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The boy with the world on a string

Italians grow up with the story of 'Pinocchio.' So the mania surrounding a new Roberto Benigni film version is only natural.

October 13, 2002|John Henderson | Special to The Times

Collodi, Italy — In a country where a wooden puppet is a national icon and a former comic is a national hero, the upcoming live-action movie version of "Pinocchio" starring Roberto Benigni represents a historic opportunity.

Now is the time to take back moral ownership of the puppet, who is considered, along with Julius Caesar and Michelangelo, one of the country's most influential national figures. Italians hope the film clarifies a mistake Americans often make: Pinocchio wasn't born in Walt Disney's studio. Pinocchio is Italian.

Benigni's "Pinocchio," which opened Friday in 860 theaters, a record in Italy for any movie regardless of national origin, is already the biggest production in Italian history. With a budget of $45 million, the Miramax project is the most expensive Italian movie ever made. Movie insiders here predict it will sweep past "Life Is Beautiful," Benigni's Oscar-winning hit from 1999, which has earned $229 million worldwide. The movie opens in the U.S. on Christmas Day.

Here, the movie has sparked an American-style merchandising binge. Pinocchio backpacks and hand organs share shelf space with Pinocchio yo-yos, gum machines, Etch-a-Sketches, key chains, bookends, towel holders, tops, puzzles, diaries, cassettes, 16 Pinocchio books and every size of Pinocchio imaginable. A life-size, hand-carved, stained-wood Pinocchio goes for about $150.

At Cantina del Torchio Antico, a popular restaurant here, you can buy Pinocchio olive oil (taste at your own risk), grappa (with Pinocchio on the label looking a little more wobbly than usual) and white wine (imagine a mid-range Chardonnay).

The beaming mug of Benigni, attired in Pinocchio's goofy white and orange flowered outfit, prances across billboards all over Rome and is on the cover of half a dozen Italian magazines.

Pinocchio, the mischievous boy created by Gepetto whose penchant for lying gives him a very long nose, isn't merely Italian, though. He's Tuscan. His roots are here in Collodi, population 2,000, a town that curls around a hill in the western stretches of the region. About 40 miles west of Florence, Collodi doesn't feature the rolling green hills of the spectacular Tuscan countryside. By Tuscan standards, Collodi isn't all that attractive.

But it was on a hill above the town's medieval center that Carlo Lorenzini sat down in 1883 and wrote a book that eventually would be translated into 250 languages. Only the Koran and the Bible have appeared in more.

Born in Florence, Lorenzini changed his name to Carlo Collodi after moving to his mother's hometown to write the book.

"This movie will be a good opportunity to clarify that 'Pinocchio' is an Italian story," said Pier Francesco Bernacci, director of the Carlo Collodi National Foundation. "Americans will know the real Pinocchio."

To understand Italy's excitement over this movie, one must understand Italy's love for Pinocchio.

For generations, Italians have viewed the book as the national primer for teaching right from wrong. For more than 100 years, it has been read at Italian bedsides from Sicily to the Dolomites. Benigni told the Italian media that his mother read it to him when he was a little boy. Italian historians credit the book for unifying Italy's fragmented dialects into a single national language after the republic was formed in 1870. Today, it is still mandatory reading in many middle school curriculums. Italian feminist Vittoria Haziel recently released a feminist reinterpretation of the story titled "Pinocchia." The Italian government is considering making Pinocchio its official symbol abroad.

"Pinocchio for Italy is our main story," Bernacci said. "But he's not only a Collodi story or a Tuscan story but every part of the world. He could be an American story. When you read the story, you don't read of Italian places or Tuscan places. You read places that could be anywhere."

Bernacci, dressed in a stylish blue suit on a Sunday afternoon, sat in his second-floor office with Pinocchio artwork all over his walls and adjacent rooms. His foundation promotes Collodi and Pinocchio worldwide. This month, new Pinocchio paintings and sculptures will tour Paris, New York, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Buenos Aires.

A three-day international education festival was recently held at Parco di Pinocchio, Collodi's 40-year-old theme park, which attracts more than 200,000 visitors a year and will be expanded with Amici di Pinocchio (Friends of Pinocchio) by the year 2005. Parco di Pinocchio is full of kid rides, bronze sculptures of "Pinocchio" characters and puppet shows.

It's not exactly Disneyland, but Italians don't like their Pinocchio associated with the Disney film that has earned more than $400 million from theatrical release and video sales since it premiered in 1940.

"Pinocchio looks like an Italian," said Deanna Mencarini, a Collodi native who runs a souvenir stand featuring everything from Pinocchio bubble soap to aprons. "He makes a lot of trouble, and he could be an adult or a child."

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