Sunday, November 18, 2012


Pier Paolo Pasolini was a notorious author and activist before he became a filmmaker. As a self-described homosexual Marxist Catholic, his viewpoint was, to say the least, unique and his chosen means of expression often abrasive. He began his cinema career as a screenwriter and became a protégé of Fellini--though the two had a falling out when Pasolini struck out on his own to make his 1961 debut, Accatone, the story of a pimp in the Italian slums.

After a decade of increasingly pessimistic movies, Pasolini decided to adopt a new outlook on life. Turning to classic literature, he chose to helm a Trilogy of Life: three films adapting famous books that themselves were a collection of short stories and fables. Working with material by Boccaccio, Chaucer, and tales from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, jumping from Italy to England and then to the Middle East, the filmmaker embraced the ribald and the sensual, turning these well-known parables into a celebration of mankind's pleasures, devotions, and freedoms. Politics and religion were mocked--sometimes lovingly, other times sharply--with Pasolini ultimately letting the human condition--and the human comedy--dictate a narrative free of all expected restrictions (and predictably censored for the same).

It's a surprisingly good fit for the director, even if his newfound blithe spirit was not to last. Shortly after completing the Trilogy of Life, Pasolini rejected the work, claiming that he had succumbed to a particularly thin, knee-jerk liberalism. His next, and sadly last, film turned out to be his most misanthropic and controversial yet. Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom is still one of the more discussed and disturbing pieces of cinema [you can read my review here], both reviled and revered in counterbalancing measures. It's kind of bizarre to consider how Pasolini jumped one to the other. If you saw Salo separately from The Trilogy of Life and had no idea who had made either, I doubt you'd guess it was the same man.

I keep a copy of Boccaccio's The Decameron next to my bed, where I can occasionally grab it and read one of the stories. (Also, to let the ladies know I am edumacated and/or a would-be pretentious intellectual.) The 14th-century tome is credited with having originated the art form of the novella (which is not just a short novel, but that's a discussion for another time). It's basically a collection of short stories, 100 in all, told by ten travelers to pass the time. They are alternately funny, philosophical, dirty, and magical. Despite the book's considerable age, it doesn't read like an antiquated relic. It's lively and bawdy and quite entertaining.

For his 1971 adaptation of the book, Pasolini quite understandably whittles the text down from 100 to about a dozen entries or so (including at least one that is told, rather than performed). His version of The Decameron (111 minutes) also jettisons the framing sequence, instead letting the stories flow naturally one into the other. A few characters connect from one to the next, sometimes stumbling into the neighboring scenario just to kickstart the next tale and send the narrative on its way. For the first half of the film, there is a recurring character of a con man and a thief (played by Pasolini regular Franco Citti; he's in all the films in this set and also in Mamma Roma); for the second half, there is a painter who is struggling to complete a fresco in a church. He is played by the director himself, and so no surprise that the painter's vision gives The Decameron its most fantastical images, including a living painting re-creating classic religious iconography. He also gets to utter the movie's last line, "Why complete a work when it's so beautiful just to dream it."

Pasolini's focus tends to be on stories with either a sexual or religious base, often both, as well as tales that are generally derailed by one person's greed or folly. While much of what we see borders on the blasphemous--a convent full of nuns taking advantage of a man they believe to be mentally deficient; the robbing of a Bishop's grave, etc.--Pasolini is only tweaking the nose of the church playfully. He is creating a connection between earthly and heavenly pleasures, suggesting that each exists in concert with the other. Hence, the penultimate story of the man who literally screws himself to death. He returns from the afterlife to reveal that sex is considered to be a virtue, not a sin, and his punishment will be for other wicked deeds. Granted, he is in Hell, so we don't really know how God and his minions feel about the matter, but the message here is, hey, regardless of the outcome, its worth it.

Pasolini's depiction of medieval living is neither romanticized nor prettied up. The buildings and clothes are shabby, the people are dirty. There are so many rotting teeth in The Decameron, my own mouth started to hurt after a while. Director of photography Tonino Delli Colli, who also collaborated with Raffaello Matarazzo and Louis Malle, shoots without much added light, preferring the natural look of sunlight and shadows--however musty some of those shadows might be. Likewise, Pasolini doesn't push his rather large cast--which is made up in large part of non-actors, in the Italian Neorealist tradition--toward big acting. He plays the comedy for what it is, but mostly let's the rest of the behavior just be. It makes for a surprisingly lithe anthology picture, one that sets the tone for its sibling films.

The set-up for 1972's The Canterbury Tales (111 mins.) more closely mirrors the frame of the Geoffrey Chaucer book: travelers on the road to Canterbury in medieval England agree to swap stories to pass the time--though who is telling the tale and where is never really addressed again. Instead, the thread that runs through the movie is that of Chaucer himself, another winking role for Pasolini, sitting at his desk and writing his book. He says little, instead mostly just looking up from his work to smile at a clever punchline or two.

Pasolini has chosen eight stories from the original text, once again favoring ribald anecdotes and morality plays that involve human greed and betrayal. The sections range from the humorous (a wife and her lover trick her husband into locking himself away while they make love, only for her previous lover to show up looking for action) to the more dire and serious (Franco Citti plays the devil come to Earth to observe human misery; three young boys plot against each other after finding treasure). Some of the sequences lack the punch or the narrative flow that made The Decameron more riveting. Laura Betti (1900 [review]) plays the Wife of Bath in a short vignette that comes to very little, and outside of some familiar settings, not much leads the viewer from one story to the next.

Still, The Canterbury Tales has two superior segments that alternately surprise, delight, and in the case of the second one, horrify. First is Ninetto Davoli, who played a swindled bumpkin in The Decameron, returning here as a shiftless teenager making merry and causing trouble in both work and play. The scenario is Pasolini's tribute to silent cinema, with Davoli doing an imitation of Chaplin's Tramp. The slapstick is funny and the homage loving, with the modern director juxtaposing the "innocence" of the early motion pictures with Chaucer's not-so-innocent characters. (Another Chaplin connection: the revered auteur's daughter Josephine plays the lovely girl May in the opening story.)

The second sequence is essentially the film's big finish. It features a materialistic clergyman being visited by a youthful angel who spirits him away to Hell to take a glimpse at what happens when men of God betray their vows. Pasolini builds a large outdoor set on an English wasteland, with naked demons painted head to toe in garish colors and grotesque scenes of torture and punishment. It's at once both disturbing and hilarious. The director's rudimentary special effects, depicting giant Satanic buttocks releasing wicked priests back into the sulfurous landscape, succeed on sheer audacity. It's hard to laugh when you feel so queasy!

As with The Decameron, perhaps the best element to recommend The Canterbury Tales is the art direction. Pasolini's unique take on ancient living, embracing all the stink and filth, is so vivid, he successfully erases all trace of modernity and creates an alternate world that is believable and intriguing. Even if the movie doesn't gel in terms of narrative, it still looks remarkable. It also seems had Pasolini chosen a better way to end the film, he might have turned what is a very good effort into something great. Sure, the trip to Hell is remarkable, but The Canterbury Tales lacks any final message. There is no summation a la the painted fresco, nor do we get something akin to the libertine's moral that we are privileged to receive at the end of The Decameron (or even the closed circle of The Arabian Nights). Instead, The Canterbury Tales just stops. Ironic for a film about a journey that it kind of doesn't end up anywhere.

Pasolini all but abandons the collected story structuring for 1974's The Arabian Nights (130 mins.), even going so far as to drop the frame from the original source material. Likewise, he steps comfortably away from any overriding religion, instead embracing a more freeform narrative line where man determines his own fate, with only happenstance and our own foolishness to get in the way.

If there is any throughline in The Arabian Nights, it's the clever slave Zumurrud (Ines Pellegrini), who arranges for her own sale to the handsome young Nuredin (Franco Meril). When her "master" refuses to heed her advice, she is kidnapped and they are separated. Thanks to her wiliness, Zumurrud escapes again, and her flight from capture eventually lands her in a city in search of a king. Mistaking her for a man, and following an ancient tradition, the ruling powers put her on the throne. Meanwhile, a properly shamed Nuredin goes searching for his lost inamorata.

As in The Decameron, one aspect of the script tumbles into the next, with Zumurrud's enemies criss-crossing over plot lines and also getting their comeuppance. Pasolini shot the exteriors of the film in the Middle East, with the interior sex scenes taking place on an Italian soundstage--meaning he also foregoes local actors when away from Italy, presumably because actors willing to get nude for his camera would have been harder to find in Muslim countries (as they apparently were not in England; you ever wanted to see Doctor Who's Tom Baker getting' busy? Me neither!). Even so, The Arabian Nights appears even less like studio-based constructions than the preceding films. The legitimate sights serve the production well.

Midway through the picture, when Nuredin has been taken in by a trio of horny sisters who read to him from, one presumes, One Thousand and One Nights, Pasolini diverges from the path and dives down a rabbit hole into more stories. Ninetto Davoli returns as Aziz, who has lost all he has known in the world, including his love and manhood. He is found in the desert by Taj (Francesco Paolo Governale), and the wandering Prince listens as Aziz relates the circumstances by which he came to be so dejected. This leads to Taj forming a new plan to pursue love on his own, and as he puts his scheme into motion, he gathers the histories of those he recruits in aiding him. These stories end up being the most outrightly mystical of any of the tales in all three movies in the Trilogy of Life, suggesting the happy outcome that is soon to come is more fated than the participants realize.

Unfettered as it is from Catholic judgment and any governing morality, The Arabian Nights is the only film where indulgence in our most natural impulses is not punished. Sexuality morphs freely, basically creating an idealized world where all could act as they pleased, the only price that had to be paid was involvement. Aziz has bad things happen because he doesn't govern his own fate, and Nuredin loses Zumurrud when he does not heed her advice. Yet, those who embrace life are rewarded. Even Nuredin eventually. Perhaps this is what soured Pasolini so, he knew his vividly realized fantasy was not to be. There are couple of key scenes of brutal violence in The Arabian Nights, at least one of which (a castration) is shocking enough to be in Salo. One could argue that maybe Pasolini's disillusionment was quite possibly born from the fact that even in an invented world where everyone was free to frolic and love as they saw fit, such attacks were necessary, because otherwise we might take our free will for granted.

The Canterbury Tales also has an English dub that was overseen by Pasolini. Though I generally shy away from dubs, this one makes sense, as the film was shot in England and features plenty of British actors. The Cockney accents fit the material. Additionally, though they don't play within the movie, there is a supplement with the English inserts Pasolini created for the written elements, like letters and Chaucer's book, seen in the film.

Each disc has its own handful of extras, with the lead bonus on The Decameron, Patrick Rumple's 25-minute visual essay "On The Decameron" being essential viewing early on. I kind of wish that I had watched it before watching the movie, because it both lays the groundwork for how Pasolini built his career up to the point of taking on Trilogy of Life, but also gives some insight into how The Decameron is structured and points out Pasolini's influences from the world of cinema and painting, including the material he borrowed from Giotto, the painter whose work becomes the tableau vivant in the last portion of the film.

This vivacious detour by Pier Paolo Pasolini makes for an interesting, albeit tragically brief, third act in an accomplished film career. Trilogy of Life is an anthology of anthologies, three movies based on famous collections of stories from classic literature: Boccaccio's The Decameron, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, and the more mystical The Arabian Nights. Over the three films, Pasolini dissects human desire and our capacity for error, examining sin, indulgence, and punishment, building toward a morality where all would be free to love as they choose. The tales collected are funny, sensual, and sometimes poignant, all composed stylishly. Sure, the message doesn't always gel, and some sequences are clunky, but overall, Trilogy of Life is exactly the enjoyable life-affirming experience Pasolini set out for it to be, regardless of his own eventual disappointment in its thematic qualities.

For a complete rundown on the special features, read the full review at DVD Talk. Images here were taken from promotional materials and were not taken from the Blu-Ray under review.

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