del Toro channels auteurs both past and present in his take on the puppet’s tale.
“It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now.”
The above text serves as conclusion, thesis statement, and final bitter punchline to Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 historical epic Barry Lyndon. After spending three-plus hours watching the hapless Barry (Ryan O’Neal) scheme and clutch and grope his way through the labyrinthine systems of English society, the audience is treated to a final reminder that none of those rules of society or class actually matter. Rich man, poor man—none of that matters to the earth waiting to take us back, one and all.
That final sentence is all the more perfect nail in Barry Lyndon (and Barry Lyndon)’s coffin because of how the film has characterized its title character. Historic and societal forces push him from one dangerous or monumental scenario to another, but Barry drifts through them all, affecting nothing and letting none affect him.
If 2001: A Space Odyssey is Kubrick making a case for the seismic accomplishments that capital-H Humanity is capable of as a species, Barry Lyndon is a treatise on just how insignificant and unremarkable the individual human life is. And whether a life is “good” or “bad,” by whatever metric one uses to weigh these things, every single one ends up at the same destination.
In a nice, cheery mood? OK, good, now let’s talk about Guillermo del Toro and Pinocchio and Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio.
But there’s one other film we have to talk about in relation to del Toro’s Pinocchio: Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, a film that del Toro has written and spoken extensively about since the film hit Netflix in 2019. It should be noted that when del Toro discusses The Irishman, he brings up Barry Lyndon as a spiritual cousin to Scorsese’s grand epic of American crime.
In a series of tweets in 2019, a few months before Pinocchio entered production, del Toro wrote, “The film [The Irishman] connects with the epitaph-like nature of Barry Lyndon. It is about lives that came and went, with all their turmoil, all their drama and violence and noise and loss[…]and how they invariably fade, like we all do[…]We will all be betrayed and revealed by time, humbled by our bodies, stripped off our pride. I believe that much is gained if we cross-reference our transgressions with how we will feel in the last three minutes of our life- when it all becomes clear: our betrayals, our saving graces, and our ultimate insignificance. This film gave me that feeling.”
Like the title character in Barry Lyndon, the title Irishman in The Irishman, Frank Sheeran, (Robert de Niro and his Uncanny Valley Duplicate) is buffeted through tumultuous moments of history but rarely, if ever, attempts to exert any influence over history’s progression. He surrenders all agency over his own existence, accepting his lot as a passenger in his own life and obeying orders as they are given. The ultimate summation of his willful passivity is the climatic assassination of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), an assignment that Frank follows through with despite Hoffa being perhaps the only person that Frank has ever truly loved.
Throughout The Irishman, Scorsese drops onscreen text when a new character appears that details how they will die. From the moment we meet these men, we already know how and when their stories will end, sometimes in violence, sometimes not. The text turns The Irishman into a catalog of ghosts, reminding the audience constantly that all the mayhem and horror and greed and betrayal that we are seeing is ultimately pointless. The ground gets everyone.
OK, for real this time, let’s talk about some goddamn puppets.
With something as singularly iconic as Pinocchio, everyone sits down to each fresh telling with a shared cultural understanding of the story and its major components. Wooden boy, magic fairy, talking cricket, nose grows when he lies, et cetera. The pieces are almost always the same, so the question is: What can a given filmmaker do with those pieces that someone else hasn’t already done? What’s an angle on the story that no one has taken before? What new is there to say with or about a story so elementally understood across the vast cultural subconscious?
For del Toro, the answer is Death, and what that has to do with Life, a thematic throughline that puts this version of Pinocchio in pointed conversation with the masterworks mentioned earlier.
We spend the duration of Pinocchio watching the eponymous puppet, his reluctant father Geppetto (David Bradley), ineffectual cricket conscience Sebastian (Ewan MacGregor), and roguish monkey Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett—no, seriously) bicker and break and come back together again and survive peril after peril. The characters at last reach a hard-earned peace. Pinocchio has sacrificed his own immortal nature to save Geppetto, and finally the oddball family can rest.
And then Geppetto dies.
And then Sebastian dies.
And then Spazzatura dies.
Alone, the unaging but still mortal Pinocchio departs for the wider world as Sebastian narrates that someday, even the wooden boy will have to die.
“What happens, happens, and then we are gone,” MacGregor intones as the film cuts to black.
This closing narration would seem to be a pointed mirroring of Barry Lyndon’s morbid final bit of text, and I expect that this was indeed del Toro’s intention. But del Toro’s own morbidity doesn’t have the same quasi-nihilistic pall of Kubrick or Scorsese’s profoundly Catholic sense of ruin. Instead, del Toro uses the certainty of death as a vehicle for liberation and celebration.
Whereas the protagonists of Barry Lyndon and The Irishman are defined and doomed by their eternal kowtowing to the larger forces of their social circles, Pinocchio again and again refuses any such conformity. He refuses to learn the lesson of obedience or moderation that other cinematic Pinocchios have learned through the years en route to becoming “real” boys. He rejects Geppetto’s attempts to associate him with Carlo, Geppetto’s deceased son. On stage, he gleefully humiliates Benito Mussolini and the entire fascist movement (this is a very odd film, just so we’re clear). In war, he turns bootcamp into a game and reconnects all the other juvenile soldiers with their sense of fun and play.
But for all that, there is no averting the end of the road. The film’s melancholy conclusion reminds us that magical reprieve or not, Geppetto and Sebastian and even Pinocchio will still die someday. It’s a bitter pill, one that could feel overly cruel if handled with a less deft hand.
Yet, for all the sorrow of those closing moments, there is not the same feeling of despair and pointlessness that one experiences as Barry Lyndon and The Irishman reach their sorrowful conclusions. Instead, the knowledge of death’s certainty becomes galvanizing. The ground may get us all in the end, del Toro says, but until then your life is your own, so make of it what you will.
Death has forever been a constant in del Toro’s films and other works. His villains are defined by a fear or fascination with death, leading them to seek a way to either cheat death or conquer it. This is the case with the fascist captain Vidal in Pan’s Labyrinth, who has choreographed his own demise down to the most minute gesture that can be passed on to his son.
What defines del Toro’s heroes, then, is the exact opposite: an acceptance that the world exists and matters beyond their own experiences and perspectives. Whether it is the vampire in Cronos accepting death rather than drinking the blood of an innocent, or Ophelia in Pan’s Labyrinth sacrificing her magical destiny on behalf of her infant brother, del Toro again and again imagines a secular kind of sainthood, in which flawed and imperfect humans attain a perfect spiritual wholeness by choosing to look beyond themselves.
With the story of a creature who learns that to be alive means to die, del Toro has brought this central thematic preoccupation full circle. His film quotes earlier masterworks that grapple with the inevitability of mortality, but his conclusions are all his own.
What happens, happens, and then we are gone. But we’re here, now. And that’s something. That’s everything. What matters next is what we make of it.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is now streaming on Netflix.