Teorema. Theorem. “A general proposition not self-evident but proved by a chain of reasoning; a truth established by means of accepted truths.”
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 film Teorema presents a fictionalized social experiment, playfully rooted in a false reality, starting off with what seems to be documentary footage, presenting the thesis that the bourgeoisie can be pushed towards change, but they will never really go all the way.
The Italian auteur’s set- up has a Bunuel quality to it. Essentially, Pasolini takes a standard upper-class family and drops a grenade into the middle of their existence. Terence Stamp plays an unnamed houseguest who arrives without explanation, and immediately seduces all members of the household--father, mother, daughter, son, and even the maid. In many cases, his mere presence is enough, a blank canvas for each person to project their desires upon, from the sex-starved mother to the (supposedly) misunderstood father, whose perceived sorrow alienates him. In some cases, one family member sees what is going on with another, but that doesn’t stop anyone from giving themselves to the young Brit.
Things get even more interesting, however, when the stranger leaves, and suddenly these people are once again faced with the void, only this time far more aware of what it means to have found something to fill it. And so each goes chasing the experience. The maid (Laura Betti, La dolce vita [review]) removes herself from the mansion and pursues an ascetic life, seeking absolution. The mother (Silvana Mangano, Conversation Piece [review]) drives through the city looking for a stand-in for the lover who abandoned her. The son (André José Cruz Soublette, The Specialists) seeks to revive the missing man through art.
In each case, the resolution is up to interpretation, the success subjective, but if we consider these outcomes through the lens of Pasolini’s initial statements, then we can start to question whether his theorem holds water. For instance, the maid rejects all exploitation, but the matriarch seeks it out. The daughter (Anne Wiazemsky, Au hasard du Balthazar [review]) shuts down all expression, while her brother hunts a pure vehicle for emotion.
All eyes are on the father, however. Paolo (Massimo Girotti, Last Tango in Paris [review]), as it turns out, is the bourgeois factor owner referenced at Teorema’s beginning, the progressive boss who turned his business over to his employees. But is this the full expression of his change? Paolo’s discussions with the stranger seemed to suggest that he needed someone else to understand him, or to be more simplistic, to see him. Thus, with the visitor gone, the older man strips himself bare in ways both literal and metaphorical, all to draw others closer to him.
But are any of these people doing the “right” thing? And what are we really saying when we suggest the moneyed class never can? Pasolini offers no ground rules, and arguably, all of his characters consistently act in their own interest. There is nothing selfless or noble about their dalliances, nor in their chasing after the phantoms the encounters conjured. The stranger isn’t looking for any desired effects, he is just identifying their individual levers and pulling them. If even that. He is merely there, and the family takes from him what they want.
Terence Stamp is an interesting choice for this. The star of Far From the Madding Crowd [review], The Limey, and The Hit [review] is known for him slow burn, his quiet smolder. Here he says little. His grandest gesture is to return a glance. The audience is left to project as much onto him as the Italian family. His appearance is Pasolini’s provocation of his viewer, and his removal our challenge to find meaning.
It’s all very intriguing, and surprisingly light on pretention. It features the agitprop of Godard and the surrealism of Marco Ferreri but without the former’s stridency and the latter’s excess. It’s Pasolini at his most artful, relying on subtle stratagems rather than the direct confrontation that colored some of his more infamous work. The result is a theorem that is partially proven but ultimately unsolved; yet, Teorema invites further study and likely welcomes different conclusions each time.