Home Video Hovel: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life, by Scott Nye
The Western world’s relationship with sex has long been a tenuous one, oscillating between puritanical punishment and explosions of expression, but it’s never been much of a mystery to those who call the cinema their profession that the public has a near-insatiable appetite for it. Particularly in the period between the early 1950s and the mid-1970s, foreign cinema was almost singularly driven satiating its audience’s desire to see something – anything – of the (more often female) body. While those more commercial aspects of the films of Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini, and many others were buried beneath themes of alienation, religion, loneliness, and existential crises of all flavors, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s era-defining Trilogy of Life uses at least as its springboard, and often as its chief subject, sex itself, and more than anything in a celebratory light. These three films don’t sacrifice the intellectual rigor he brought to his more politically-driven films in the 1960s, but the simplicity of their telling and sheer joy of their being presents a marked distinction. Criterion’s new Blu-ray box set provides not just an essential slice of cinema, but a very thorough look at its maker.
The trilogy begins with The Decameron (1971), a loose adaptation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s landmark 14th century book which presents a framing device to tell one hundred stories. Simplifying it somewhat, Pasolini selected ten stories, almost entirely abandoned the source’s framing device in favor of his own painterly interpretation, and charged full force into those which emphasized eroticism and irony. The tales themselves are inventive, clever, and a pleasure, but seem to gain in stature as they gradually pile on top of one another. Stories of lust and greed give way to more hopeful depictions of mutual passion and, if not quite love, the purity of the joy to be found in the practice of loving. As Pasolini notes at the Cannes press conference for The Canterbury Tales (presented in the booklet accompanying this release), “Eros [or eroticism] is a marvelous thing, one of the most beautiful in life.” These films are, in large part, an expression of that notion.
This outlook informs the films to follow, even as the content departs greatly. At the end of The Decameron, Pasolini (playing a painter), muses, “Why create a work when it’s so beautiful just to dream it?” Similarly, at the end of The Canterbury Tales (1972), Pasolini (playing the author of the original tales, Geoffrey Chaucer) writes, “here end the Canterbury tales, told only for the pleasure of telling them.” The Canterbury Tales is, like The Decameron, a collection of short stories, free of the usual demarcations of transition that usually accompany such omnibus works, but in spite of Pasolini’s final declaration, are not all quite so ebullient. Sure, you get more than your share of fart jokes, deceptions and comeuppance, slapstick, and bedroom romps, but they’re asked to be viewed in a slightly different light when another tale features a man burned alive for his homosexual behavior, or more accurately, his inability to pay off church officials to prevent them from burning him alive for said practices. The punishment for sexual orientation was a subject with which Pasolini was well-versed, having been expelled from the Italian Communist Party following his public outing, and this proves to be perhaps the most somber passage of the entire trilogy.
Whereas The Decameron almost totally eschews the subject, The Canterbury Tales acknowledges the legitimacy, at least on a moral level, of homosexuality, giving way to Arabian Nights (1974). While not playing a chief role in the film, the depiction of male relations is here portrayed as totally free. The central focus of this film is the your typical boy-buys-girl, boy-falls-for-girl, boy-and-girl-are-separated-and-must-find-a-way-back-to-each-other yarn, but it’s punctuated with much longer explorations of intimate relations than we saw in the previous films. Whereas The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales portrayed infidelity as a way for women to escape, even temporarily, marriages of ownership, here infidelity is portrayed in more familiar terms, though hardly familiar methods (the archer firing an arrow tipped with a dildo is certainly a departure from the norm), as a man in search of something he perceives to be better than the relationship he has, even if it will eventually bring doom to all involved parties.
It must be noted that none of the still-scandalous material (the Blu-ray set comes with a warning of “explicit content,” over forty years since it first hit audiences) seems at all pornographic. Rather than exploit the sexuality on display for salacious purposes, the joy of sex is experienced purely on a character basis – the scenes are fun because the characters within them are having fun, or uncomfortable when they’re uncomfortable, and so forth, never to the benefit of the viewer alone. Lechery and the commodification of sex come up many times throughout the films, and are at every turn rejected or mocked. As Pasolini notes at the aforementioned Cannes press conference, “…eroticism is a wonderful thing, and pornography is a vice like any other.”
Pasolini’s general approach to the cinema was one of a novice; while he created some stunning imagery, the handheld camerawork wasn’t always concerned with composition as much as presenting the fantastical as a found element of his earthy environments. It’s a fascinating dichotomy, and his basic aesthetic tends to emphasize the qualities of whatever subject he’s shooting in a way uncommon to other similar approaches. Call in the Pasolini touch if you like, but it’s something unto itself, coming as it does from a man influenced more by painting and poetry than by film, but largely without the hallmarks of all three.
Calling a set of films the “trilogy of life” may seem a little brash, but in many ways, doing so emphasizes what Pasolini finds most important in life – the celebration of the lower class (an undertone consistent with his work, though less emphasized here, but the redistribution of wealth and power certainly plays a role), the freedom of faith from the Church (I won’t spoil the absurdly blasphemous depiction of Hell in The Canterbury Tales, but…just when you think it can’t get any worse, you find out where the friars go when they’re damned), and the license to find love where you can. In retreating to the distant past, Pasolini is asking us to compare their attitudes with our own, to see how little has changed in the hierarchy of society. In his visual essay on The Decameron, Patrick Rumble discusses Pasolini’s perhaps contradictory persona as a gay Marxist Catholic, but when you get down to the central tenets of each, they are not as exclusive as they may otherwise appear.
All find perfect synthesis in these films, as the economic imperative inherent in the Church’s call for social justice also provides an avenue by which one can question, through Marxist teaching, the same organization’s hierarchical power structure and ostentation. In other words, one can approve of the faith (or, in communism, the need to make a living for oneself) while still holding in contempt the method through which it is expressed (in economics, capitalism). In The Decameron, a grave robbery turns greed on its head as one of the robbers dances away with a valuable jewel buried with a priest. In that same film, a man is held as a saint after giving a false confession on his deathbed, and later, celibacy is totally denounced as a religious ideal. And then there’s the whole bit with the friars in The Canterbury Tales, which, for a certain midnight-movie subset of the audience, will be totally worth the price of the box set.
Criterion’s box set is about as perfect a mode of discovery as one could imagine. While Pasolini is certainly a director who benefits from a larger overview, one could easily leap right into The Decameron and all of the assembled special features and begin to form a very good conception of the filmmaker, poet, and intellectual. The transfers for all three films are very solid, bringing out the vivid colors and filthy-earth quality in balanced measures, looking sharp without sacrificing grain. The special features are too numerous to list here, but highlights are Rumble’s aforementioned visual essay, interviews with production designer Dante Ferretti and composer Ennio Morricone, and anything that mentions an interview with Pasolini (there are several). He was a very intelligent man, extraordinarily perceptive of the world around him, and that which came before; his thoughts on those subjects and his own work are indispensable. The 64-page booklet is a bit of a mixed bag, as Colin McCabe’s three essays focus mostly on comparing the sources with the films without much enlightenment on either, but they’re worth a read for a few nuggets, and the booklet includes more from Pasolini (including his 1975 article rejecting the trilogy, a motion that is not quite as summary as it seems), as well as an account of the shooting of Arabian Nights.
Prior to these, I’d seen three Pasolini films, enjoying each of them to varying degrees (Pigsty is a tough pill to swallow, I’ll say that), but this set catapulted my affection for him. The films’ unique blend of innocence and knowledge, optimism and cynicism, intellectualism and bargain-basement humor make for an invigorating watch. Sometimes when tasked with watching a series of films by a single director, the practice can be a bit of a drag, but I was so excited each time out to dive back into Pasolini’s vision of life. Criterion’s set is marvelous, top to bottom, and is easily among their best releases this year. Highly, highly recommended.