The first thing you need to know about Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022) is it is beeeee-yoootiful. It will take your breath away. It is a work of art, and everyone who had a hand in it should win prizes and be proud forever.
[where to watch it]
The second thing to know is that it’s absolutely full of Jesus. Or someone. More about that later!
I am recommending this movie heartily, but it’s tragic and alarming, scary, weird, and dehydrating, because your mouth will hang open the whole time. My seven-year-old loved it, but she’s a tough kid, and she was grabbing my arm the whole time. It has the death of a child and others, drunken grief, air raids and naval mines, hair-raising supernatural creatures, startling scenes from the afterlife, and lots of painful strife between fathers and sons.
It’s also extremely witty and playful, tender, suspenseful, and, I really cannot emphasize enough, so beautiful. I cannot decide, yet, whether it’s coherent or not. I’ve only seen it once so far! (This review will have spoilers, so beware.)
Del Toro has set it in the middle of World War II, and he’s given Gepetto a backstory: He’s not just a whimsical toymaker, but a skilled carpenter who’s teaching his beloved young son, Carlo.
In the original book and the Disney movie, Pinocchio is a concupiscent rascal who will always take the easy, pleasurable way out. He doesn’t go to school; instead, he choses Pleasure Island and must be put through a horrible ordeal and hit rock bottom before he cathartically emerges, chastened, ready to try to be obedient and self-sacrificial.
But in this movie, Pinocchio is more of a blank slate (and he is literally unpainted; just plain pine), and other people see uses for him. The puppet master sees the ideal entertainer; the fascist Podesta sees the perfect soldier; and Gepetto simply sees a burden, something that fails to be his son.
It almost sounds like typical theme for recent children’s movies: This young person is different from all the others, and the adults must learn to appreciate him for who he is. But it’s not so facile. Gepetto does learn to love Pinocchio for who he is, rather than trying to transform him into a substitute for his lost son Carlo (at the end, Pinocchio becomes “a real boy,” but his body remains pine, and does not transform into human flesh). But this is because the movie is just as much, or more, about Gepetto and about parenthood and what it does to you as it is about Pinocchio.
And others around him are changed, too: The monkey rebels against his cruel master; Candlewick has the courage to say “no” to the father he wants so desperately to please; and of course Pinocchio physically saves Gepetto’s life, first with his bizarre ability to extend his nose, then by dragging him up from the water in a profoundly affecting scene where, having deliberately set off a naval mine to kill the sea monster, he pathetically thrashes in the depths with his burned stump as he flails to bring his unconscious father to the surface.
In another way, his very existence saves Gepetto. The only thing left of Carlo, the first son, is the perfect pinecone he found, so that is what the father has to bury. Gepetto tends the tree that sprouts up, year after year. But he’s not doing well. He’s wasting away, being eaten up by his grief, and he continues to live while his son does not. Finally, in a nail-biting, Frankenstein-esque scene, he cuts down the tree in a drunken frenzy and crafts it into the rough body of a boy; and a passing wood sprite brings it to life while he sleeps.
Pinocchio commences to make terrible trouble for him, raising the wrath of Podesta and the priest and putting him in debt to the carnival. And Gepetto does his best, trying to tolerate him and teach him what he needs to know; but ultimately Pinocchio saves him not only by helping him out of the sea monster’s mouth, not only by pulling him up out of the depths of the water, but by being alive in the first place. Pinocchio makes him suffer, but he also draws him out of the dark hole of grief over Carlo.
Here is the real shift that this movie makes. I wondered why del Toro took out the Pleasure Island sequence, and why he decided to make Pinocchio more innocent. I thought perhaps the idea was to shift the emphasis onto cultural themes: Rather than pleasure island, the boys are sent to its sort of dark parallel, war training camp.
But there’s also something else, that happens in the first ten minutes of the movie.Before Gepetto made Pinocchio, he was at rock bottom. He was the one who had given in to his worst impulses, and was wallowing in the weakness of his sorrow. He had, you could say, gone to Grief Island and couldn’t escape. It’s only after his entire ordeal with his travels and with the sea monster and his horrible grief of losing a second son and then getting him back again that he returns to his home and resumes to something like the life he had before Carlo died. We see him back in the church at home, fitting a new arm on the damaged. crucified Christ. And we see that Pinocchio, too, has two arms once again. Gepetto has been restored.
Which part was cathartic for him? It’s hard to say. He is an old man. It was hard not to think of Abraham, taking such delight in his son, and then losing him on the very altar of God. Well, this is what I mean by not being sure how coherent the movie was. There was so much in there, I truly cannot tell if it doesn’t hang together, or if it’s just incredibly complex.
The creature that guards the hour glasses in the underworld says that human life is precious because it is short. It’s clear that this being has a somewhat different approach to humanity from her sister, and is exasperated that the sister brought Pinocchio to life. She does allow Pinocchio the free choice over whether to break the rules, smashing the hourglass and exiting the netherworld early, for the sake of his father’s love; but it’s not clear whether Pinocchio’s heroism is meant as a rebuke to the idea that the shortness of human life is what makes it precious. Being a “real boy” is clearly about more than the ability to live and die. At the end of the movie, he’s somewhere in between mortal and immortal: he outlives Gepetto, and the monkey, and the cricket, and it is suggested that he has undone the experience of his father. Gepetto, too, outlived his beloved ones; but Pinocchio, silhouetted on that same hilltop, isn’t wasting away at the grave and refusing to live on while his loved ones are dead; but he is also not suffering the terrible fate that the timekeeping creature warned him of, where everyone he loves dies while he lives on forever. It is suggested that he goes out into the larger world and is accepted for who he is; and then, says that narrator: “What happens, happens, and then we’re gone.”
Well. Listen. As far as I’m concerned, that last line was the equivalent of Gepetto mumbling something lame about the other people getting to know you better over time. That’s no answer, and I think del Toro knows it.
As a Catholic, when I review movies, I try to catch myself and make sure I’m not Jesus juking anybody, and confabulating religious themes where they weren’t intended. Here, I’m finding myself having to do the opposite: Scrambling around busily gathering up all the explicit references to Jesus, and not being able to make anything out of them. Trying to work through what this movie was doing is like trying to put together a complicated, detailed kit that has all the tiny pieces and all the directions, but no glue. Or maybe I just haven’t found it yet.
Very early in the movie, I was surprised and gratified to see Gepetto and his son making the sign of the cross to pray before a meal, and then they had a crucifix on the wall of their house. I thought, “Oh, wartime Italy was Catholic and they’re not gloss over it; that’s neat.” Next scene: Gepetto is carving an enormous crucifix for the town church. They linger over the face of Christ, and shortly afterward, after they hoist the crucifix into position at the altar, Gepetto climbs up and is painting blood onto the face. He asks his son to send him up some more red paint. I gasped.
Did you know that children make you suffer? This movie will tell you so, if you didn’t know. Children will make you suffer, and they will transform you.
But Pinocchio is not just any son. Who is he?
At one point, after Pinocchio is somewhat understandably ejected from the church (he really is kind of ungodly looking, and after wandering up the aisle, he innocently apes the outstretched arms of the crucifix and grins at the crowd),
he explicitly asks his father, “How come they like Him and not me?” Meaning Jesus. They are both made of wood, but people sing to Jesus, but they throw Pinocchio out. Gepetto doesn’t really have an answer, partly because he doesn’t like Pinocchio very much himself, yet. He mumbles something about how people will get to know him better, and he must go to school. But you can see, the question has occurred to del Toro, and he wants us to ask ourselves: Who is this, anyway? What does it mean to be made into a human? What kind of incarnation are we talking about?
And there’s more. The question of obedience to the father is brought up several times, always in terms of it being a good thing, a sign of respect, the right way to live.
But also presented as a virtue: Saying no to authority, and breaking the rules when the time is right. This is what Candlewick does when he and Pinocchio both tie their flags to the tower, and he refuses to shoot his friend despite his father’s order, and despite his desperate desire to win his father’s approval. He openly says to his father something like, “I’m strong enough to say no, are you?” You can see that the priest and others in the town feel somewhat conflicted when they clumsily salute; they’re not strong enough to say no.
And Pinocchio, of course, faces a moment when he is given a choice to break the rules. In his third sojourn in the sandy underworld, he can’t wait for the hourglass to run out to return to life, so he choses to break it, knowing it means he will die.
There’s more Christ imagery: In the final struggle with the puppeteer, Pinocchio is tied to a tree at the edge of a cliff in an unmistakable echo of the crucifix that fascinated him; then shortly after, we see Pinocchio descending down into the waters after his father and struggling to bear him up. He gives up his life for his friends! He dies, but he comes back to life! Pinocchio is Jesus! Right? Sort of? But not really!
This is fairly on brand for del Toro. I guess he can’t shake the idea that, in every movie he makes, he’s looking for that perfect, unblemished pinecone, and he knows it has to be buried, and knows it will become a tree that will be cut down and craft into something that will ultimately save him. But he can’t quite bring himself to say its true name. At one point, a terrified congregant in the church says, “Malocchio!” and the puppet brightly responds, “No, Pinocchio!”
My dude, no, it’s Jesus.
Boy, though, what a movie.