Pier Paolo Pasolini haunts me.
As a Texas boy I didn’t know much about him, contemporaneously. His murder in 1975, and of course the infamous Salo provided buzz that even pierced the beefsteak curtain that surrounded the conservative towns of my youth. Going to a liberal college didn’t help too much in that direction. Moving to Houston could have helped, with bit of effort on my part; then again, in 1982 Houston Vice Officers raided the classy rep house River Oaks Theater because they were showing Salo. In 19 – fucking -82. Then again, looking over the headlines for ’82 proves that was a pretty dire year, anyway, so forget that line of outrage I was pursuing.
These days, you can listen to podcasts about Salo, you can buy it on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, for pete’s sake. The point I think I’m trying to make is that Pasolini has always been a dangerous filmmaker, because he was overwhelmingly a political filmmaker – so what, then, are we supposed to make of his Trilogy of Life, given a wonderful Blu-ray box set release in December from (once again) Criterion?
Catholic, openly gay, Marxist, Pasolini seems to have lived a life of eternal controversy. He probably astounded a lot of people during the student uprisings of 1969 when, unlike every other Leftist, he sided with the policemen against the students. That’s an important distinction: not “The Police”, but “policemen”, who he felt were underpaid servants doing a tough job, facing pampered rich kids who could afford to go to college and study. Look over Pasolini’s earlier movies, and his novels and poetry: he was fascinated by, and allied himself to, the underclasses.
It’s been pointed out that what Pasolini ardently decried was consumerism, and taking that into consideration, along with his disillusionment with what the left-leaning parties in Italy were becoming, it’s no wonder he turned to medieval writings as the basis of his next few movies.
The Decameron itself is probably in the Top Ten of medieval books. Written by Giovanni Boccaccio in the 1350s, it has ten young people telling ten tales to each over the course of ten nights for a total of 100 stories. Besides the sheer volume of stories contained therein, The Decameron is most notable – or infamous, depending on your viewpoint – for being written in Italian, not Latin, as all good intellectuals wrote at the time. Thus it forms a very important cornerstone of Italian culture.
Pasolini carries on the thumb-nosing spirit of that by abandoning the dominant Tuscan dialect used by Boccaccio and instead using the Southern dialect, Neapolitan, a “language without prestige”. Pasolini drops the tales of Kings, Queens and Knights and concentrates on stories concerning people of lower classes, or turns the occasional knight into a merchant. And above all, he does not shy away from the earthier aspects of the stories. In fact, the word “earthy”, had it not already existed, would have been coined for The Decameron.
The first complete story, after all, concerns a young merchant who falls for a complicated robbery scenario that involves him stepping into a booby-trapped privy and falling into a cesspool, resulting in many comedic cries of “Aaah! I’ve fallen into the shit!” Subsequent stories include a young man pretending to be a deaf-mute to get a job in a convent so he can service all those horny nuns, and a woman who convinces her none-too-bright husband to scrape out an enormous urn while her lover finishes the assignation interrupted by the husband’s early return. Right there, just outside the urn.
All these events are performed pretty matter-of-factly, but the perfect example of what I’m trying to get across comes in the second half, in the tale of a young woman who convinces her parents that she is stifling in the heat of their bedroom, and is allowed to sleep on the roof; this so her young swain can climb the garden wall so they can have a night of sex. This is the story that has the knightly father changed into a merchant, but the result is the same: he connives to have the young man marry his daughter on the spot, so two rich families become even richer, and everyone is happy.
Here’s the thing: the nudity and sex here is so unsophisticated, so uncluttered with eroticism that it becomes strangely sweet, given the scandalous circumstances (the fact that a bikini tanline is visible on the actress’s bare back notwithstanding). This is true of all the segments, and illustrates a lot of what Pasolini was working toward: stripping away the commercial intent that had been layered over the imagery through the years, particularly in film in the 20th century. There is no shame assigned to human functions. And he had to consciously revert to medievalism to achieve this.
Of course, you get a good idea, it will immediately get ripped off for all the wrong reasons, especially in this era in the Italian movie industry. There followed a bunch of prurient Decameron rip-offs, and you could almost hear Jon Lovitz in fop gear complaining about how “my delicious tales of ribaldry have been turned into simple smut!!!” Pasolini was disappointed, of course – this wasn’t the reason he made the movie, at all. His was a stand against commercializing sex, and having found himself actually stimulating pornography, he would disown the Trilogy of Life before his death in ’75.
How sad, then, that Pasolini himself enters the movie in the second half’s framing device, as a painter hired to paint a triptych fresco in a church in Naples. He is seen haunting the marketplace, memorizing faces and creating frames with his fingers. Throughout the movie, Pasolini has done a wonderful job of recreating medieval life, especially in the scenes of rustic markets and country partying. He recreates several paintings of the period splendidly (and Bruegel winds up looking just as strange in three dimensions as you would have guessed), and cast non-actors, looking specifically for interesting Southern faces (with eccentric dentistry apparently a plus – again, presenting a world in which the human body, in all its variations, was nothing to be ashamed of).
It’s significant, then, that the movie ends with the painter, his crew, and the clergy quaffing celebratory wine when the fresco is declared finished, although it is obviously only two panels of the triptych. Pasolini, with a mug of wine, looks at his work bittersweetly, musing “Why complete a work when it’s much more beautiful to dream it?” That’s something in which Pasolini himself had more than a little experience.
If nothing else, The Decameron has served well to whet my appetite for Pasolini. I look forward to the next two movies in the Trilogy, and am intrigued that he made a version of Oedipus Rex… hell, I might even finally watch Salo! I am especially eager to see his Gospel According to St. Matthew, made during his more political period, nominated for three Oscars, and hailed by theologians. A cursory search reveals it to be on Amazon Streaming, so there you go. Miracles do happen.