Learning from Death in Pinocchio

The Story of a Surrogate Messiah and His Love of an Imperfect Father

Jeb Ralston / 3.2.23

He ventured into the world. And the world, I believe, embraced him back.
What happens, happens. And then, we are gone. -Sebastian J. Cricket

Disney’s animated Pinocchio movie was always a disturbing movie to me as a kid. There was a grittiness and mean-spiritedness to it that I was unaccustomed to in comparison to other children’s movies, and Guillermo del Toro’s latest Pinocchio adaptation has left me, decades later, feeling just as unsettled yet somehow oddly relieved.

There have been plenty of adaptations of “Pinocchio” since the original children’s novel written in 1883, yet Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s newest film, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022), is a worthy yet highly unconventional addition to this growing list of retellings. It follows in some respects the typical Pinocchio story in which widowed father, Geppetto, creates a wooden puppet who he wishes was a real boy and soon comes to life by a fairy’s powers. The traditional plot involves the puppet, Pinocchio, longing to be a real boy, but to his dismay, the fairy insists that he must first prove himself worthy of being a real boy. In other words, to become a real boy, Pinocchio had to act like one.

Del Toro, however, in a recent interview, has insisted that this new film is not at all about Pinocchio learning to be a real boy through obedience. He says, “In the traditional story, “Pinocchio” learns to be a real boy and transforms. And in this one … Pinocchio doesn’t transform, and it’s Geppetto that learns to be a real father.” Elsewhere, he adds that it is about “imperfect fathers and imperfect sons.” This reversal is not the only divergence from the traditional plot. Del Toro’s Pinocchio has about as much to do with embracing another’s imperfections as it does with coming to terms with how fragile and brief our lives really are.

This new Pinocchio is all about love and mortality and how death can awaken us to the reality that all we have is what has been given to us.

The movie begins with Geppetto, an upstanding citizen of Italy in the period between World War I and World War II, who is tasked with carving a massive wooden crucifix for his local church. One night after working with his son, Carlo, on the project, Carlo is killed by an aerial bombardment on the church, a blast that kills his son and destroys the crucifix. Geppetto, consumed by his grief and in a drunken stupor, crafts himself a wooden boy that is soon brought to life. Pinocchio awakens and is quickly infatuated with everything around him. He is obnoxious and drives Geppetto mad. He tells Pinocchio, “I made you to be like Carlo. Why can’t you be like Carlo? […] Enough. You are such a burden.” The father who wished for him and created him rejects him, as Pinocchio later laments, “When he called me a burden, his nose didn’t grow.”

The world of Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is full of imperfect fathers and corrupt paternalism, whether that be Geppetto or the paternal shape of fascism. The wise maternal figure of the movie comes in the form of Death, who (voiced by Tilda Swinton) proves to be a consistently sober and steady presence for Pinocchio throughout the entire story. At various points, Pinnochio ‘dies,’ yet he is told by Death that he can not truly die because he is not truly a real boy. Death tells Pinocchio that what makes life precious is how brief it is. So instead of dying, Pinocchio would simply return to the living. Pinocchio at first sees this as a good thing. He can live a reckless life with no consequence. However, Death must tell him,

As I see it, you were charged with a terrible burden … Life can bring great suffering. And eternal life can bring eternal suffering … While you may have eternal life, your friends, your loved ones, they do not. Every moment shared with them may be the very last. You never know how long you have with someone until they’re gone.

Towards the end of the movie this idea is placed front and center. Pinocchio is forced with a choice: will he choose eternal living or embrace mortality to save the one he loves? Faced with this choice, he chooses to sacrifice himself. An imperfect Pinocchio dies to save his very imperfect father. “I will go back and save my papa,” and that he does. Pinocchio returns as a mortal and really dies attempting to save his father, as the Wood Sprite soon tells Geppeto, “To save you, he became a real boy and real boys don’t come back.” I won’t spell out exactly how this movie ends (I will spare you one last surprise), but I can tell you that the last ten minutes of this one are a gut punch. While the movie begins in death and ends in death, it remains full of gratitude and grace.

Death is a powerful teacher, but in the Christian tradition death retains a sort of ambivalence. On one hand, death is an evil and a punishment for sin, yet on the other hand, it was through death that death was defeated. Even the Psalmist wrote, “Show me, LORD, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is” (Ps 39:4). And as St. Augustine once wrote, “the good make a good use of death […] though death is an evil.”[1] Del Toro, who was raised Catholic, has strongly emphasized making a good use of death in what is arguably the most religious mainstream film released so far this year. The crucifix remains a central image to the film, with Pinocchio himself standing as a Christ figure. Del Toro himself said, “Pinocchio is a sort of surrogate imperfect Messiah, resurrecting and dying for those that he loves.”  It is a powerful image — especially in light of discerning how one might become “real” and invites contemplating how it can be that in giving ourselves away we truly live. It was Christ who said, “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39).

Theologian J. Todd Billings has reflected powerfully on similar themes in his latest book, The End of the Christian Life. Reflecting on his own experience with incurable cancer and confronting his own mortality, Billings writes,

But on my cancer path, strangely enough, the tingling and sharp pain in my feet, the ache in my back and my neck, and the heavy cloud of fatigue can actually be strange daily gifts. They are frequent bodily reminders to me: ‘You are dust, / and to dust you shall return’ (Gen 3:19). The pain reminds me in the morning, in the afternoon, and in the evening that my life is like a passing breath; I am a small yet beloved creature belonging to the Creator. I cannot save the world. I cannot do all I have ever imagined or desired to do. Like hundreds of generations of mortals who have come before me, my body aches, I am small, and I am dying.[2]

If there’s one thing to learn from Del Toro’s Pinocchio, it is the reminder that we are all those who will one day die. Indeed, we are dying even in this very moment. Yet this may be a strange mercy. Like a long exhale or taking a nap, acknowledging our mortality can offer us a moment of restful realization. We are loved even if we do not live up to our own expectations or become all that we (or another) have ever wanted. As Christ crucified and the wooden puppet demonstrate, there is no greater love than love unto death, and we are perfectly loved whatever may become of us. The Christian hope, of course, is that Death will not have the final word, yet for Guillermo del Toro and others, there is still a word for it to teach us now.

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One response to “Learning from Death in Pinocchio

  1. Emily R. says:

    Thanks for putting this film on my radar—this story is always food for thought.

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