Entertainment & Arts

Tale of Tales: Cautionary stories from Italy's Shakespeare

John C Reilly and Salma Hayek Image copyright Studio Canal
Image caption Salma Hayek plays a queen desperate for a child in the film

He's been called 'the Italian Shakespeare', and his main piece of work, The Tale of Tales, influenced modern fairy tale writers the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, as well as inspiring the story of Cinderella.

But the often fantastical narratives of Giambattista Basile, a 17th Century solider to the Doge of Venice, were not to have the fame and longevity of Shakespeare's, and his Tales would fade into obscurity.

That's something Italian film director Matteo Garrone hopes to correct with his own work of gothic imagination - a film version of Tale of Tales, starring Salma Hayek, Toby Jones, Shirley Henderson and Vincent Cassel.

Based on Basile's narratives of more than 50 different stories featuring kings, princesses, dragons, giants and magical beasts, Garrone has picked three and interwoven them: A pair of ageing sisters who long for their youthful beauty; a queen obsessed with the idea of having her own child and a king who marries off his only daughter to an ogre.

Garrone's previous works - the award-winning mafia film Gomorra and Italian TV satire Reality - have both been modern day Neapolitan stories grounded in the everyday, and he says he was delighted "to work on a fantasy film that lurches into horror".

"And it's not that we had to increase the horror for the sophisticated modern audience, it was all there in Basile's work," he says. "In terms of the fantastical, he was ahead of the brothers Grimm, Tolkein, or Harry Potter.

"What surprised me is that once we had chosen the Tales, we realised it involved three stories about women at different stages of life. And these tales are about contemporary obsessions: The desire for youth and beauty ends up with a horrific version of cosmetic surgery, centuries ahead of it becoming available."

Image copyright Studio Canal
Image caption Hayek's character goes to extreme lengths in her quest to get pregnant

Mexican actress Hayek, who plays a queen who will do anything in order to have a child, agrees: "All the conflict they go through is still relevant today, even if we are dressed in Baroque costume.

"In my case it's the desperation of a woman to experience motherhood, and the film takes that desperation and makes it grotesque. So a very recognisable human desire becomes something of horror, not only psychologically but visually."

For example, the film shows Oscar-nominated Hayek, solemnly eating what appears to be the beating heart of a sea monster - after a sorcerer tells her character it will make her pregnant.

It is, the actress agrees, a horrible sight; but as a mother and stepmother herself, she says she understands the desire for children.

"The real conflict of this woman, and the cleverness of the film, lies in the fact that she puts all her desire for happiness into one thing that lies outside herself. She is impossible to satisfy and that's why she suffers such tragic consequences," she says.

"Everyone in here suffers very harsh penalties for their obsessions," explains Toby Jones, who plays a king fixated by his new pet - a giant flea - and has to give his daughter's hand in marriage to a giant after losing a bet.

"Folk tales tend to be very dark and all fairy tales have darkness at their root, but these are particularly strange. Terrible deals are made in order to have wishes granted, and hard lessons are learned."

Image copyright Studio Canal
Image caption Toby Jones plays a king who has to marry his daughter off to an ogre

Jones, who recently appeared in the BBC TV series Sherlock, says he took the part in Tale of Tales "because I wanted to work with Matteo - and I like the idea of exploring a reversal between the parent and the child".

"The parent suffers terrible consequences and loses what he loves - his daughter - through an act of folly. It's very funny but there's something so awful and pathetic about it."

The actor's scenes involved embracing a gigantic flea, which he says "was not special effects - just this awful rubbery thing".

"I suppose for me, as the father of two daughters, playing this man has only reinforced the usual pitfalls that being a parent involves. The lesson is that it's easy to be distracted and there's a price to pay if you are," he says.

Although Tale of Tales was filmed in Italy, Garrone chose to make it his first English-language film with an international cast - a move he thinks now might have been a mistake.

"I didn't want to betray my country and my culture but at the same time, it has a larger audience in English," he explains. "And also, in my defence, they call Basile 'the Neapolitan Shakespeare' so I thought there was that connection. It was a very hard choice and I am still not sure if it was the right decision."

Image copyright Studio Canal
Image caption Hayek says she thinks Basile 'would be very happy' with Garrone's film

Despite the language issue, Tale of Tales has had widespread praise from international critics, with the Telegraph calling it "a fabulously sexy, defiantly unfashionable readymade cult item".

Hayek believes the film is "unfathomable in the sense it's more than a morality tale for human pride and indulgence - it's a lot more fascinating than that".

"Fairy tales are designed to change every time you re-tell it to a new generation. What makes me very pleased is that I think the spirit of the original Tales have been kept. I think Basile would be very happy."

Tale of Tales is released in the UK on 17 June.