An Italian-led production with co-producers in France and the United Kingdom, the film is Garrone's first English-language film. It competed for the Palme d'Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.
It is a screen adaptation based on collections of tales by Neapolitan poet and courtier Giambattista Basile: Pentamerone or Lo cunto de li cunti (Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones), which contains the earliest versions of famous fables like Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.
The Baroque stories manage to mix real and surreal with many metaphorical usages. Pentamerone was a 17th-century collection of Italian fairytales.
The three tales are La Cerva Fatata (The Enchanted Doe), La Pulce (The Flea), La Vecchia Scorticata (The Flayed Old Lady), that have been freely adapted with elements of other tales by Giambattista Basile, as well as a touch of artistic license. All three stories are told in a mixed way, pieced in fragments through the whole film, with all three briefly joining for a royal funeral near the start and a royal coronation at the end.
The first tale begins in the kingdom of Longtrellis, where the King and Queen have tried everything to have a child, but are not successful. The King loves his Queen, but all she desires is a child. One night, a necromancer suggests a risky solution: if the Queen eats the heart of an aquatic dragon cooked by a virgin, she will instantly become with child. However, this will come at the cost of a life. The Queen accepts, not caring about the price. The King sets off to slay the aquatic dragon, and dies doing so. The Queen does not mourn the loss of her husband; she only cares for the dragon's heart. After eating the heart, the queen bears a son, Elias, in one day's time. The servant who cooked the heart for the Queen, who accidentally became pregnant by inhaling the steam from the heart, also gives birth to a boy, Jonah. The two boys are nearly identical and have hair as white as the dragon.
As a young man, Elias's affections are not for the Queen, but for his friend Jonah, whom he views as a brother. This greatly hurts the Queen, who eventually attempts to murder Jonah herself, after finding the boys are so close that Jonah can pretend to be Elias without her knowing. In response, Jonah leaves the kingdom, leaving his mother and Elias behind. Elias is heartbroken and tries to convince Jonah to stay, but Jonah says he must go. Jonah takes a knife and plunges it into the root of a tree, out of which a spring flows forth. Jonah tells Elias that as long as the tree continues to spout clear water, he will know that Jonah is alive and well.
One day, Elias comes to the tree to find the water clouded with blood. He immediately leaves to find Jonah. When Elias arrives in a distant village, Jonah's pregnant sweetheart and friends mistake him for Jonah. By claiming to have lost his memory, Elias discovers that Jonah has been missing since he went to the woods five days ago. Elias goes to search for him.
The Queen has all her subjects look for Elias to no avail. The following night, the necromancer comes again to the Queen and tells her it is her fault that Elias has disappeared -- that she has tried to separate what is inseparable. The Queen asks for her son to return. The necromancer says a violent desire such as hers can only be satisfied with violence. Without knowing the terms, the Queen follows the necromancer down the hall.
The next day, Elias finds Jonah wounded in a cave, having fallen through the cave's roof while he was in the woods.They are threatened by a large, bat-like monster. As the two struggle to escape, the bat manages to wound Jonah with its sharp talons. Elias puts himself between Jonah and the bat, and the monster hesitates to strike out again. Elias uses the moment to kill the monster to save Jonah. He returns Jonah to his sweetheart before departing. In the cave, the bat creature's corpse turns to dust, and it is revealed it was the queen, transformed by the necromancer.
In the second story arc, the King of Highhills lives with his daughter, Violet. Violet loves her father and plays him a song that she has written for him. During the performance, the King is distracted by a flea that can mysteriously move from one of his hands to the other. He captures the flea and hides it in his room as his pet, feeding it his own blood and, later, under-cooked steaks. The flea grows into a gigantic Kafkaesque domesticated creature. When the flea dies, the King is devastated and decides to skin it. He offers to give his daughter as a bride to whoever is able to guess the source of the tanned skin. An ogre solves the riddle and wins the princess as his bride. Violet, who has dreamed of marrying someone handsome and brave, attempts to commit suicide by plunging off the castle's tower to her death, but her father stops her, saying he had never intended for this to happen but can't go back on his word. In tears, Violet agrees to go through with the marriage, stating that her father never loved her at all.
The Ogre takes Violet to his cave near the top of a mountain, where she is raped and kept prisoner. One day while the Ogre is hunting, Violet spots a woman, who is an entertainer, on the other side of the cliff. She begs the woman for help. The woman tells her she will return tomorrow with her sons. The next day, the woman and her husband and sons try to save the Princess by tying a rope to the other side of the cliff, with one of the sons walking across it while carrying the Princess on his back. As the entertainers' son is walking across the tightrope, the Ogre notices the Princess's absence and is enraged that the Princess has been taken. However, they manage to cut the rope before the Ogre reaches them, and the Ogre falls to the depths below. However, the Ogre manages to survive, and finds the group, slaying the entertainers' entire family. He is about to kill the Princess, but she placates him with tender gestures. He relents and motions for the Princess to climb onto his back, so he can take her back to the cave. The Princess pretends to get on by placing an arm around him and slits his throat with her other arm.
During the time that Violet has been away, the King has grown ill. When Violet returns, the King breaks down in tears. Violet throws the Ogre's head at her father's feet and reminds him that this is the husband he chose for her, his daughter. After the King falls to his knees, the subjects follow suit, suggesting she is now Queen. Seeing her father in tears, Violet, too, begins to cry.
In the third story, the lustful King of Strongcliff is intrigued by a mysterious woman’s heavenly singing. Determined to seduce her, he courts her outside her home, unaware that she is one of two elderly dyer sisters, Imma and Dora. Dora first offers the King the touch of one finger, but the King persists, so Dora agrees to spend the night with him as long as it is in complete darkness, to hide her appearance from him. However, once she is asleep, the King lights a candle to see Dora's face. When he sees her appearance, he is horrified at having slept with her. The King calls for his guards to throw Dora out of the bed chamber window to her apparent death. The bed sheet around Dora becomes entangled in the branches of a tree before she reaches the ground. A witch rescues her from the tree and nurses her from her breast. Dora awakens in the woods as a young, beautiful maiden. Later, the King comes upon her while hunting and decides to make her his Queen.
Enjoying her new appearance, Dora sends Imma a gown and an invitation to the wedding festivities at the castle. Dora draws Imma aside at the castle and tells her to keep the secret, as no one would believe her. Dora promises to take care of Imma and tells her that she missed her very much. At the end of the night, Imma refuses to leave the castle and her sister. Dora tells Imma that they can't be together because she might lose everything and sends her away. However, she comes back and asks for the secret to her sister's youth and beauty so that they can be together, but Dora says she doesn't know how it happened, as she woke up that way. Imma doesn't believe her and badgers her for the truth. In annoyance, Dora says she flayed herself and grew new skin. With the King approaching, Dora hides Imma behind a screen and begins to consummate her marriage with the King. Imma is fascinated by the sight and reveals herself. The King sees her and thinks she is the "witch" he slept with. He calls for his guards to throw her out. Dora tells the King that Imma is her old neighbour and begs him not to hurt her. Outside the castle, Imma tries to find someone who will flay her. She eventually finds a knife sharpener willing to do the job in exchange for her fine jewelry. He takes Imma out into the woods and flays her skin and leaves Imma bloody and disfigured. The last we see of her is as she walks towards the castle, bloody and injured.
In the end, Elias, Dora, and her lustful King are among the guests present at Kingdom Highhills for Violet's official coronation as Queen. There, Elias nods to her, as well as the King of Strongcliff. As Violet's father walks her to the throne, everyone in the crowd looks up to the sky, where an entertainer is walking across a tightrope that is on fire. At this time, Dora's beauty begins to fade and she begins to return to her former state. Before anyone notices what is happening to her, she manages to flee the Highhills castle alone.
In all three tales, the selfishness of the characters led to their ultimate destruction based on their fixation of lustful desire rather than true love. The Queen of Longtrellis's desire for a child consumed her, but she also wished for that love to be reciprocated by the child to her. When Elias did not reciprocate her love, she tried to murder Jonah, which was the person who made Elias happy. Rather than sacrificing her happiness knowing Elias had a soulmate friend, she tried to remove that relationship in hope it would further her relationship with her son. That desire ultimately led to her death by the hands of her own son, who was a product of her own desire.
The King of Highills was so fixated on the flea that he lost sight of being a father and sacrificed his daughter, who looked up to him and loved him. The flea was a gross creature and meant to symbolize a hobby or other small, unimportant matter that a parent may indulge rather than focusing on their children. In the end, this mistake stripped the King of both his royal and paternal title. Unlike all the other characters, the King seemed truly repentant for what he had done and was consumed by grief and illness until his daughter's return. However, his prior actions and fixation on the flea can never erase the trauma Violet had to undergo with losing her virginity and innocence at the hands of an ogre. Further, the entertainer's entire family were killed by the ogre in an attempt to save the Princess when the King himself did nothing to rescue her and whose lack of regard and foolishness led to his daughter's plight. It was his daughter who ultimately had to save herself, disgracing the King not only as a King, but as a father as well.
The Lustful King of Strongcliff desired sexual gratification and used his subjects to that regard. However, this addiction led him to sleep with Dora, who was an old woman, based on the illusion of what is beautiful. The reality of the Lustful King having slept with Dora as an old maid disgusts the King so much that he attempts to throw Dora to her death, claiming that she is a witch. Yet, Dora protests that the Lustful King demanded her presence, which was true. Yet, he falls in love with Dora and makes her his Queen once she is transformed into a beautiful maiden. The moral of the story is that the eyes can be misleading and what you see or believe you see should not be substituted for the truth of what is. On the flip-side, Dora is no different than the Lustful King she eventually marries - she desires wealth, title and sexual passions. When she receives youth, Dora traded Imma, who had been with her forever, for the man who had cast her to her death days before. This leads to Dora's condemnation to live the rest of her days alone and without Imma. For the Lustful King, he will never stop searching for his Queen who appeared to be the cure for his lustful addiction, when in fact, Dora was merely a reflection of himself that he could not see.
According to Matteo Garrone, he was drawn to Giambattista Basile's stories for their mix of the real and the unreal, and because he found the themes in many of them to still be highly relevant. Garrone had previously been best known for employing a naturalist style in films such as Gomorrah, but argued that all his previous films also have a fairytale aspect to their narratives. Tale of Tales had a budget corresponding to USD$14.5 million. It was produced through Garrone's company Archimede Film, with co-production support from France's Le Pact and Britain's Recorded Picture Company. It received financing from Rai Cinema and additional support from MiBACT and Eurimages.
Principal photography commenced on 15 May 2014 and lasted four months. The film was shot entirely on location in various parts of Italy, including Naples (Royal Palace, Palace of Capodimonte and its gardens); Apulia's Castel del Monte (octagonal castle appears in the poster near Vincent Cassel), Gioia del Colle (in particular the throne room), Laterza, Mottola, Statte; Sicily's Donnafugata Castle (gothic castle, stone labyrinth and gardens) and Gole dell'Alcantara in Alcantara (mainly scenes of sea dragon); Abruzzo's Castello di Roccascalegna (appears in the poster with Castel del Monte); Tuscany's Moorish castle of Sammezzano, the towns of Sorano and Sovana (tuff caves); and Lazio (Bosco del Sasseto in Viterbo).
The team made an effort to find places that would remind the viewer of studio sets. Digital effects were artisanal integrations of something that had to look as believable as possible, in reference to images of heraldry or depictions of seventeenth-century landscapes.
On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an 82% approval rating based on reviews from 94 critics, with an average rating of 7 out of 10. On Metacritic, the film has received a weighted average score of 72 out of 100 based on 24 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".