The Tale of Tales (Lo cunto de li cunti) is the first collection of fairy tales of the Western world (Naples, 1634–36). For all fairy tale fans, Basile’s book, made of fifty stories, is a fundamental point of reference, although these Italian tales couldn’t be more different from what we usually mean by “fairy tale.” What makes Basile so unique today is his brutal, cruel, immoral, and just weird take on this genre. Both his baroque literary style and the content of his stories defy our received idea of what a fairy tale is. We are stuck with a handful of “classic” tales that are clichéd and immutable moralistic and didactic tales and vary them by playing with some of their motifs (e.g., we change the story’s location or we turn the hero into a heroine). Since Basile’s texts have never before been turned into a movie or TV series, it is particularly exciting to learn that Matteo Garrone, a well-known Italian director, selected three of the weirdest and most disturbing stories from Basile’s collection and made the film Tale of Tales (Il racconto dei racconti), which weaves together three distinct plots: The Enchanted Doe, The Flea, and The Flayed Old Lady.
It was interesting to see that on Wikipedia the film is defined as “horror” although it presents very few gory images. Yes, we see Salma Hayek’s face smeared with blood while she is ferociously chewing on a huge heart in a small white chamber in the hopes of getting pregnant, and later we see an old woman asking a barber to flay her entire body because her sister, whom a fairy has turned into a gorgeous girl, has led her to believe that she regained her youth by shedding her old skin. We will see her bleeding all over while she walks back home. Horror in Garrone’s film is primarily the somber tone of its setting deprived of all conventional charm, which denies any possible happy ending. Yes, you have your usual magical animal, but it’s not a cute mouse or a chirping bird, but rather a flea that a king feeds with his own blood. The flea gains so much weight that it becomes an indefinable beast.
Faithful to Basile’s bleak view of reality, Tale of Tales speaks of a harsh and miserable world deprived of that magical and moral providence that looks out for the poor and defenseless. The movie, and the book, tells us that magic does exist in the world but is a random and irrational occurrence, something out of the ordinary that is not meant to save anyone from an unjust destiny.
I can’t help but think that we have so much to learn from Basile’s and Garrone’s works. Both the book and the film challenge us to see the concept of magic and “redemption” in a different way. The film is only partially successful. Instead of a sequence of three independent tales, the director has tried to bring the three stories together by interrupting one tale to follow the next for a little while and then cutting again to move onto the next, thus undermining the suspense built in each narrative segment. But although the screenplay is choppy, the images are still stunning and unforgettable.
Armando Maggi is professor of romance languages and literatures and a member of the Committee on the History of Culture at the University of Chicago. He is the author of several books, including Preserving the Spell: Basile's “The Tale of Tales” and Its Afterlife in the Fairy-Tale Tradition, Satan’s Rhetoric, and The Resurrection of the Body: Pier Paolo Pasolini from Sade to Saint Paul. He is a contributor to the upcoming New Approaches to Teaching Folk and Fairy Tales, edited by Christa C. Jones and Claudia Schwabe.