The Canterbury Tales (1972)

CANTERBURY TALES IT 2XAfter being pleasantly surprised by Pasolini’s The Decameron, I was really looking forward to the second movie in his Trilogy of Life, The Canterbury Tales which I also greatly enjoyed, and found it, if anything, funnier than its predecessor. Then I start doing my research, and find out that Pasolini was badly depressed during the shoot, and that everyone feels it is obsessed with death.

This is one of those things that make you doubt what little critical acumen you might actually possess.

Now The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, like Boccaccio’s Decameron, is considered one of the cornerstones of medieval literature, significant to its native language because it is written in its native language, not Latin or high-falutin’ French. Chaucer undoubtedly came across The Decameron during his travels in Italy – a scene in the movie has him reading the book and laughing, then concealing it under other books – and doubtless drew some inspiration from it. And the rest is English Lit major history.

pasolini7bigAs with The Decameron, a group of people are traveling – in the Italian classic, to escape the Plague, in Chaucer’s, a pilgrimage to the Tomb of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury, all telling each other stories to pass the time. Pasolini once again disposes of tales concerning kings, queens and knights and sticks with stories of more common folk – except when he can poke fun at wealthy merchants or, like Chaucer, ridicule clergy.  Pasolini’s hatred of consumerism and yearning for a time when sex was not an exploitable commercial commodity is still very much in strength.

My first inclination to like Canterbury even more probably derives from Pasolini filming almost entirely in England and using a lot of familiar faces, which provide a welcoming warmth even when dubbed into Italian. The first “The Merchant’s Tale”, features Hugh Griffith chewing the scenery magnificently as a wealthy man who decides late in life that a young woman should be his wife – Josephine Chaplin. Most of the tale concerns his sudden blindness and the conniving of the young woman to meet her swain right under his blind nose – or above it, as it takes place in an elderberry tree, in his private garden.



There have been two naked gods – Pluto and Persephone – walking about in the garden. Pluto will restore the old lecher’s sight, and Persephone will give the girl the words she needs to defend herself. I bring up this part of the story simply to point out that Persephone (or Prosperine, to get ideally Italian about it) is played by Elisabetta Genovese, who also appeared in The Decameron,  the tale of the two  young lovers meeting on a rooftop, which I called “sweet”. Yes, obviously, here she is, naked again. But no, I bring this up because this lady has the most glorious, sweetest smile I have  seen in quite some time; dear sweet Lord, I melted.  She will also crop up in Arabian Nights, which will make this old lecher happy, especially if she smiles again.

The English Lit majors will note that this is the wrong spot for the Merchant’s Tale, and then it will be like the time I had to discuss the difference between movies and books with my rather angry son after a viewing of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Pasolini also filmed transitional scenes of the pilgrims on their way to buffer the Tales, but they were eventually cut in favor of time, and, as Pasolini pointed out, the bits about the pilgrims constitute a book of its own.

S1007813_08.tifIn fact, when we finally get to the tale of the Wife of Bath, probably the most famous and well-developed character in the Tales, we are not given her actual tale, which was a knightly tale usually found intertwined with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, particularly Gawain. Now, what we have here is something apparently drawn from one of her prologues – she has two – and is appropriately salacious, given her reputation. Also, TRIGGER WARNING: Naked Tom Baker.

I also wonder what Chaucer purists think of “The Cook’s Tale”, which the drunken cook can’t finish, but Pasolini does – and, moreover, realizes it as a medieval Chaplin movie, featuring Ninetto Davoli as Perkin the Reveler, complete with leather derby, bamboo cane (but not abbreviated moustache) and two cops that chase after him in sped-up motion. He also has his own wordless theme song, which he belts out at appropriate moments.

Davoli, who, like Geneovese, was also in The Decameron and Arabian Nights – hell, go back further, he was even in The Gospel According to St. Matthew – appears to be the crux of the underlying problem here. Oh, not with the movie, he’s great. But it was during the filming that Ninetto left Pasolini for, reportedly, a woman. Every writing and interview studiously avoid the word “lover” but he lived with Pasolini for ten years, and the director was devastated.

Once you know it’s there, you can find it in Pasolini’s portrayal as Chaucer, a melancholy barely visible, but there. In an entire section that was cut for time considerations, the story that Chaucer himself told in the Tales, the melancholy gave way to self-loathing. In the book, Chaucer is stopped because he’s boring the other pilgrims to death, and tells another. In the movie, he is stopped, told he has no talent, and to sit down and let someone who’s good take a turn. Ouch.

bfi-canterbury-tales-blu6Other stories are great adaptations – “The Friar’s Tale” and “The Pardoner’s Tale” are both proto-Twilight Zone plots; in the first, a corrupt Summoner makes a deal with the wrong person, a truly delicious Franco Citti as The Devil; in the latter, three boys set out to kill Death, with the expected results.

“The Friar’s Tale” has an addition that supports the claim of the movie’s death obsession. The Summoner finds two men engaged in two separate acts of homosexual sex. One is rich and bribes the Summoner, the other is poor and winds up being burned at the stake. Pasolini actually shows the execution, with a bunch of richly-garbed, uncaring clergymen and an audience of commoners craning to get a good look.  The Devil is in the back of the mob, selling fritters from a tray. Given Pasolini’s own open homosexuality and state of mind during the shoot, it’s a very chilling addition, indeed.

Two more things to point out, then I need to wrap this up: “The Miller’s Tale” is the first Canterbury Tale I ever encountered, waaaay back in eighth grade, I believe, being handed around because omigawd you guys is this ever dirty. It is, indeed, a tale of conniving lovers, gullible husbands, large tubs suspended from a ceiling, and red hot pokers up the cat flap. Pasolini’s dramatization is everything one could want, with a nude Jenny Runacre thrown in for good measure.

"Busted by the cops? TIME FOR MY THEME SONG!"

“Busted by the cops? TIME FOR MY THEME SONG!”

Finally: “The Summoner’s Tale” is but a fragment, dutifully presented, but then continued as a greedy Friar (Nicholas Smith!)  is shown Hell by an angel. It is here that Pasolini returns to Mount Aetna for his vista of hell, including an enormous devil’s ass farting out friars. It’s quite something to behold.

Canterbury Tales has the reputation of being the weakest of the Trilogy of Life. Having not yet seen Arabian Nights, I can’t really give a definitive opinion – but I liked Canterbury. For the most part, Pasolini’s version of the Tales is remarkably faithful; some have said that after viewing the movie, they’ve gone to Chaucer’s original to find that yes, all that stuff – fanciful devil butts aside – were actually there. I’m reminded of when I was in an Accelerated curriculum in high school. I was a junior, but the seniors were studying Macbeth, so they brought in a movie version – and it was Polanski’s version. I’m sure that was a couple of very interesting afternoons.

Unfortunately, they were a little wiser than that when I became a senior. At least there’s always DVD.

Sorry, couldn’t find a trailer! – But the entire Trilogy of Life is currently on Netflix Instant!