From Italy, with heart

Fine foreign costume dramas make their way to U.S.

Now streaming via On Demand, Amazon, iTunes, etc.

By some crazily poetic twist of the cultural zeitgeist, several of Italy’s very best filmmakers produced costume dramas, both major and offbeat, in 2015.

Marco Bellocchio’s Blood of My Blood, two tales set in different centuries at the same convent prison, hasn’t yet had a full release in the U.S. But Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales, a set of Baroque fairy tales adapted from a 16th century tome by Giambattista Basile, and the Taviani Brothers’ Wondrous Boccaccio, a string of gently ribald tales adapted from The Decameron (Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century masterpiece), are both available for streaming. And both represent very flavorsome alternatives to the heavily advertised commercial fare that dominates the multiplexes at this time of year.

Both films are loosely intertwined gatherings of tales from their respective literary classics, each of which is a collection of far more stories than any one movie, however lengthy, could hope to contain. Ribaldry and irreverence get free play in both, and while the originals come from separate centuries, there’s much to suggest that they all come from the same fountain of ancient storytelling.

Garrone’s Tales is more fantastical and dark, while the Tavianis’ Boccaccio is lyrical and bittersweet. Both have episodes involving a parent’s excessive attachment to a child, and both have stories of romantic obsession and star-crossed lovers. Tragicomic calamities of marriage and family life recur in both, especially among deranged royalty in Tales and floundering aristocrats in Boccaccio.

The stories that Garrone has selected from Basile reflect on each other as stark variations on the themes from Beauty and the Beast stories. The roasted heart of a slaughtered sea monster figures crucially in a childless queen’s struggle to give birth, and the king bent on keeping his daughter at his side uses his own blood to make a monster out of a flea and then loses his daughter to a monstrous oaf, all of which ends with her committing a “monstrous” act of her own.

Elsewhere in Garrone’s Tales, the “monsters” are decidedly human and for the most part more mysterious than grotesque. The roasted heart episode leads to the birth of two identical albino sons, one by the queen and one by her cook. The boys’ struggle to make lives of their own parallels the tragedy of the overprotected daughter as well as that of the two bedraggled sisters whose clandestine romantic involvement with a sex-crazed king leads to disaster for all three.

Sexual and romantic mishaps are generally viewed in more lighthearted terms in Wondrous Boccaccio, but the shadow of tragedy persists by way of the characters’ knowledge that their days of blissful storytelling give only a temporary respite from the plague-ridden streets of Florence that they have fled.

Romantic obsession and sexual freedom are rewarded more often than not in the Tavianis’ selections, but hard truths are usually close by as well. A down-at-the heels aristocrat loses the love of his life, but in the process of losing conducts himself in a way that results in an unexpected reward. A woman, an abbess in the convent to which she was sent as a child, gets caught in a sexual indiscretion, but turns the moment into a curious kind of victory.

The father-daughter episode in Wondrous Boccaccio ends in tragedy, as does an otherwise rowdy and farcical episode in which a couple of artisans fool an absurdly gullible colleague named Contadino into thinking he’s become invisible. The film’s opening episode, a romantic triangle that announces itself as a tale of “love and resurrection,” is a little masterpiece of mysticism and love.

Tale of Tales, which is available here in an English language version, has a big-name cast including Salma Hayek as the infertile queen and Vincent Cassel as the sex-crazed king. The twin brothers (Jonah and Christian Lees) who play the albino sons may be the film’s most memorable performers. And the Tavianis’ Boccaccio gets very good work out of its no-name cast, especially Paola Cortellesi as the amorous abbess, Alessandro Bertoncini as the foolish Contadino and Vittoria Puccini as the resurrected lover.