THE CANTERBURY TALES (I racconti di Canterbury) C+
Italy France (112 mi) 1972 Berlin premiere (140 mi) d: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Italy France (112 mi) 1972 Berlin premiere (140 mi) d: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Between a jest and a joke, many a truth can be told.
—Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, first published in 1475
Pasolini was born and educated in Bologna in central Italy, one of the most left-leaning cities in the country, where his father, an army lieutenant with Fascist leanings, actually saved Benito Mussolini’s life in an assassination attempt by Anteo Zamboni, but during the war he and his mother lived in Casarsa, in the Italian countryside of Friuli at the extreme northeast of Italy, within sight of the Alps, where besides Italian, it was commonplace to speak the local Friulian language. Pasolini fell in love with the language and is partially responsible for reviving and preserving it, as his initial books of poetry were written in Friulian. For Pasolini, he began to idealize the peasantry of the region as uncorrupted by the stain of modernity, remaining pure and innocent, even obtaining a mythical status, as it was connected to a way of life in the past that was destined to disappear. During the war, Pasolini became an ardent anti-Fascist, the strains of which remained with him throughout his lifetime, writing a sympathetic, pro-communist declaration for the front page of the newspaper Libertà, even though he was not a member of the Party. In the early 50’s, he was forced to flee Friuli for Rome, as he was accused of sexually molesting a young boy as well as being a Communist, as the Party disavowed him as well, where his exile felt like an expulsion from the Garden of Eden, suddenly finding himself living in the shanty towns of the Roman slums, where he was immediately part of the marginalized society of the reviled, including whores, thieves, pimps, and criminals who had all been rejected by society. As part of Pasolini’s refusal to conform, he romanticized this rejection, elevating their perception in his eyes to exalted status, becoming fascinated with the subculture of criminality that surrounded him, where he began to write about it in essays and novels. “My view of the world is always at bottom of an epical-religious nature: therefore even, in fact above all, in misery-ridden characters, characters who live outside of a historical consciousness, these epical-religious elements play a very important part.” His graphic depiction of the Roman underworld brought offers of scriptwriting from renowned Italian directors, which included Fellini’s NIGHTS OF CABIRIA (1957) and Mauro Bolognini’s MARISA (1957), directing his first film ACCATTONE (1961), based on his own novel, where its violent depiction of the life of a pimp in the slums of Rome caused a sensation. Pasolini’s film career was both scandalously erotic and distinctly personal, expressing his own controversial views on Marxism, atheism, Fascism, and homosexuality, culminating with the relentlessly grim SALÓ, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975), a blend of Mussolini’s Fascist Italy with French sadist Marquis de Sade that was immediately charged with violating obscenity laws, where the court challenges actually produced the opposite effect, as future films actually had far less censorship. Shortly after completing the film, Pasolini was murdered by a 17-year old male prostitute who drove over him several times in his own car, though he later retracted his confession, where the murder remains clouded under mysterious circumstances.
While this is not likely one of Pasolini’s best films, it is however something of a playful romp through the Middle Ages, where the director appears to be having a lot of fun entertaining himself, having a bit of a blast placing himself in the middle of the set as legendary author Geoffrey Chaucer. Taking the unusual steps of making the film in England, Pasolini recreates the day-to-day feel of actually living in the Middle Ages, using wonderfully ornate and partly-preserved buildings still standing from the period, including the Canterbury Cathedral, where the elaborate costumes and exquisite details of the crowd scenes are quite simply amazing. More than anything, however, what stands out is the bawdy humor and nonstop display of naked bodies, where copulating like rabbits was apparently the mindset of the times. Only using about eight of Chaucer’s collection of more than twenty stories from his 14th century classic novel, they do reflect a kind of exaggerated grandiosity conjured up from the minds of the era, as each highlighted tale is presented as part of a storytelling contest by a group of pilgrims gathering at an inn in the 1380’s before they embark on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, enhanced by drink, the pleasure of women, and plenty of songs. The second film of Pasolini’s “Trilogy of Life, which began with THE DECAMERON (1970) and was completed by ARABIAN NIGHTS (1973), what they all have in common is an excess of sexual fantasy, seen by the director as a sign of liberation and freedom, an affront to bourgeois tastes and concerns where male genitalia is equally on display as women’s bare breasts and bottoms, but the quasi discerning public saw this as little more than Pasolini’s entry into sexploitation films, which were increasingly popular during the 70’s. Initially shown at the Berlin Film Festival in 1972, winning the Golden Bear First Prize, the film was jeered by the audience and subject to scathing reviews that ridiculed its amateurish editing and acting, along with its obsession with sexual intercourse, creating often confusing and clumsily mixed together extracts from Chaucer’s story, emphasizing the prurient over the grander notions of the novel. Pasolini was so disappointed that it led to his final film, SALÓ, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975), where his initial optimism towards the liberating effects of sex has been reduced to utter despair.
While this was a costly production, with moments of supreme inspiration, unfortunately much of the initial criticism is warranted, as there is an amateurish quality to much of the acting, made even worse by the post-production technical flaws in being unable to match the lip-synching to the dubbed dialogue, which is particularly irritating in this film. Pasolini’s use of non-professional actors, which in other films heightens a sense of realism, does him no favors in this exaggerated and comically absurd version, where the film’s deficiencies, not the least of which includes a rambling, disconnected style, diminish whatever critical points are being made. Part of the problem may be the rather infantile and adolescent view of many of the lead characters, who are mere boys, and not really adults, so much of this has the prankish atmosphere of youth to it, where they’re constantly plotting and devising strategies to divert attention from the object of their real desires, such as removing the presence of the hovering husbands so they have free access to their wives or daughters. One striking aspect of the film is how often women are portrayed as the exclusive property of the husbands, where the wives continue to lay in bed all day, supposedly at the beck and call of the men, which make them easy targets for the younger sexually charged adolescents who want a chance to have sex with them, as they’re otherwise sitting around doing nothing. While the loosely-connected episodes are not separated, but instead blend into one another, using a different set of actors, the only indication the audience has of a break in between stories is a recurring shot of Pasolini himself as Chaucer sitting at his desk lost in thought, randomly flipping through various books in his library, taking an amusing interest in The Decameron, seen as an intellectual curiously removed from the constant chatter of the streets below, where offscreen we may hear the voice of his wife berating him. Part of the interest in the film is the director’s own take on a well known literary work, as he’s also a renowned poet, novelist, and literary theorist, where his unconventional approach may illuminate a feeling of mutual respect between the film and the literary work. The revolving characters, with their vastly different points of view, do produce a cumulative portrait of the era, but more pronounced than anything else is Pasolini’s visual design, veering from his extraordinary outdoor street scenes teeming with an overpopulated humanity spilling over onto one another, always vividly animated with music, livestock, and movement, to his graphic interior depictions of bedroom fornication.
If Pasolini stood for anything, it was anti-conformism, where his graphic depiction of nudity, sex, piss, and vomit, not to mention sheer stupidity, was intended to be a kick in the ass to conventional theater by showing viewers what was not generally allowed in bourgeois cinema. By allowing the film to evolve like a three-ring circus of neverending entertainment, the director has created a kind of absurd theater of the burlesque, using a series of sight gags involving characters dressed up in bizarre costumes often at odds with one another, using song, dance, farce, and slapstick as a means of provoking the audience, where the behavior witnessed is often ridiculous and juvenile, with people behaving like conniving idiots, where it’s more a mockery of the human condition. By the time he gets around to making SALÓ, however, the outrageous comic spectacle has turned to torture, sexual abuse, sadism, rape, and finally murder, expressing the origins of his own disillusionment. In equal measure with literature, painting, and sculpture, Pasolini’s film aesthetic frequently moves from one medium to another, but also one language to another, as Chaucer’s Middle English went through a series of transformations and was eventually modernized into everyday English, then retranslated into common Italian speech and slang, while providing an accompanying English dubbed version. Pasolini disliked the make believe worlds of American films, especially Hitchcock and Hawks, and seldom referred to other films for inspiration, instead relying upon the world of painters. Near the end of the film, Pasolini’s vision moves from the cluttered realms of the city to the rural expanse of the region with its small farmhouses and lush, green pastures enveloping a pastoral landscape, evoking paintings of Brueghel and Bosch which are not afraid to embrace the ugly aspects of a peasant’s life, where Pasolini has a tendency to elevate the status of lowlife whores, pimps, criminals, and murderers, who are viewed like saints, where the sacred and the profane trade places, where the ancient had more value than the modern, and the despised was more sacred than the Sacred, as the high priests themselves are despised and defiled. In the final sequence, which borders on the surreal, Pasolini’s continued depiction of debauchery and church corruption leads to the Catholic church’s vision of Hell and damnation, perhaps the ultimate epilogue, becoming a caricature of The Last Judgment, where a long procession of sinners is forced to endure whippings and rape, while Satan himself is envisioned as the ass of a donkey, painted bright red, where Satan farts and shits out corrupt deacons and friars into a grotesque world of unending copulation, where people are continually seen having sex with priests. Though it lacks the wit and savage humor of Buñuel’s VIRIDIANA (1961), the film is a grotesque and comic satire of the church and its hypocrisy.