West unstrings Pinocchio parable

By Robert Sorrell

In the hundred years since Carlo Lorenzini published a series of stories about the puppet Pinocchio, his creation has turned into something more than a piece of wood. Contemporary Italian writers have pinned Pinocchio’s longevity to the connection between the puppet’s personality and a stereotypical “modern liberal Italian” that people cling to in the face of widespread globalization. But there are many reasons we take this “real boy” seriously. Last Saturday, professor Rebecca West sought to distill years of work, multiple articles, and even a quarter-long class on Pinocchio’s film adaptations into a 60-minute lecture.

Pinocchio is a character whom the highly political Lorenzini (writing under the pen name Carlo Collodi) wished to portray as “torn between social bonds, ‘strings,’ and personal autonomy,” a predicament that resonates widely in our current age. West drew a fascinating comparison between Pinocchio’s individualism and the regional identities that are resurging around the globe through movements such as locavore cuisine. She explained how local cultures and dialects are gaining prominence after being suppressed in favor of the “monolithic nation.”

West prefaced her presentation Saturday by announcing that after 40 years of teaching Italian literature and film classes at the University, she would be retiring in December. Her work over the years has earned her the position of William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Service Professor of Italian Literature.

Though, as West mentioned, Pinocchio has inspired many other writers, including Italo Calvino, the silver screen has seen the most varied and intriguing interpretations of the tale. The most notable is Walt Disney’s 1940 animated version. It not only reinterpreted the story, but also marked a huge leap forward for animation and cinema in general, since it introduced a multi-plane camera that could depict scenes in three dimensions. And while Disney’s version more resembles the Bavarian Alps than Collodi’s Tuscany, as West noted, it has become the most famous and best loved.

West offered her own reason for Pinocchio’s enduring popularity across media. “Wanting to be real, for example, is another way of saying ‘I want to be grown up; I want to be independent,” she said. “That’s part of the appeal, I think, for little children, is that he wants so much to be his own boy rather than to be a puppet.”

—Additional reporting by Sara Cao