[Our Sunday Visitor, January 26, 2003]
I sat all alone in the theater to watch "Pinocchio". Sometimes I didn’t sit but got up and stretched and walked around, or leaned against a wall taking notes. And I wondered why I was alone. This is one of the few films I’ve seen that deserves the description "enchanting": the sets, costumes, and cinematography are dazzling, the acting first-rate, the storyline exciting. Where were all the families—adults enjoying this as much as children?
This "Pinochio" is a new film by Roberto Benigni, whose gently optimistic film about a father and son in a Nazi concentration camp, "Life is Beautiful," made an Oscar splash a few years ago. Benigni’s "Pinocchio" is nothing like the Disney version, but remains very faithful to the 1883 children’s book by Carlo Collodi. Benigni himself stars as the wooden marionette who becomes a real boy, and his wife, Nicoletta Braschi, is the Blue Fairy. This film was a big success in Italy, and I would expect a G-rated production like this to do well in America.
When I got home I looked "Pinocchio" up on a site that catalogues movie reviews. This site averages a film’s approval rating with a percentage. "The Hours," for example, was averaging 88% enthusiasm among reviewers (though a friend of mine says, "I hated it more than I’ve hated any movie that did not include ‘Saturday Night Live’ cast members"). So how was the G-rated, colorful and charming "Pinnochio" doing?
Zero. Zero percent. Every single review was negative.
To understand why, you have to look at a change in the way we view children. Reviewers don’t have a problem with this production so much as they have a problem with the original book. They are greatly surprised that, unlike the Disney version of 1943, this Pinocchio is unruly and exasperating rather than cuddly. For example, in the Collodi book, when the puppet has his first encounter with the talking Cricket, he gets so angry that he smashes it with a hammer and kills it.
Collodi did not share our modern assumption that children are born perfect and only gradually become corrupted by this wicked old world. His Italian culture understood that there is such a thing as Original Sin. Babies begin in an entirely me-centric universe, and only gradually learn to care about others’ welfare and their own responsibilities. It is learning these lessons that makes Pinocchio into a real boy. This is a movie about the natural selfishness and carelessness of childhood being tamed into productive, responsible adulthood. No wonder Baby Boomer-era critics hate it.
Pinocchio’s growth comes in two stages. First, he comes to see that if he doesn’t exercise self-discipline—in particular, if he doesn’t go to school—he will not wind up in Fun Forever Land, but slaving at physical labor like a donkey. Second, he comes to care that his thoughtlessness is painful to those who love him, Gepetto and the Blue Fairy, and he begins to be sorry that he has hurt them. In a particularly poignant scene, Pinocchio has been changed into a donkey and is being whipped to perform in a circus ring. Every time he runs around the circle he sees the Blue Fairy seated on a throne looking at him with great sadness; then, when he passes, the throne is empty. He breaks his leg and the circus master declares that he is worthless and orders he be thrown from a cliff into the sea. This is a harrowing "Pinocchio," expressing the fears that parents have for the safety of their wayward children. Yet through many dangers this child emerges as someone "real." From the wild, abusive boy of the opening scene he becomes a loving son, who labors at turning a watermill to earn his ailing Papa a daily cup of milk.
I think that this viewpoint of childhood is the main thing reviewers hated about the film, though there are certainly other complaints. Some felt that it was just creepy to have a fifty-year-old man playing a boy. As with the awkward dubbing, however, this is something you get acclimated to very quickly, unless you’re just determined to hate the production on other grounds. (And some people do find Benigni unbearably irritating, no matter what he does.) He’s actually very good in the role, slim and wiry with great physical control. Nicoletta Braschi, who plays the Blue Fairy, is Benigni’s real-life wife, and she too looks older than we expect a movie star to look. Yet it seems appropriate as the film goes on that this character have a somewhat sad and reflective air. When she looks at her husband in his foolish Pinocchio costume and smiles, you can see real love shining through.
One more aspect of the Collodi book made the film a little hard for reviewers to get a handle on. It’s that it has the form of an old-fashioned fairy tale, rather than a modern children’s movie. Thus, instead of the stock characters we’ve come to expect (spunky hero, animal sidekick, evil handsome person with English accent), there is a series of episodes that do not feel organically related and are hard to keep ordered in memory. The emotional range of the film is broader and more complex than the simple stories we expect today, and there are many quirky details that do not have bearing on the action. For example, Pinocchio’s hat is made out of bread. Why? We’re never told. If this kind of thing bothers you, don’t go. If you can accept it as one more random, dreamlike note in a dreamy movie, you’ll enjoy it immensely. And probably have your choice of places to sit.
"About Schmidt", on the other hand, is an unpleasant movie about a man who never did become real. Seedy, saggy Jack Nicholson stars as Warren Schmidt, whom we first meet at his retirement banquet. He grew up in one sense: he became self-disciplined and responsible. But he didn’t learn the second lesson, how to listen to and care about others. Schmidt is bored and restless in retirement, and impulsively sends a check to ChildReach. The organization assigns him a 6-year-old Tanzanian boy, Ndugu, and invites him to write letters to the child. Schmidt begins sending Ndugu long letters full of details about his own frustration with his life and his cheery wife, Helen. Schmidt’s cluelessness is breathtaking as his letters ramble egocentrically. At one point he writes, "Well, Ndugu, I highly recommend you pledge a fraternity when you go to college."
When Schmidt’s wife dies suddenly, he decides to take their 35-foot Winnebago on a trip from Omaha to Denver, where his daughter’s wedding is pending. This is chiefly a road trip movie, but one in which there is no gain in self-knowledge. Things that happen are sometimes colorful but mostly ugly or depressing. We see Schmidt going to the toilet not just once but three times. (Can we go back to vomiting?) (In "Pinochio," by the way, the whale =sneezes= Gepetto and the puppet back onto land. Miss Manners would approve.) Schmidt does his best to stop the wedding, believing that no one is good enough for his little girl, not realizing that his little girl is in love with a man who may be no genius but is kind and respectful. Schmidt returns home feeling like a hero for attempting to stop the wedding, and we realize that he is the same selfish boy Pinocchio was at the beginning of his film. As the Blue Fairy says, "Any life that does not bring a moment of joy is wasted." That’s all you need to know about Schmidt.
You probably watched many good movies over Christmas break. Why not gather to discuss the one that was playing all the time you were in the kitchen, "It’s a Wonderful Life." This is the essential film for answering the question, "What is a worthwhile life?" It is a surprisingly unsentimental movie, with complex characters and motivations. How does George Bailey answer the question that these new movies pose to Pinocchio and Warren Schmidt?