Tale of Tales: Cinema of Globalisation
June 20, 2016 § 1 Comment
In order to find an English-language audience Elena Ferrante’s novels had to be brought to the world in translation by an Italian publisher, Europa. This is because publishers in the UK and the USA are notoriously reluctant to take a risk with unknown writers of foreign literature, a very small proportion of whom make it into the dominant world language. The success of foreign crime fiction has shifted this perspective a little and the number of translations is relatively higher, but, everywhere, in business, science, and the circulation of academic papers English continues to rule and expand its linguistic empire.
Like Ferrante, Giambattista Basile was a Neapolitan, a poet, man of letters and the author of Tale of Tales, a rich compilation of folktales written in Neapolitan, combining classical scholarship with scabrous vernacular and published posthumously between 1634 and 1636. It contains the earliest known versions of Cinderella and Rapunzel, providing material for Perrault and, much later, in the context of the German Romantic movement, the brothers Grimm. Basile’s 50 stories, also known as The Pentameron, have a framework derived from Boccaccio’s Decameron, and unfold over a period of five days, set within the complicated courtly fabulation of an unsmiling princess and a prince waiting to be awakened from the sleep of death. They cross Baroque with Medieval. The tellers are a group of female servants, described as hunchbacked, cross-eyed, lame, incontinent and otherwise afflicted, all of them bidden to provoke laughter.
Laughter is largely absent from Matteo Garrone’s film, which loosely draws on three of the tales. It sticks to Basile’s intention in having an adult audience in mind and has a corresponding visual sophistication. Indeed, it looks very beautiful, with stunning images of Ovidian transformation, and of breathtaking landscapes – southern Italy abounds in fairytale castles, whether clifftop Gothic or shining monumental Vaubanesque. The film has genuine moments of strangeness revealing tenderness in monsters, ferocity in innocence; in one of these a fairy of sorts, in the guise of a crone, dispenses what art historians know as Roman charity by giving suck to an equally old woman. The style is deadpan, the humour ironic rather than comic. Its underlying moral, as in Basile, suggests that we be careful what we wish for.
Lust, longing, envy, loneliness, the passage into adulthood or old age and the relationships between parents and children, as well as poverty’s struggle with wealth and power – the tortuous nature of human experience is heightened to its extremes in Basile’s tales. Angela Carter once remarked that the folktale can be a matter of one King going to the King next door to borrow a cup of sugar; in this realm kings and queens, princesses and princes become stand-ins for us all.
The film is admirably well paced, flitting from one tale to another at crucial moments, melding them together. But in doing so it dissipates some of their energy and visceral shock. The bloodiness is elegantly done, the sex fleeting. It’s not a short film but greater length might also have allowed greater depth. Whatever the case, I had a sense of something held back. Might Garrone, who directed the shatteringly violent Gomorrah, have been constrained? Maybe not, but the more I think about the film, which has stayed with me, the more I think that the constraint is linguistic.
This is a Franco-Italian production, predominantly Italian and funded to a large extent with Italian corporate finance under the Italian tax credits scheme. In Italy, where everything is dubbed, it will be seen as an Italian film. It’s not an Anglo-Italian film but an Italian film made in English, and, with the exception of the French actor Vincent Cassel, its stars are anglophone. Of course, cinema is now globalised, with multiple forms of financing from different national sources, but this hybrid strikes me as a peculiar development of the tendency to produce for the Anglo-American market without anyone having to read subtitles.
The fairytale doesn’t have a native language, yet it’s worth looking at its earliest sources. Greek myth inspired Basile, Zoroastrian folktales are to be found in the biblical Apocrypha, so we can add Persian to the list, along with Arabic and its cycle of Arabian Nights, Boccaccio’s Italian and so on across the world. The Celtic and Slavic languages have spread their stories through time and place. When I think of folktales/fairytales in English, pantomime comes to mind, a knockabout form that owes its existence to the Italian clown Grimaldi. The film Tale of Tales had four scriptwriters, including Garrone, all of them with Italian names, so I’d surmise that dialogue was written in Italian and subsequently translated into English. Had the film been made in Italian, with perhaps a flavour of Neapolitan, it would not just have sounded different to the ear, it would have made a different emotional and aesthetic impact. It might well have been funnier. I suspect that English as well as editing contributed to my sense of something held back.
Coinciding with this film’s release comes BBC2’s Versailles, a French-produced historical drama made in English. It has a multinational production team, British/American actors and a script full of contemporary anglo idioms that sound deracinated. It’s ridiculous and very watchable, a soap opera about the Sun King. I’m sure we can expect more of the same.
The pleasure of The Killing and the successful Nordic series that have followed on TV comes not just from the qualities of script, acting and camerawork, but from their distinctiveness as the creative products of another culture. Much of the joy of cinema resides in its great diversity of aesthetic and artistic roots. That distinctiveness will be compromised if the trend to make movies more palatable to English-speaking audiences gets the money-driven upper hand. It raises the nightmare prospect of an increasingly monolingual culture that stifles the infinite nuances and meanings of other languages. That would be a huge loss.