The wooden boy with a nose which grows longer with every lie — the tale of Pinocchio is a timeless one, and has been the staple of many childhood storytelling routines, warning the wide-eyed listener about the consequences of lying. Matteo Garrone’s cinematic adaptation of the children’s classic of the same name, which played at the 70th edition of the Berlin International Film Festival that concluded on March 1, has a serviceable young lad as Pinocchio. But the heart and soul of his movie is Pinocchio’s loving father, the woodcarver Geppetto, played by Roberto Benigni.
Benigni, 68, is a writer-director-actor, whose long career has been dotted with theatre, television and films. Renowned globally for Life Is Beautiful (1997) which won the Oscar, in 1999, for Best Foreign Language film, and him the Best Actor award, Benigni had directed his own version of Pinocchio in 2002, in which he played the title character. In this one directed by Garrone, his love for his mischievous little boy, whom he has carved out of a very special log, spreads warmth whenever he’s on screen.
In person, Benigni is startlingly like his screen character, warm and affable. He comes into the room, radiating good humour, instantly dissipating the ill-will wafting from the bunch of critics who have been made to wait far beyond the scheduled time for the interview. And, as far as a typical press junket at international film festivals goes, where the interviewee is going through the motions more often than not, this interaction with Benigni is different. It reveals unknown aspects about him, and becomes richer with the director joining in later.
Garrone, 52, whose work has garnered acclaim at international festivals, was an extra on Federico Fellini’s last movie (The Voice Of The Moon, 1990), where he first saw Benigni at work, as the film’s lead actor. For Garrone, whose Rome-based theatre-critic father was a big fan of Benigni’s work, to take Pinocchio to Benigni was like completing a circle.
Garrone’s mother used to tell him the story of the animated puppet with the tell-tale nose, he says, and he was only six years old when he made his first storyboard of Pinocchio, like a graphic novel. When he decided to make a fairy tale, he went back to the original, The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883) by Carlo Collodi. It was a joyous rediscovery for him, as he soon realised that the classic tale spoke to the human condition just as strongly today. “Roberto brought to Geppetto his humanity,” he says, “and his incredible capacity to make the audience remain in love with the character.”
In the interview, where we learn that Benigni’s favourite word is “beautiful”, coming a close second to “incredible”, he speaks about the experience of working on the movie, (no, he didn’t have to tone down his natural exuberance for the part; no, he didn’t use prosthetics, it was au naturel) and the importance of fairy tales for both adults and children (who doesn’t like a happy ending?).
Is it true that you were very poor growing up, just like the woodcarver Geppetto in the movie?
Yes, my family was very poor. My father was also a carpenter, just like Geppetto. And my nickname was Pinocchio, and like him, I was disobedient, and a liar, too (chuckles). I was born in Tuscany, very close to the place where (the fictional) Pinocchio was born. And Fellini called me Pinocchio, too. So, my entire life is full of Pinocchio.
How easy or difficult was it to make Pinocchio in today’s time?
We will always need a fairy tale. Because life is incomprehensible. Sometimes we need fairy tales to make sense of it. And Pinocchio is not just a fairy tale. It is a romance for children and adults/parents, for those aged from five to 65. It teaches us so many things, but not in a boring way. These characters, marvelous and fantastical, are looking for happiness. In that way Pinocchio is very modern, because it says happiness is right in front of us.
How challenging was it for you to find the right balance, because it could be too dark for young children, and too simplistic for adults?
Oh, it is a dream role for an actor. It is like playing Othello and Iago. Or, Hamlet and Ophelia. Light and dark.
Is it true that Francis Ford Coppola wanted to make this movie?
Yes. I met him after Life Is Beautiful, and he was a great fan of me, and me of him. And he asked me, ‘What about you as my Geppetto?’ And I said, ‘for you I would even play the whale! (A whale plays a small, but significant part in the movie).’
Do you have plans to return as a director?
Oh yes, I would like that very much. I toured with Dante’s Divine Comedy for around 10 years, and I made a lot of TV shows. I was in Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love (2012), and now this. So yes, it is time for a movie.
What are your memories of being really poor?
During the Oscar speech, I said, I thank my parents for their biggest gift, and it was poverty. I was serious. It was not a gag. I have two sisters, and we had only one bed, and we all slept in the same bed. My parents, my sisters, and I. The best moments of my life belonged to my childhood. My parents taught me a lot, even if they couldn’t read or write. In our poverty, we were like a prince, aristocratic. We were the owners of the world, and it was beautiful, beautiful. It is the poverty that makes you rich. When you belong to the world, the world belongs to you.
Is it different now, that you are no longer poor?
I am not attached to money. My house is very beautiful, but it is normal. My life is very simple. With my money, what can I do, order two coffees at the same time, not one? (chuckles). Yes, I’ve been to palace-like homes. Once I met Liz (actor Elizabeth) Taylor at a lunch at such a house, and her husband asked me, why don’t you write something for Liz, these days she is doing nothing. In my life to think that somebody would ask me to write something for Liz Taylor! (laughs).
Would you like to make an autobiographical movie? Like Fellini’s Amarcord (1973)?
No, I do not like to talk about myself. There are so many more interesting things in the world than me.
Would you like to make a movie which is less of a fairy tale, more a political statement?
To me, directly political films are not quite…(trails off). Even Life Is Beautiful, if I allow myself, was a fable. It is not a documentary or realistic movie, but it was political.
There would have been another Pinocchio in your life.
Why didn’t the project with Fellini work out?
Yes, Fellini wanted me to play Pinocchio. We spoke many times, and he used to say, Robertino — he called me Robertino — you will play Pinocchio. Then he fell sick.
Which movie did you like better, yours or this one?
This one is my favourite Pinocchio. When I saw this film, for the fourth time here, I was enchanted. I watched with my mouth open. The sentiment, it was beautiful, beautiful.
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