbucks, or The Beatles’ “Revolution” as a soundtrack for Nike ads.

Cinema is no different, and we see the process at work this month with director Matteo Garrone’s “Tale of Tales.” Garrone, you may recall, is the Italian director who rose to prominence with “Gomorrah” (2008), a savage documentary-like gangster movie set in Naples, which showed how mafia corruption had infected every corner of daily life.

Shot on an actual Neapolitan housing estate and based on risky undercover journalism, “Gomorrah” was powerful confrontational art, exposing a shadow reality. It was a huge hit at home — where it influenced both attitudes and politics — and abroad, where it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was nominated for an Oscar. (It also spun off a gritty TV series, now in its second season.)

Garrone became a success, and with that came access to money, stars and, potentially, a larger audience. He now has the chance to make whatever he wants — provided it was about nothing. Thus, the director who made “Gomorrah” and followed it up with “Reality” — a biting satire of reality TV — has shifted his focus to fairy tales. This is how the system works.

“Tale of Tales” is based on a 17th-century book of Italian fairy tales by Giambattista Basile. While not as well-known as the Brothers Grimm, the tales share a similar sensibility, full of beautiful princesses and old crones, simpleton kings and evil queens, doppelgangers, magical beasts and enchanted forests. Garrone intercuts three separate stories: Salma Hayek plays a barren queen who will do anything for a child, while Vincent Cassel is a lascivious king enthralled by the wrong lady, and Tony Jones appears as a monarch whose attempts to marry off his daughter go horribly awry.

To some extent, this is still Garrone: As in “Gomorrah,” the director deftly intercuts multiple story lines, and his preference for real locations over CGI is apparent and one of the film’s real strengths. “Tale of Tales” is great eye candy, and the awe-inspiring shots from Puglia’s octagonal Castel del Monte and the moss-covered forest of Lazio’s Bosco del Sasseto will surely leave you planning your next vacation to the south of Italy.

Garrone keeps a measured pace, resisting the frenetic speed of similar Hollywood products, and the storybook quality of the film would recommend it to younger viewers if it were not for scenes of the king in flagrante delicto or the queen supping on a bloody monster heart.

Basile’s “Tale of Tales” was subtitled “Entertainment For the Little Ones” and it begs the question, since when are fairy tales aimed at adult viewers? The wave of “edgy” live-action fairy tales — with added violence and occasionally sex — began when director Catherine Hardwicke followed up “Twilight” with “Red Riding Hood” in 2011, and it has been relentless, even in the face of near-disasters like “Jack the Giant Slayer.”

It’s easy to see the thought process of the marketing geniuses: name recognition plus properties that are in the public domain. But it also points toward the increasing infantilization of the audience, where stories shorn of nuance and designed for a six-year-old’s rather limited attention span become the norm for adult minds.

What do we take away from these films? Taken alongside “Game of Thrones” and the endless fantasy-medieval worlds of RPGs, it’s almost tempting to see this as a vast subliminal exercise in mind control, re-acclimating us to the feudal relationship between rulers and serfs.

Maybe that’s what is coming after capitalism.