In cinematic history there are very few films that were more destructive to a career than Heaven’s Gate was to Michael Cimino. While perhaps not entirely on that epic level of failure, Roberto Benigni (remember him?) experienced a similarly dramatic fall from grace after the release of his adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s prolific tale of the titular wooden puppet, Pinocchio.
Irrefutably a critical and commercial failure (it is currently the proud owner of a shiny 0% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes), this unabashed testament to one man’s arrogance and vanity easily established itself as one of the most universally reviled films to be released in the early 2000′s. However, in order to understand why, lazy descriptors (such as Peter-Pan fetishism) must be tabled. Instead, we must roll up our sleeves and plunge into an analysis of this so-called stinker. Does Pinocchio have any redeeming artistic value? Or is this film fully deserving of its reputation? And, finally, did its writer, director and star, Benigni, truly deserve to have his career go up in flames like a dry pile of, well… wood?
So, let me say right at the beginning that Pinocchio is not without artistic merit. First off, the aesthetics of the film are really top-notch; and it’s obvious why Pinocchio ballooned into the most expensive Italian film ever made. With explosions of color, a seemingly infinite number of garish costumes, extravagant sets and pristine camerawork capturing the lush beauty of the Italian countryside, Pinocchio is undoubtedly a feast for the eyes. There are a collection of images (such as Pinocchio, hanging by a rope from a tree branch and silhouetted by a staggeringly full moon, or the puppet clambering up the slippery surface of some coastal boulders only to look out upon a raging mixture of grey and steel blue surf) that are brilliantly conceived. It is clear that Benigni and his collaborators are aware of how to create a visual image complementary to a fantasy-based story.
Still, there is a level of opulence that hangs over the film, and we are always acutely aware of the money involved in the production. Additionally, the barrage of effects, ornate costumes, and bizarre make-up designs eventually become so overwhelming that even the most sedated of viewers would inevitably start screaming for a resprieve. This is definitely a film profoundly lacking (thematically and aesthetically) in anything resembling tangible reality -where a viewer might, oh, I don’t know, latch onto the story emotionally or form a connection to any of the characters occupying the screen.
Of course, the main attraction of this bizarre exercise is Benigni himself. It is his performance as the obstinate “young” puppet which not only qualifies as probably the most outrageous and frankly upsetting casting decisions in modern times, but also casts such a profound shadow over the entire film that all other aspects of the production must be interpreted differently. There are images in Pinocchio where the viewer can infer real craftsmanship and beauty; two of these have already been mentioned above. However, there are also images focused on Benigni as the title role which cement themselves as some of the most psychologically troubling pictures that I have recently encountered.
Consider a sequence that is so trippy that simply articulating it through text fails to do it justice; it needs to be seen to be believed. At one moment of the film, Benigni’s puppet hero is captured by a jaded farmer of sorts, who then proceeds to use the puppet as a replacement watchdog. Now, I’m not certain whether or not a sequence like this appears in the original text of Collodi’s novel, but the image of Benigni (who already strikes a disturbing pose with his frilly and flowered outfit and dunce-like pointed hat) wiggling around on all fours, barking into the gathering darkness of the Italian countryside and adorned with an iron spiked collar is so surreal and startling that one can’t even begin to know how to react.
Such is the case with much of the film – which is often so bizarre its hypnotic. Benigni’s embodiment of this character, who is supposed to be a child, is so egregiously creepy and utterly jarring that the legitimacy of every single frame in the picture instantly gets called into question. Was Benigni laughing at all of us when he made this film? Had his ego really been inflated to such a degree by his undeserved Academy Award triumph over Edward Norton’s neo-nazi brute or Nick Nolte’s towering performance in Affliction?
Answers to such questions will probably never come. However, one thing that is clear is that the audacity of Benigni’s decision to take on the title role of his film is the factor which irrevocably mars the entirety of the production. Even the superlative nature of the film’s costume and set design, and the efficacy of the cinematography, must be viewed differently because, due to the casting of Benigni, we can’t interpret Pinocchio as a project where the filmmaker was simply attempting to create a visually arresting fantasy. The high quality of the production values seem to all circulate around showcasing Benigni as the leading role. In the end, Pinocchio is not so much a film as it is a quintessential example of narcissism and artistic masturbation.
It would be one thing if Benigni somehow managed to pull off the impossible, and actually would have found a way to play Pinocchio that didn’t alienate his audience or make people’s skin crawl. However, by combining the stylized facial emoting of Charlie Chaplin, and the saccharine physicality and emotional spectrum of his earlier work (Life is Beautiful), Benigni never moves away from being little more than a freakish distraction. It’s not if any of his supporting cast members fare much better – with his wife, actress Nicoletta Braschi, attempting to pull off a sense of ethereal wisdom as The Blue Fairy, but only managing to look lost and disillusioned.
In conclusion, Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio is not a cinematic failure on every level. With a strong visual sense and sublime work from the film’s various technical departments, the film definitely has the appearance of being made by very competent hands. Unfortunately, Benigni’s decision to also take on the title role of the story invariably ruins it. Not only is his performance bad, but this casting choice strongly suggests an actor with a highly delusional sense of himself.
The ramifications of this choice on the film itself are ubiquitous and potent, with all of the positive aesthetic qualities become somewhat diminished almost immediately. With Benigni’s mugging you look upon the spectacular sets with a feeling of revulsion. They become decadent before your eyes – just another element indicative of Benigni’s vanity. Also, at 50, how are we supposed to feel about Pinocchio’s journey and his desire to grow into a moral person? Is it even possible to listen to Benigni prance about and wax longingly about how strongly he wants to become a “real boy” without grimacing?
The casting also dramatically warps his interactions with the other characters. If Benigni had stayed sane and maybe actually cast a child actor in the lead role, the scenes between Pinocchio and The Blue Fairy might have possibly carried some actual emotion, possibly even some poignancy! Instead, the images and words which constitute these scenes do very little except inspire revulsion, with the phallic symbolism of 50 year old Benigni’s nose extending due to his pathological misbehavior being impossible to forget. With such distracting casting the film loses what made past adaptations more enjoyable. It is devoid of any real enchantment, magic or fun. This is one “real boy” that should have stayed a block of wood – undefined, unmade and safely tucked away.
FINAL VERDICT: Yes, it is really “that bad.” Don’t waste your time.