Violence in Fairy Tales: Basile's Lo cunto de li cunti and Garrone's Il racconto dei racconti.
Viewers of Matteo Garrone's recent fairy-tale film, Il racconto dei racconti (The Tale of Tales, 2015), are vividly and rather unforgettably reminded that fairy tales are a violent genre. Although we associate them today with stories told in the nursery, a glance at traditional versions of even the most beloved of these narratives immediately reveals a striking presence of cruelty, blood, and death that many of us would hesitate to include in our children's bedtime rituals. Likewise, few of us, I imagine, would bring young children to see Garrone's graphic film (and not only--not even primarily--for the occasional nudity and sex). Let us take Cinderella, for example. The Disney film from 1950, probably the best-known version of the tale in the west, shows us two evil stepsisters and a cruel stepmother; there is envy and there is greed, and human evil is certainly present and active--but we do not see any actual violence performed on the protagonists, whether by themselves or by others: the most graphic among the events on the screen are the unsuccessful efforts, on Lucifer the cat's part, to kill and eat a number of cute mice, and a king's failed attempt to attack his advisor with a sword. (1) The Grimm brothers, however, in their version of the tale, detail how the stepsisters mutilate their own heels and toes in hopes that their feet will fit into the telltale slipper: "Cut your toe off," says Cinderella's stepmother to her eldest daughter, "Once you're queen, you won't need to go on foot anymore"; and to her younger daughter the mother also hands a knife, saying, "Cut off part of your heel. Once you're queen, you won't need to go on foot anymore"; the daughters obey but the prince realizes they are impostors because of their profusely bleeding feet (Grimm 125-26). As if the Grimm brothers' descriptions were not violent enough, in the oldest known European version of "Cinderella," Giambattista Basile's seventeenth-century "La Gatta cennerentola," it is the protagonist herself who kills the first of her two evil stepmothers by crushing her skull with the lid of a chest, after enticing her to stick her head inside it. Fairy-tale specialist Maria Tatar unequivocally puts it: "In fairy tales, nearly every character--from the most hardened criminal to the Virgin Mary--is capable of cruel behavior" (The Hard Facts 5). (2)
The Cinderella tale titled "La Gatta cennerentola" may be found in Giambattista Basile's Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille (The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones), a volume also known as the Pentamerone and published posthumously in Naples, at the behest of the author's famous soprano sister, Adriana Basile, between 1634 and 1636. It is portions of this book that director Matteo Garrone has adapted for the big screen, performing an opposite adaptation to that of Disney, who had bowdlerized the fairy tales he turned into film so as to please young viewers. Garrone's choice of genre, and this director's emphasis on the violent and the strange, as well as on that "wholly other" and terrifying dimension that has been repeatedly associated with the sacred, returns Basile's tales, instead, to their intended audience, one, that is, made up largely of adults. (3) In fact, despite the subtitle of Basile's Cunto de li cunti, namely, "lo trattenemiento de peccerille, " clearly those contained in this seventeenth-century collection are not children's stories, as Garrone's adaptation choices underline.
Violence in Basile 's Cunto de li cunti
Basile's Cunto de li cunti is widely acknowledged as the oldest European collection consisting entirely of fairy tales. Inspired, in its form, by Boccaccio's Decameron (both books have a frame tale containing ten tales per day, told each day by ten different narrators), Basile's Cunto de li cunti was written in a Neapolitan language that is made even more difficult, for the modern reader, by this author's ornate and prolix baroque style. Whereas Boccaccio's book unfolds over ten days, Basile's unfolds over five (hence its alternative title, Pentamerone). On each day, one story is told by each of ten narrators, and, in sharp contrast with Boccaccio's beautiful and aristocratic young women and men, every last one of Basile's narrators is a grotesque old hag. The frame tale is also wholly unlike Boccaccio's Decameron. In the latter book, the ten narrators had isolated themselves in the countryside to escape plague-ridden Florence, and entertained each other with storytelling. In Basile's collection, the frame is an actual narrative and constitutes the "tale" that includes all other "tales": the frame tale is precisely the "Tale of Tales" referred to in the book's title. This frame tale features a princess unable to laugh, who is finally brought to mirth by the sight of an old woman showing her genitals, or, "la scena voscareccia," in Basile's colorful description (3). The old woman, unfortunately for the princess, is a witch whose curse against the one who laughed at her leads to the princess's loss of her beloved prince, who marries an impostor. The princess in the end gets her prince back with the help of a fairy's gift doll, one that instills in the impostor the urgent, physical need to hear stories. To this end, the prince, her husband, hires the ten storytelling hags, and with the last story ("The Three Citrons," which mirrors in many ways the frame tale itself), the princess gets her beloved back even as the impostor is exposed and buried alive while pregnant with the prince's child. (4)
There is much violence, and of many types, in Basile's fifty tales, and often at the expense of women. I have mentioned Cinderella's murder of her own stepmother and the live burial of the frame-tale impostor. In the earliest known version of "Sleeping Beauty," Basile's "Sole, Luna e Talia," the protagonist is raped in her sleep by a lustful, married king, whose jealous wife orders the cook to cut up and stew the twin children born of the rape. (5) The widowed king at the start of "La Penta Mano Mozza" wants to marry his own sister, and when he tells her that he especially admires her hands, she--horrified by her brother's incestuous desires--asks a slave to chop her hands off, and sends them to the king her brother in a basin. As Basile specialist and translator Nancy Canepa rightly puts it, "The obsession with the corrosive action of time [...], the cult of death, the taste for violent images are all familiar elements of the baroque esthetic" ("From the Baroque to the Postmodern" 265n2). The protagonist of "La mortella" gets cut up in one hundred pieces by her rivals after they hit her in the head with a club, and the servant has to clean up the chunks of flesh and bones he finds in the pool of blood left behind by the murderers. Yet, as Canepa notes in the same essay, "The Tale of Tales is a profoundly ludic text, and often an irresistibly funny one" ("From the Baroque to the Postmodern" 275n11)--although this humorous aspect is completely neglected by Garrone in his filmic adaptation. In "The Golden Trunk," the protagonist is told to grab an ogress's tits, so pendulous that the ogress carried them like saddlebags. As in so many of Basile's metaphors and similes, the humor in this description defuses the potential fear cause by this frightful, monstrous character. Over the centuries, Basile's collection--itself presumably based on earlier versions of these same narratives handed down through oral storytelling--has inspired numerous adaptations of the fairy tales it contained, including stories by such famed authors as Charles Perrault in seventeenth-century France, the brothers Grimm in nineteenth-century Germany, and Italo Calvino in twentieth-century Italy. Director Matteo Garrone's film version is the most recent of these adaptations. It is to a comparison between Garrone's film and Basile's book that I now turn.
Garrone 's Adaptation of Basile: Il racconto dei racconti Garrone is usually cited in reference to his Gomorra (2008), which adapted for the big screen Roberto Saviano's 2006 best-selling book by the same name--an investigation into the doings of the criminal organization known as the camorra in the Naples area. Garrone's Il racconto dei racconti is also an adaptation, though clearly of a very different sort of text. Garrone has selected three of Basile's seventeenth-century stories and woven them together into a complex three-in-one narrative with elements derived from other Basile tales as well. Like Gomorra, Il racconto dei racconti was also filmed primarily in Southern and Central Italy. Garrone's photography is as lush as Basile's language, and the natural and architectural scenarios of his film as breathtaking as Basile's inventive descriptions: the Castle of Donnafugata and the Gole dell'Alcantara in Sicily; the Bosco del Sasseto in Lazio; the Vie Cave in Tuscany; the Castle of Roccascalegna in Abruzzo; the Castel del Monte and the cave dwellings of Petruscio in Puglia. (6)
Let me first of all turn to the three fairy tales by Basile that have been chosen and adapted for the big screen in Matteo Garrone's Il racconto dei racconti. They are all narrated on the first of Basile's five days of story-telling in his Pentamerone: "Lo polece" ("The Flea") is the fifth tale; "La cerva fatata" ("The Enchanted Doe") is the ninth tale; and "La vecchia scortecata" ("The Old Woman Who Was Skinned") is the tenth and last tale of the first day. All three tales feature women as active protagonists, at different and differently challenging times of their lives: youth and the difficulties of choosing an appropriate spouse in "Lo polece"; marriage and the complications of maternal desire in "La cerva fatata"; and the trials of advanced old age in "La vecchia scortecata." Here is a summary of the tales as they appear in Basile's collection; Garrone, as we will see, makes quite a few, significant changes.
In "Lo polece," a widowed king with just one child, a daughter, captures a flea and raises it, over the course of several months, by feeding it with his own blood. When the flea becomes larger than a mutton ("chiu gruosso de no crastato," Basile 45), the king kills and skins it (a violent process foreshadowing what will happen to the old woman at the end of the later tale), tans the hide, and promises his beautiful young daughter as a wife to whoever would correctly guess what animal the skin came from. The winner is a frightful ogre, who takes the princess to his den and, after he realizes she is not interested in eating human flesh as he is, goes off to hunt for boar for her. Before he returns and this unequal marriage is consummated, an old lady promises to save the princess with the help of her seven sons, each endowed with a different supernatural power. The young men rescue the princess, behead the ogre, and bring both the ogre's head and the safe-and-sound princess back to the king, who rewards the saviors, apologizes to his daughter, and finds her a suitable husband.
The king in "La cerva fatata" desires children but nothing seems to work in providing him with an heir. Finally, a wandering sage assures the king that his wife will become pregnant if she eats the heart of a sea dragon after it is cooked by a virginal servant ("na zitella zita," Basile 82). The king's fishermen obtain the heart and, as she cooks it, the virginal servant herself becomes pregnant even as every object in the castle also gives birth to a smaller version of itself. Within four days of the queen eating the dragon's heart, servant and queen give birth to a boy each, identical in every way. The two grow up together as best friends, but when the lowborn young man becomes aware of the queen's destructive jealousy against him, he leaves the court, proves his valor, and marries the daughter of a nearby king. While hunting, he falls prey to a dangerous ogre disguised as a deceptive and beautiful doe, but is rescued by the king's son, his friend and near-twin brother.
"La vecchia scortecata" tells the tale of two grotesquely old sisters whose constant complaints about their easily hurt features lead the king their neighbor, who has overheard them but has never seen them, to believe them to be young and delicate. He desires them sexually, but all he is allowed to see is a single finger, which they had sucked for days in preparation, so as to make it appear young and soft. The king and the older sister agree to meet in his bed under cover of night, but the king discovers the old woman's identity and has his servants throw her out of the window. She survives the fall and a group of melancholy fairies passing by, amused by the sight of her, give her fairy gifts, including youth, beauty, wealth, and virtue. Upon seeing her in her transformed state, the king marries her immediately; but the envious younger sister, at the wedding feast, so insists on learning the new queen's secret of youth that the latter blurts out, unthinkingly, that she had gotten herself skinned ("Me so' scortecata, sore mia," Basile 98). The sister takes her literally and talks a barber into skinning her, at which she dies. (7)
In all three of these tales, Basile describes the trajectory of status changes and social upsets: in "La cerva fatata," the child of a servant looks and behaves like a twin brother to a king's son and eventually becomes a king himself; in "Lo polece," a monstrous ogre marries a beautiful princess; in "La vecchia scortecata," an impoverished old hag becomes a beautiful young queen. This narrative focus on status change has been described by literary critics as a typical trait of early modern fairy tales, such as Basile's, because of their association with upwardly mobile courtiers. Rak comments: "Un filo comune legava questi racconti destinati a un ascolto cortigiano: i loro personaggi cambiavano sempre condizione. Il cambiamento di status era l'ossessione del letterato di corte" (69). But these changes of status inevitably bring on violent reactions, whether temporary or lasting ones, on the part or on behalf of the status quo. Thus, the queen tries, unsuccessfully as it turns out, to murder and thus sacrifice the lowborn boy audacious enough to behave like a brother to her own son; the princess's saviors decapitate the ogre, who must be sacrificed for having intrepidly married the king's daughter; the king throws the old hag out of the window, and when she manages to marry him, it is her sister who is sacrificed, possibly to atone for the transgression performed by her sister's transformation and marriage.
Metamorphoses and status changes mirror one another in the infinite regress at the heart of many of Basile's tales. Thus, the beautiful enchanted doe of the tale by the same title shapeshifts into a murderous ogre, changing gender as well as species, and in "La vecchia scortecata" the fairies' spell turns an old and homely woman into a young and beautiful one. Metamorphosis is at the heart of fairy tales both in terms of the narrative unfolding of individual tales, and in their historical development as a genre. From this perspective, Garrone's adaptation may be described as a retelling of Basile's stories, a new version of these three tales, a metamorphosis from the written word on the page to moving images on a screen. For the tales are radically altered indeed, in their metamorphosis from book to cinema, and from Basile's version to Garrone's. These transformative changes focus on gender, blood, violence, and--tying all these elements together--sacrifice, namely that propitiatory offering to the sacred dimension that allows the maintenance of the status quo. As a critic explains, "sacrifice is deeply bound up not only with issues of blood and transferred or symbolic meaning, but with matters of gender, parenthood and even more particularly of virginity as well" (Kearns 45)--all matters that figure prominently in Garrone's versions of Basile's three tales.
The Intensification of Violence from Basile to Garrone
To begin with, Garrone's film shows no sense of humor, unlike Basile's book, which is fairly brimming with funny scenes and lines. When the queen and the maid give birth to their sons in "La cerva fatata," the fact that every furnishing in the castle also reproduces into a smaller version of itself gives rise to an absurdly comical list of births: "[...] la travacca fece no lettucciulo, lo forziero fece no scrignetiello, le seggie facettero seggiolelle, la tavola no tavolino e lo cantaro fece no cantariello 'mpetenato accossi bello ch'era no sapore" (Basile 83); no such thing happens in Garrone's version. (8) The ogre in Basile's "Lo polece" is so scary that those who see him develop physical reactions including diarrhea and intestinal worms, Basile details, defusing the monster's fearfulness with this author's marked taste for scatological language: "[...] era la chiu strasformata cosa de lo munno, che 'n vederelo schitto faceva venire lo tremmolese, lo filatorio, la vermenara e lo iaio a lo chiu arresecato giovane de sto munno" (46). So also when the princess arrives at the ogre's den, her reactions include "la quatra de vierme e la cacavessa" (48). Garrone's ogre, on the other hand, is a sullen, scarred, huge being that is hard to even look at, for the audience, and of whom Viola is terrified to the point of turning mute; Garrone's ogre exudes danger and violence. Basile's princess, instead, when she sees the murdered bodies brought home by the ogre, "sputanno comm'a femmena prena, votaie la faccia da l'autra banna" (48). Her visible disgust leads the thoughtful ogre to reflect on his own largesse, with a funny because absurd conclusion: "'Chesso e dare confiette a puorce!'" (48). Human body parts are delicacies given to a princess whose ungrateful reaction to this gift of food reveals her to be, for the ogre, not much better than a pig, unable to appreciate the pearls being offered. Basile's comparison of the fully grown flea with a mutton is funny, but Garrone's actual representation of a flea that size, given the impressive special effects used in the film, is not at all funny and, in fact, quite repugnant. Basile described the frequency with which the king in "La vecchia scortecata" heard the two delicate women's complaints by saying that the king could not fart without hearing them ("non poteva fare non pideto senza dare a lo naso de ste brute gliannole," Basile 89); no humor, on the other hand, accompanies Garrone's dissolute, spoiled, and cruel king.
Basile's verbal language is excessive; Garrone's quite sparse, though the film's visual excess could be described, like Basile's language, as baroque. As well, quite unlike the thick Neapolitan making up Basile's volume, Garrone's interpretation was filmed in English with an international cast, and was later dubbed into Italian by actors devoid of any regional inflection. And although it is true that the film was famously shot entirely on location in Italy--the sea dragon rests at the bottom of the Sicilian Gole dell'Alcantara, the king captivated by the flea lives in the Castel del Monte in Puglia, the wrinkly old woman is thrown off a window from the Abruzzese, rock-perched castle of Roccascalegna--still the various sites are chosen and even filmed in ways that render them often quite unrecognizable. There is that "once upon a time, in a land far, far away" quality to Garrone's locales and accent-free speech that we associate with fairy tales but that Basile, instead, regularly interrupted by describing Campanian locations and employing the Neapolitan language, including names that are regionally inflected: the princess in Basile's "Lo polece" bears the Neapolitan-sounding Porziella, which Garrone changes to the aristocratic-sounding Viola. Basile also refers to typical local items and foods, and to the sayings of folklore. The words of wisdom at the opening of each tale, and the proverbs at each closing, are an essential part of Basile's message. In the words of Michele Rak, "I proverbi avevano la funzione di ammortizzatori eticoideologici: temperavano le irregolari modalita espressive proprie del teatro e le audacie con cui si raccontavano e saggiavano i lati devianti del costume" (62). No such sense of a wisdom to be gleaned from the tales is detectable in Garrone's film, with its atmosphere of gloom and its rejection of happy endings.
The mysterious aura of the tales' locales in Garrone's film contributes to its atmosphere of fear-generating unfamiliarity, resulting in the biggest difference between Basile's and Garrone's tales. Garrone's film is graphic and disturbing, with a violence evoking a palpable sense of magic and the sacred that, in Basile's tales, is far more benevolent and familiar. It is as if, in his adaptation of Basile, Garrone's motto had been Rene Girard's famous statement, in his 1977 seminal book Violence and the Sacred: "Violence is the heart and secret soul of the sacred" (32). Basile's tales are also full of magical elements, of course, teeming as they are with transformations of people, animals, and plants into one another, with devils and deities making frequent appearances, and with spells cast and broken on a regular basis. But whereas, in Basile's book, magical elements are not necessarily tied to violence--they are just as often beneficial, or even, in and of themselves, neutral; ogres, as in Basile's tale titled "Viola," can be harmless and even silly; and killings often lead to resurrections in a different form--in Garrone's film the presence of magic is ominous and portends violence and irrevocable destruction.
At the most general level, in Basile's three tales the good wins in the end, whereas no one ever really wins in Garrone's version of these same narratives. At the conclusion of Basile's "La cerva fatata," the boys are both kings and even the mother of the lowborn one is invited to share in her son's wealth and status, with no more words devoted to the jealous queen mother, who disappears from the picture as soon as her biological son leaves her court. In Garrone's version, however, the monster that threatens the lowborn boy shows none of the appealing features of the enchanted doe into which Basile's ogre had turned. Garrone's hideous monster, as it turns out, with a bird-like head, huge fangs, and long, clawed limbs, is none other than the queen mother herself, who magically and disturbingly reverts to her human shape after her own son, unaware of the monster's identity, slays her in order to save his friend. This violent scene significantly takes place in a narrow tunnel that implicitly compares the prince's liberation from his mother's clutches to the physical process of birth, underlining as well the connection between sacrifice and childbirth: the king had to be sacrificed for the prince to be born (it is the king, in the film, who slays the sea dragon and is slain in the process, not his fishermen), and the queen now must be sacrificed for the prince to remain alive.
It has been indeed noted that "sacrificial systems are corollaries of reproductive power," a relationship that "is apparent in the juxtaposition of childbirth with sacrifice [...] in which sacrifice is a social and patrilineal corrective to the natural birth given by women" (Ruane 3). Twice in Garrone's "La cerva fatata" this juxtaposition is dramatized and the necessity of sacrifice is underlined. We see a similar intensification of violence and the absence of a happy ending in Garrone's adaptation of "Lo polece." In Basile's version, the princess is saved, before she even has sex with the ogre, by a family of kind helpers who are rewarded by her royal father, who finally also finds his daughter a suitable husband. In Garrone's version, however, no one is saved: the family of helpers are graphically slain by the ogre, one by one, and the princess loses all innocence when she is both raped by the ogre and forced to decapitate him in order to save herself. She gains the throne, but is forever changed; there is no romantic love awaiting her on the other side of her ordeal. To quote from Girard, we get the sense in this tale that "evil and the violent measures taken to combat evil are essentially the same" (38). Viola is violated and, in this process, becomes a violator herself. In fact, that Viola is enthroned as queen may leave some viewers with the suspicion that it is her own father who married her, to keep her "safe" from other ogres. Is the father still the king, now that Viola is the queen, or has he abdicated in her favor? In "La vecchia scortecata," too, violence is intensified and the ending far from happy. The old woman who was skinned dies in both versions of the tale named after her, but in Garrone's film the beautiful sister as well (who obtains her youth and beauty, in the film, by breastfeeding on the single, aged fairy who finds her in the woods after she is thrown out of the window), in the end, loses her newly found, youthful good looks and, we can be sure, everything else that had come with her transformation. We see her running away from her royal husband in the very last scene of the film, her skin visibly reverting to its original, wrinkled state; she is clearly afraid that her king will once again attempt to kill her as soon as he discovers her true age.
An increased emphasis on sacrificial violence, marked by the visibility of blood and a reinstatement of the status quo, characterizes other changes implemented by Garrone in his film version. As Kearns has noted, "Spilled blood is the paradigm of sacrifice par excellence" (45). This most recent Tale of Tales is indeed a gory production teeming with blood-thirsty monsters and blood-curdling scenes. Blood appears on most of the main characters, at some point, whether their own blood or someone else's: the sea dragon's blood first, and then her own, on the queen; the helpers' blood on the ogre, and the ogre's blood on the princess; her own blood on the old woman after she has been skinned. Whereas the sea dragon's heart in Basile's "La cerva fatata" is obtained by fishermen to whom there is no reason to believe any harm has come, Garrone has the king himself, desperate to please his melancholy-because-childless wife, hunt down the fearsome sea creature that kills him in the process, with the queen, monomaniacally looking for the dragon's heart on the shore, not giving her husband's corpse anything more than a quick glance. In Basile it is the king who is eager to have a child; in Garrone, the desire is the queen's alone. The king just wants to please his wife, whose sadness is clearly derived from that of the princess in Basile's frame tale. Even the queen's act of eating the heart is violent, with blood covering her face and dripping all over the white tablecloth, a disgusting as well as gruesome scene. Blood, after all, McCarthy notes, "impresses the imagination. Its loss means weakness and death. It can, therefore, easily be identified with strength. But blood also arouses fear and repulsion. It can be a sign of illness and death" (166). Thus, in the film, the queen's first attempt to kill her son's lowborn friend takes place in a room full of hanging, bloody quarters of beef and pork, and carcasses of chickens and turkeys, themselves victims of violence. By contrast, there is no blood in Basile's "La cerva fatata." No one dies in capturing the dragon's heart; there is no reason to think that the heart, once cooked, should continue to bleed, as it does in the film; and even the violent attack performed by the queen against the lowborn twin does not shed blood. The searing bullet mold ("na pallottera 'nfocata," Basile 83) she throws at his brow is so hot it cauterizes its victim's skin (its mark was immediately and effectively concealed with a hat, so that the beloved friend may be spared knowledge of the queen's murderous hatred).
In Basile's "Lo polece" the reader gets a vague sense that the ogre is good, and the king, the real cause of the young protagonist's ills. This ogre has, in Canepa's words, "a coherence and dignity of his own. [...] the ogre is portrayed as just another suitor. [...] although of hideous appearance and a seemingly dreadful lifestyle, the ogre is actually a considerate and attentive new husband" (From Court to Forest 180-81). In Basile's "Lo polece," literal blood is mentioned as the substance with which the king feeds his flea (though this blood never actually exits the king's body, and no one has to see it); otherwise, it is only a metaphorical blood that is evoked: the princess's complexion is milk and blood (meaning a highly desirable combination of red and white), she accuses her father of betraying his own blood by giving her to the ogre in marriage, and blood appears to leave her body when she becomes deathly pale in the ogre's den. There is no mention of blood when the ogre is decapitated; on the contrary, the process is so easy that it is as if the ogre's neck were made of ricotta cheese as Basile remarks: "le tagliaie lo cuollo, comme se fosse de caso ricotta" (51). But Garrone's ogre, unlike Basile's, is frightening and monstrous; he consumes the marriage through rape, and graphically kills the family of helpers when they try to take away his bride. The ogre does spare Viola--he does seem to have developed a fondness for the beautiful princess--but she takes advantage of his trust to climb on his back and slit his throat, and is covered in the ogre's blood when she brings his head, in a sack, to her enthroned father.
In Basile's "La vecchia scortecata," the sister's skin is described, in the course of the flaying, as raining and pissing blood ("chiovellecava e piscioliava tutta sango," 98). Blood is mentioned, clearly, but the verbs used to describe its appearance are so absurdly inappropriate to the circumstances as to actually detract from the horror of the scene, which ends with the simple statement that, along with blood, the woman lost all her strength, and died: "essennole mancato co lo sangue la forza, sparaie da sotta no tiro de partenza" (98). Garrone's film, on the contrary, has the audience view and hear the flaying, albeit from a distance, and then shows the skinned old woman unbelievably survive her own flaying long enough to put her dress back on and stagger to the castle, in a drawn-out scene featuring her once-blue dress and what one can see of her body covered in blood.
Ubiquitous in Garrone's film, blood is a signifier of violence, and especially violence in its close relation to the sacred. In Girard's words that I quoted above, "Violence is the heart and secret soul of the sacred" (31), and, as this author continues, "When violence is unloosed [...] blood appears everywhere [...]. Blood stains everything it touches the color of violence and death" (35). The wandering sage in "La cerva fatata," far more prominent and ominous in Garrone's film than in Basile's tale, explains the sacrificial logic binding birth and death: one life must be taken away, for another life to come into the world. Through his words, viewers understand that the birth of a prince implies someone's death (the gory slaying of the king by the sea dragon, as it turns out), and when the sage returns to the stage later in the tale, the prince's survival entails the sacrificial killing of the queen herself. None of this sacrificial logic is mentioned in Basile's text, where the sage explains the effectiveness of the sea dragon's heart by referring to the comparatively harmless Greek myth about Juno's impregnation by a flower ("ca si lieie la favola, truove che a Gionone passanno pe li campe Olane sopra no shiore l'abbottaie la panza e figliaie," Basile 82). The ogre in "Lo polece" must be sacrificed for his own rape and killing to be atoned and for the social order, broken by an ogre's marriage to a princess, to be restored (in this same story, the flea was sacrificed first, as well; the king's unnatural, excessive attachment to it had to be redressed). One sister must die by flaying if the other is to ascend to the throne--at least temporarily, in Garrone--for the other sister, too, goes back in the film version to decrepit old age.
"La cerva fatata" stages the complexity of the sacred as well through its inclusion of two boys who, although born of different mothers, are identical in every way for sharing the sea-dragon's heart as the means of their conception. In a memorable scene of Garrone's film, the two sea dragon's sons enjoy being underwater with eyes open, able to communicate with and smile at one another even as they thwart the guards' attempts to catch them and bring them home. Their similarity to one another and difference from everyone else is represented as dangerous in both versions of the tale for, as Girard puts it, "Wherever differences are lacking, violence threatens [...]. It is only natural that twins should awaken fear, for they are harbingers of indiscriminate violence" (59). The film exploits this notion thoroughly by having albino twin actors play the role of the two boys, their bright white skin and hair highlighting their resemblance (and their difference from the queen, in particular, whose hair is raven-black). Their supernatural connection separates them from the rest of the world and makes their relationship a dangerous one--dangerous to themselves above all, for as Girard remarks, "brothers are simultaneously drawn together and driven apart by something they both ardently desire and which they will not or cannot share--a throne, a woman or, in more general terms, a paternal heritage" (66). In the film, the two boys' births were inaugurated by the king's gory and necessary death, and their survival into adulthood depends, likewise, on the equally sacrificial and violent destruction of the queen herself--more ferocious for being brought on by her own son, rather than by a sea monster. The prominence of sacrifice and violence against women in particular, in Garrone's film, is more frequent, brutal, and long-lasting than in Basile's book.
Basile's Cunto de li cunti marks the birth of the European fairy tale and represents the epitome of baroque prose. Garrone's Il racconto dei racconti is usually described as an example of fantasy, verging on, but not entirely belonging to, that classic and ever-so popular genre, the horror movie. With its focus on transformations and on preternatural violence, Il racconto dei racconti, although not a horror film per se, wrestles with a question that has been described as typical of that genre. As Stephen Prince explains, "What must be done to remain human? This is the great question that horror films pose, and it is a question that gets asked again and again because it can never be answered [...]. The question of what must be done to remain human is posed in its negative form, by showing the loss of humanity (via lycanthropy, vampirism, decay, disease, violence) because the fear of this loss motivates the genre" (3). Garrone seizes and elaborates on the most violent of Basile's transformative moments as the pivotal ones in his own version of the tales, chosen and represented so as to inspire fear in the viewer--including the fear, as Prince puts it, that we are all in danger of losing our humanity. That in Garrone's "La cerva fatata" the murderous creature to be slain for the two young men's survival is not, as in Basile, a beautiful doe that turns out to be a frightful ogre but, on the contrary, a frightful monster that turns out to be the protagonist's own beautiful mother (convincingly played by Selma Hayek), underlines both the fear of losing one's humanity--as the queen visibly does--and the horror produced by the monster. As Georges Canguilhem states at the very beginning of his seminal essay on monsters, "[t]he existence of monsters throws doubt on life's ability to teach us order [...]. It is sufficient that this confidence be shaken once by a morphological variation, by a single equivocal appearance, for a radical fear to possess us" (27).
The queen in Garrone's version of "La cerva fatata" is one such "morphological variation," bringer of life and of death by turns, beautiful and horrifying, lover and killer at once. She loses her humanity through her maternal passion and, just as she did not give her dead husband a second thought after he killed the sea monster out of love for her, so she is also willing to kill her son's best friend in order to have no rivals in her maternal love. The giant flea in "Lo polece" is another such "morphological variation," eliciting humor in Basile and disgust in Garrone. Gendered as feminine in the Italian of the film ("la pulce"), rather than masculine as in Basile's Neapolitan ("lo polece"), the king's attachment to this repugnant, overgrown bug in the film sentimentally hovers between paternal and sexual. He ignores his daughter's requests for attention in order to be with his flea, uses for the flea the same terms of endearment we had heard him repeatedly use with his daughter, weeps when the flea is ill, and calls a terrified doctor over, entreating him with the words, "Vi prego!" (in Basile's book, the king simply decides to have the flea killed when it reaches a certain size). The old woman in "La vecchia scortecata," transformed from old and ugly into young and beautiful, is another "morphological variation," the unstable nature of which Garrone emphasizes by having her skin revert to wrinkles at the end--something that does not happen in Basile's happy-ending version. The sisters too, although disgustingly old both in Basile and in Garrone, are described in Basile with a list of similes so long and odd that it reads as humorous:
[...] avevano le zervole scigliate e 'ngrifate, la fronte 'ncrespata e vrognolosa, le ciglia storcigliate e restolose, le parpetole chiantute ed a pennericolo, l'uocchie guize e scarcagnate, la faccie gialloteca ed arrappata, la vocca squacquarata e storcellata e 'nsomma la varvea d'annecchia, lo pietto peluso, le spalle co la contrapanzetta, le braccia arranchiate, le gamme sciancate e scioffate e li piede a crocco. (87-88)
In her recent essay on fairy-tale films in Italy, which ends with an expression of curiosity about Garrone's Il racconto dei racconti--a film that was still in the making at the time the article was written--fairy-tale scholar Cristina Bacchilega notes that "the gender politics of fairy-tale films in Italy has largely been conservative if not regressive" (105). What would Bacchilega make of Garrone's film, I wonder? On the one hand, it is true that the women in Garrone's film cannot be accused of being passive, or even of acting in conservative ways. They are bold and, even when terrified, able to muster enough calm not to let their fear stop them from performing dangerous feats. Indeed, an important difference between the representation of women in the three tales shared by Basile and Garrone is a definite increase in female agency in the film when compared to the book. In Garrone's adaptation of "La cerva fatata," it is not the king but the queen who wants and succeeds in getting a child and it is she, and not an ogre whose violence is unrelated to her own murderous hatred, who attempts to kill her rival for her son's affections. In Garrone's version of "Lo polece," it is the young woman who outwits and slays the ogre after her would-be saviors die in the attempt, and it is she who ascends the throne at the end, rather than being married off to become someone's wife. Finally, the two old women in Garrone's "La vecchia scortecata" attract the king's attention not by mindless complaints, as they do in Basile, but by their active and melodious singing; even the flayed sister gathers enough strength to walk to the castle, instead of dying on the spot and disappearing from the tale as she does in Basile.
In spite of this increased agency, however, or perhaps because of it, the conservative bent described by Bacchilega remains strong, it seems, in Garrone's adaptation of the seventeenth-century tales. In the end, the women in Basile's versions are rewarded, however conservatively: the princess in Basile's "Lo polece" marries a prince as she always wanted to, while the old woman in Basile's "La vecchia scortecata" becomes a young queen and stays beautiful. At the very least, they are left unpunished: the queen mother in Basile's "La cerva fatata" simply disappears from the story. Garrone's three female protagonists, on the contrary, receive no such lasting reward: in the film, the queen mother is killed by her own son; the princess, forced to marry an ogre, turns into a killer herself and never gets the romantic partner she was hoping for; and the sister of the skinned old woman, after briefly enjoying the benefits of youth and beauty, reverts back to her decrepit appearance and must run for her life. The sacrificial logic that had worked well in Basile's comic tales fails instead in Garrone's scary adaptation, whose negative worldview eliminates whatever comedic elements were present in Basile. In Basile's book, monsters are humanized and destroyed, whereas in its film adaptation it is the humanity of human beings themselves that is irrevocably lost. In Garrone's Tale of Tales, we are frightened by a queen who turns into a murderous monster (reminiscent of the sea monster whose blood she had consumed) through jealousy-driven hatred, and only reverts to her human shape after she is killed by her son. Also in this adaptation, we are shocked to see a king whose passion for a flea and attachment to his word trump his care for his daughter, a daughter who is in turn transformed by, and whose innocence is sacrificed through, her violent experiences with the ogre: she, too, becomes a deceptive, bloody killer. Finally, as the audience, we marvel at a king so self-absorbed as to throw an elderly woman out his window, at another woman so envious of youthfulness that she self-destructively forgets all commonsense, at a barber so distracted by financial offers that he skins an old woman alive.
University of Vermont
Bacchilega, Cristina. "Fairy-Tale Films in Italy." Fairy-Tale Films Beyond Disney: International Perspectives. Ed. Jack Zipes, Pauline Greenhill, and Kendra Magnus-Johnston. London: Routledge, 2016. 94-108.
Basile, Giambattista. Lo cunto de li cunti. Ed. Michele Rak. Torino: Einaudi, 1995.
--. The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones. Trans. Nancy Canepa. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 2007.
Canepa, Nancy L. From Court to Forest: Giambattista Basile 's Lo cunto de li cunti and the Birth of the Literary Fairy Tale. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1999.
--. "From the Baroque to the Postmodern: Notes on a Translation from Giambattista Basile's The Tale of Tales." Marvels & Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies 16.2 (2002): 263-82.
Canguilhem, Georges. "Monstrosity and the Monstrous." Trans. Therese Jaeger. Diogenes 10 (1962): 27-42.
Durkheim, Emile. Selected Writings. Ed. Anthony Giddens. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1972.
Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Trans. Willard Trask. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1959.
Garrone, Matteo, director. Il racconto dei racconti. Archimede, 2015. Film.
Goldstein, Jeffrey. Why We Watch: The Attractions of Violent Entertainment. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. The Annotated Brothers Grimm. Ed. Maria Tatar. New York: Norton, 2004.
Harries, Elizabeth Wanning. "The Violence of the Lambs." Marvels & Tales 19.1 (2005): 54-66.
Kearns, Cleo McNelly. The Virgin Mary, Monotheism and Sacrifice. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.
Maggi, Armando. Preserving the Spell: Basile's Tale of Tales and Its Afterlife in the Fairy-Tale Tradition. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2015.
Magnanini, Suzanne. Fairy-Tale Science: Monstrous Generation in the Tales of Straparola and Basile. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2008.
McCarthy, Dennis. "The Symbolism of Blood and Sacrifice." Journal of Biblical Literature 88.2 (1969): 166-76.
Picone, Michelangelo. "La cornice novellistica dal Decameron al Pentamerone. "Modern Philology 101.2 (2003): 297-315.
Prince, Stephen, ed. The Horror Film. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2004.
--. "Introduction: The Dark Genre and Its Paradoxes." Prince 1-14.
Rak, Michele. Da Cenerentola a Cappuccetto Rosso: breve storia illustrata della fiaba barocca. Milano: Mondadori, 2007.
Ruane, Nicole J. Sacrifice and Gender in Biblical Law. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2013.
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(1) As Kay Stone puts it, Disney (for whom the essence of fairy tales included a happy ending and a love story) was "only one of the many reworkers of Marchen in past decades--but because of the enormous success of his films and their continued popularity through re-releases, his ideas and ideals still exert a major influence on people's views of fairy tales" (238).
(2) Tatar's classic studies of violence in the tales collected by the Grimm brothers (The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales, 1987, and Off with Their Heads! Fairy Tales and the Culture of Childhood, 1992), note how, in the Grimms' editions that were altered by the authors over time, references to sexuality are toned down whereas violent episodes remain and are even intensified (The Hard Facts 5, 11).
(3) For twentieth-century definitions of the sacred, see for example Durkheim (224), Eliade (14), and Girard (31).
(4) For a discussion of Basile's frame tale, including its relationship to Boccaccio's, see Picone.
(5) Maggi notes that the Grimms eliminated the protagonist's adventures after her awakening, "in order to make it more romantic and magical. They make a tale end with a heart-warming embrace (the male protagonist takes his lady in his arms) even when the Italian tale doesn't end there" (20).
(6) For a study of the role of fairy tales in the history of Italian cinema, see Bacchilega, according to whom fairy-tale films "had a significant part in cinematic production and reception in Italy, offering alternatives to the Disneyfication of Pinocchio and animation; adapting fairy-tale tropes to other film genres; and providing a sense of wonder with mixed effects in a tradition where neorealism, comedy, and thrillers are most acclaimed" (107).
(7) In Canepa's perceptive words, "this tale deviates from the conventional, reassuring fairy-tale ending in which fortune blesses the unfortunate. This does happen, but only halfway, which makes the transformed sister's plight appear a unique, unrepeatable event, the benefits of which, moreover, must be paid for by the ghastly self-destruction of her own sister" (From Court to Forest 121).
(8) As Canepa explains, "This is not only one of the most charming scenes of Lo cunto, but also an emblematic one. The generation of the objects is here a metaphor for Basile's own use of language: one metaphor or descriptive phrase is capable of procreating a long series of 'offspring'" (From Court to Forest 221).
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2017|
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