Notes on cinema inspired by historical images by Dan Williams
Medieval fantasy in Italy
Sometimes you watch a film and there is an uncanny sense of deja vu. This came to me during the recent grotesque art-house hit Tale of Tales. Rather than the generic tropes, it was the village of Sermoneta which brought on this feeling. Only the credits confirmed that this village near Lazio, which we happened to visit recently, has been one of the locations.
Tale of Tales, directed by Matteo Garrone, is a visually spectacular film, blending medieval setting with fairy tale and surrealism. The content is disturbing – it is not family viewing – but expands on the vision of 17th century Neapolitan writer Gimbattista Basile. The film uses locations in Italy, including Caetani castle, above the village of Sermoneta in Lazio. Garrone explained in interview that they needed a castle that towered above its village (1). Certain scenes also are reminiscent of this medieval village with its winding, and steeply ascending cobbled streets. Two of the film’s three plot lines draw enormously on the visual impact of a mountain-top society, attempting to be above danger but actually surrounded by it – how different from the tranquil modern day, but still medieval looking Sermoneta.
In truth, it is the more general idea of a castle and its inhabitants which features in Tale of Tales, and in this respect we find how the castle walls are no protection against the uncanny and fantastical forces which drive the narrative. As a fairy tale, the film projects an archetypal castle, and undermines the people inside it with archetypal flaws in the human psyche. The castle conveys medievalism and at the same time shows how a society is defined by its attempt to ward off danger.
Different castles are used by the film as it was shot in various locations including Tuscany and Sicily. Below you can see another castle from our collection. The walls are strong but what happens when the leaders inside start to lose their pragmatism? As for instance we find in Tale of Tales with the lust driven king who courts a woman just on the sound of her voice, or the king who devises a bizarre contestants for suitors to win his daughter’s hand.
The author whose work is the original material for Tale of Tales, Giambattista Basile, lived from 1566-1623. He is credited as an influence on the Grimm brothers who regarded it as ‘the first national collection of fairy tales’ (2). The stories in the film take us towards ideas of the monstrous. In the first tale the king is motivated to attack a sea monster because of advice that The Queen must eat the monster’s heart in order to achieve childbirth. See below for another representation of a sea monster. In Tale of Tales the battle is already tragic as the king’s dies despite slaying the monster. Part of the film’s attraction is its authentically unsentimental indulgence in fantasy, and this approach continues with a later tale in which, as already mentioned, a king foolishly allows a contest for his daughter’s hand. The eccentric nature of the contest arranged by the king leads to her life in a cave with an ogre. Ogres and sea monsters are certainly features of mythical storytelling throughout history. The film reaches out imaginatively to these sources, and provides an alternative to the more action based fantastical dramas we find with most movie blockbusters.
(2) Wikipedia, citing Croce, 2001
Dan’s new film study class ‘Introduction to British Cinema’ will start at WEA from the New Year (2017).
The course is for everyone with an interest in cinema who would like to study the subject in greater depth.