“Such terrible, terrible joy”: the anti-fascism of Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

Originally posted to my Patreon on December 17, 2022. Now that the movie has an Oscar, this seems like an appropriate time to post it. Please back my Patreon to support my work.

My nonna was born in Vicenza, about 40 miles west of Venice, in what seemed to be the dying days of Italian Fascism. She was one year old when the Allies bombed Vicenza, targeting strategic locations but killing around a thousand civilians. My nonna’s brother rescued her from the rubble of their bombed house. He was a toddler at the time.

In the early 1960s, my nonna, a woman of 20, left Italy with her two young sons. When she arrived in the United States, she spoke hardly a word of English, raising her boys alone while her husband (a Green Beret of the U.S. Army) slept with every woman under the son. The marriage didn’t last — Nonna married an Air Force officer some years later, trading in her family name Salvarese for Kelley.

As a third generation American, my connection to my Italian family history was mediated through family anecdotes and media. Disney’s Pinocchio was probably the first vaguely Italian movie I saw. The still abjectly frightening scene where the boys on Pleasure Island transform into donkeys might be my earliest life memory, a fact which probably explains a lot about me. While the 1940 movie largely glides around its source material’s basis in Italian culture (no small part, the donkey scene preserves a key part of Carlo Collodi’s tremendously disturbing book in which Pinocchio murders the Cricket who has lived in his house for 100 years. The Italian words for donkey — asino, somaro, ciuco — are polysemous, referring not merely to animals but to lazy students and — paradoxically — people who work themselves to death, with the underlying understanding that poverty sucks, but that hard work and school are ways to avoid it. 

While Disney avoided explicitly referring to Italy in the Mussolini era, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio embraces its source material’s Italian heritage in the age of Giorgia Melloni. It’s an explicitly Italian film, with characters shouting “arrivederci” and having names like Spazzaturra (which means “trash”). It’s also unequivocally anti-fascist, as del Toro always is, trotting out Fascist nightmares as the death of family and wonder. Mussolini even gets a cameo, voiced by none other than Tom fucking Kenny.

Yet despite its independence from previous Pinocchios, the del Toro film is keenly aware of its debts to the Disney film. It’s a musical, its setting in Fascist Italy is a nod to when the original film was produced, and Ewan MacGregor’s Sebastian J. Cricket (a perfect boy for whom I will die) serves as a narrator like Jimmy Cricket. Del Toro looks at Disney’s template, plucks bits from it, and goes “OK, I’m going to plug my own anti-fascist weirdness into this.”

Del Toro’s anti-fascism is unique to this Pinocchio. Le avventure di Pinocchio predated Mussolini’s rise to power, while the original Disney film elided the issue altogether.…

Continue Reading