Long ago in a fairytale land, two kingdoms wage a pointless war, the reasons for which were forgotten long ago. A baby girl is born to a grumpy King (Mario Adorf), who is devastated when his wife dies in childbirth. Driven by grief, and aggravated because he wanted a son, the King nearly murders his daughter amidst the sacred Cave of the Golden Rose. However, magical intervention from the White Witch (Angela Molina) convinces him otherwise. Years later, the clever, courageous, but naughty child grows into the heart-meltingly beautiful Princess Fantaghiro (Alessandra Martines).
Unlike her older sisters, docile Princess Caterina (Ornella Marcucci) and dainty Princess Carolina (Katerina Brozova), plucky Fantaghiro stands up to her bullying father. In a land where women are thought "inferior to men, both physically and mentally", she defies convention and learns how to read and write. When Fantaghiro spurns a marriage proposal for herself and her two sisters, the enraged King exiles her to an enchanted forest. Here, the mysterious White Knight (Angela Molina in male drag) teaches her how to wield a sword and talk to animals. With her newfound talent, Fantaghiro befriends a talking goose (voiced by, yup, Angela Molina) who dispenses "helpful advice to those who need it."
Meanwhile, the death of the rival king places dashing Prince Romualdo (Kim Rossi Stuart) upon the enemy throne. Out riding in the woods, Romualdo encounters Fantaghiro and, though she quickly runs away, falls deeply in love. A intelligent, kind-hearted man, Romualdo sees no sense in prolonging the war and proposes a speedy resolution. He will fight the King's champion in single combat, winner takes all. However, the King’s general (Jean-Pierre Cassel) plots to use this contest as an excuse to seize the throne, then conquer Romualdo's kingdom. Overhearing this dastardly scheme, Fantaghiro - aided by the White Witch - disguises herself as a knight and rides to face Romualdo and his warriors alone.
Despite two lively fright-fests, Macabre (1980) and A Blade in the Dark (1983), the bulk of Lamberto Bava's horror output never escaped the shadow cast by his illustrious father, Mario. It was a different story with Fantaghiro, a beguiling fairytale romance. Though largely unheralded amidst the English language mainstream and spurned by irate horror fans hoping for another Demons (1985), the movie was a huge hit across Europe and captivated a generation of kids who remain loyal fans to this day.
At its heart lies two perfectly pitched performances from handsome Kim Rossi Stuart and especially, the achingly lovely Alessandra Martines. Her intelligent, faceted performance makes Fantaghiro a feisty, feminist heroine, but also a complex character. She occasionally mistakes arrogance for bravery, alienates those who love her, and wrestles with a fear of being alone. Romualdo's gentility tempers some of her rougher edges and they remain wholly likeable heroes, neither saccharine nor over-modernized. Whereas a Hollywood production might take a revisionist approach or pepper the narrative with post-modernist gags, screenwriters Gianni Romoli and Francesca Melandri (adapting a fable discovered by Italo Calvino) approach the fairytale on its own terms, sprinkled with wry humour and humanist touches. These include the moment the normally foul tempered king tenderly tells his wife she bore him a son, so she might die fulfilled; and the nicely drawn relationship between Fantaghiro and her sisters, who bicker but stand by each other as siblings do. The fusion of feminism with a pacifist message is nicely done and the romance develops in an intelligent, poetic manner.
A showcase for the Italian approach to fantasy filmmaking, Bava fuses medieval, oriental and Disneyesque visual styles and captures that innocent fairytale tone with flowery dialogue, beautiful (and pristine) costumes, and abundant whimsy. Sergio Stivaletti's array of talking animals and magical creatures range from the delightful to the cheesy, but the special effects generally match the inventive script. The titular cave that turns out to be the mouth of a giant beast ranks among the most memorable.
The success of Fantaghiro spawned five sequels that feature special guest star turns from Ursula Andress, Brigitte Nielsen and others, plus a roster of fairies, goblins and trolls. Each film was directed by Lamberto Bava who, in a similar vein, later made Dragon Ring (1994), a mini-series some consider his masterpiece.
Italian director/producer and son of legendary horror auteur Mario Bava. Began working as an assistant to his father on productions such as Planet of the Vampires and Baron Blood, and co-wrote Mario's final film Shock. Made his directing debut in 1980 with the effective chiller Macabre, which were followed by exploitation favourites A Blade in the Dark, Blastfighter, Delirium and two gore-laden Demons movies, both produced by Dario Argento. Bava's subsequent work has largely been for Italian TV, his last theatrical film being 1991's duff Body Puzzle.