Hollywood Flashback: Roberto Benigni Returns for a Pinocchio Do-Over

Roberto Benigni at the Berlinale in 2006 - Getty - H 2020

The Italian writer and director's first venture featured the (then) 50-year-old Benigni as the wooden puppet that becomes a real child.

To call Italian writer, director and star Roberto Benigni’s live-action Pinocchio in 2002 flawed would be a gross understatement.

That ignominious experiment, which featured the (then) 50-year-old Benigni as the wooden puppet that becomes a real child, had a fantastical, almost sunny tone that was lambasted for its shoddy English-language dub (whose voice cast included Glenn Close and John Cleese) for overseas markets. But the kicker was a middle-aged man playing a little boy who — put simply — creeped viewers out.

Nevertheless, production and costume designer Danilo Donati won a pair of posthumous David di Donatello Awards, and the film’s modest success on release proved there was always an audience for the story of a toy that would be a boy. 

If ever a do-over were in order, it was here.

Benigni certainly bore the brunt of the vitriol for the final product, burning off the goodwill he earned with an Oscar win for Life Is Beautiful just four years earlier. He didn’t fare much better with 2006’s The Tiger and the Snow, another would-be lament on the futility of war that received a special screening at the Berlinale’s 56th edition. 

This year, Benigni returns to the Berlin lineup with director Matteo Garrone’s latest crack at Carlo Collodi’s beloved 19th century children’s story, this time as the more age-appropriate lonely carver Geppetto.

In keeping with the (not always effective) recent trend of digging into the darker corners of classic fairy tales and kid lit — there’s no Jiminy Cricket here — the Dogman and Gomorrah director brings his grim, critical eye to the proceedings for a "faithful" adaptation.

In this version, Pinocchio’s childlike wonder and curiosity exists in a late-1800s Italy defined by poverty, bigotry and mistreatment, the source material’s more horrific elements made eerily palpable. It’s a do-over many an artist would welcome. 

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 23 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.