Criterion Prediction #145: Teorema, by Alexander Miller
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Cast: Terence Stamp, Massimo Girotti, Anne Wiazemsky, Silvana Mangano, Laura Betti
Synopsis: A bourgeois Italian family is met with an enigmatic stranger (Stamp) who seduces each member then disappears. After his departure each family member experience powerful realizations about themselves and the world around them.
Critique: Pier Paolo Pasolini was one of the most exciting filmmakers of all time, and it’s the slew of contrasts that makes his body of work so relentlessly compelling. Pasolini’s political activism was ever present in his cinema, and Marxist/socialist allegories can be found throughout his filmography he grew into a lyrical form of mythic expression. In a ten-year period, his neorealist-informed early films (Accattone, Mama Roma) grew into the bawdy and mystical Trilogy of Life series. One of his most significant titles in between is Teorema.
Transitional material from great artists usually represents an artistic highpoint when looking at someone’s body of work in hindsight. Teorema is evidence of Pasolini’s from verite realism to more imaginative, mythic territory and since it is sandwiched in the middle of a diverse body of work, I was holding out hope that this film would be among the late director’s better achievements. But Teorema is a film with high ideas and thoughtful anecdotes it lacks the propulsion and stamina that defined Pasolini’s best titles (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Arabian Nights, Mama Roma) and is more content with existential quandaries that grow tiresome and awkward.
Terence Stamp is well cast as the oblique visitor, and his persona as a British actor among an Italian cast gives him a fitting aura of otherness making him a believably mysterious object of seduction who appeals to both sexes. Pasolini’s penchant for sexuality in his art often yielded erotic fare that was either artistically flattering or enhanced his metaphorical punchiness, the film’s attempted revelation of a wealthy family being awakened thanks to their trysts with an arbitrary figure of sexual liberation implies profundity, but it all feels awkward and flat. Dialogue is kept to a minimum, and while the film does succeed in providing some atmosphere it also drags out the running time.
Pasolini could fill the screen with lengthy narratives, but this film’s bland setting is so pallid it’s hard to stay invested. We come to associate transitional material with artistic distinction (Rubber Soul, Revolver, Nashville, Winter Light, etc.), but Pasolini doesn’t seem to have the steady hand for interiority nor does he handle the dissection of bourgeoisie ennui with any zeal. Teorema feels like it’s trying for the tonal climate that defined modern avant-garde cinema like L’Avventura or Last Year at Marienbad but comes short. Pasolini is inarguably a masterful director, and after watching Teorema, it seems like his veracity comes to life when dealing with literary mysticism (The Trilogy of Life) or lurid anti-fascist allegory (Salo). Of all of his films, this left the least memorable impression.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: The Criterion Collection has done right by Pier Paolo Pasolini. His controversial Salo has gone from white whale collector’s item to readily accessible restored Blu-ray (torture and scatology with a high definition digital transfer!) and The Trilogy of Life set is a treasure. Mama Roma is still in first generation DVD limbo, though the two-disc set is packed with features. The Koch Lorber DVD of Teorema leaves much to be desired, and the supplementary documentary Pasolini and Death: A Purely Intellectual Thriller is subbed in English which has been the stuff of forum debates for years, the film is available thanks to a dual-format BFI release. While this is speculation, it seems like Criterion cherry picks titles due to their success thanks to the success of distributors in the UK, this was the case for Revenge of a Kabuki Actor, 45 Years, Black Girl, Dragon Inn, A Touch of Zen (among many more) thanks to the likes of BFI, Masters of CInema, Arrow Media, and many more. Teorema might not be a personal favorite, but it’s presence and relevance in the Criterion wheelhouse is assured, the film also has garnered a loyal fanbase.