The Decameron (1971) was the first in a trilogy of films by Pier Paolo Pasolini, all three based on classical works of literature, borne each from different cultures. The Decameron is adapted from the work by Giovanni Boccaccio; and in his own words, Pasolini relates his desire to make the trilogy of films:
"But more than one 'ideological' element is hidden in these three films I have made. The main one is the nostalgia for the past era which sought to recreate on the screen...to me [making the Trilogy] represents an entry into the most mysterious inner workings of the artistic process, an experiment with the ontology of narration, an attempt to engage with the process of rendering a film filmic, the kind of film one saw as a child." (573)
Nostalgia and narration, perhaps linked together:
"Never was cultural analysis more wed to everyday life, nor more self-revelatory; Pasolini found himself in everything, and everything flowed back to his selfhood. For him, the ancient playwright codified human realities, those deep-seated characteristics of man that predate politics. These are tied to the 'uterine experience'--to Susanna, to whom all loyalty went--and were 'irrational,' the material of dreams and poetry. Fighting for the place of the irrational in politics (that is, in rationality) was fighting for himself and for her, for his commitment to her and thus his most profound identity. But he was going to fight without losing what the ancient Greeks called sophrosyne (self-control).
"He was never to abandon this theme. The mysterious visitor in Teorema is this irrational god, this Dionysius of the post-Revolution. The Trilogy (1971-1974) based in fable appealed to him because what he called 'archaic' societies--those societies preliterate, preindustrial, without sexual inhibition or class manipulation--had the wisdom (not to be confused with science or progress) to give the Eumenides their due. The worlds of the Decameron and Canterbury Tales and Thousand and One Nights had not lost touch with the irrational, not fallen into 'conventionality, conformism, standardization,' which he saw growing at an alarming rate in Italy in the summer of 1960. That they existed only in his creation hardly mattered: If the artist cannot create, God-like, what distinguishes him from other men?" (370,371) Pasolini appears as Giotto, an artist painting a fresco upon a cathedral’s wall, during the second half of The Decameron. His appearances, interestingly, segue the episodes of the second half of the film and also serve as commentary. The three-act structure of the traditional narrative for film, which to some viewers wholly defines “film,” is dispensed. The non-classical style of filming, with its photography by Tonino Delli Colli, is far from arbitrary but doesn’t necessarily seem organic. The energy derived from the locations, the performers, and their ancient stories create The Decameron, indisputably, into an affecting and enduring work of art.
Two of the most famous episodes from The Decameron are its best and are easily contrastable. In the first episode of the two that appear, at a villa, a family is celebrating over dinner. The young daughter of the household is confronted in the forest by a young male guest who proclaims his love for her and his desire to be with her. She shares the same feelings yet does not know any possible way that the two can be together. The young man plans a scheme: he tells the young lady to sleep on her balcony during the evening where he will visit her. The young woman tells her mother that she desires to sleep outside, so that she can hear the nightingales sing while she sleeps. The parents agree, and the young woman is visited by her lover. The two spend the night together, and in the morning, the father awakens to find his daughter with the young man. He awakens his wife, and the two conspire to arrange a beneficial wedding between the two young lovers. Of course, the threat of death to the young man is a strong inducement to the wedding. The father and the mother awaken the young couple and deliver their proposal to the young man. Without hesitation, he accepts the proposal unequivocally and will marry the young woman. In the later sequence, three brothers share a home with their sister. One morning, one of the brothers sees a young man leave their sister’s bedroom. The three brothers ask their sister’s lover to accompany them on a walk into the countryside. They murder their sister’s lover and bury him in the field. The lover appears to the young sister in a dream and reveals the whereabouts of his corpse. The next morning, accompanied by her maid, she finds her lover’s body. Unable to move his body, the maid helps the young woman remove his head, and she takes it home, washes it, and places it in a large pot. The pot is covered in basil and rose water and placed on the window sill of her bedroom. In their most comfortable categories, here is comedy, ending in marriage, and here is tragedy, ending in death, respectively. If there is any consistency in Pasolini’s visual style in The Decameron, then it is with powerful use of the close-up on his performers. Uncannily, Pasolini is able to capture (and/or generate) such unforced emotion from his participants. Like his character of Giotto, who finds inspiration for his religious fresco from the faces of the populace, Pasolini sees in his performers’ expressions genuine emotion. The life and energy that Pasolini wanted to capture of a people of his youth (or for a people that never really existed) are translated through The Decameron. It is easy to see that Pasolini’s attempts at “filmic purity” are an attempt at trying to capture something essential in humanity. A bold endeavor, indeed, and at the present moment, I believe that Pasolini comes very close to succeeding.
The Canterbury Tales (1972) would follow The Decameron and it shows a more confident Pasolini. The Canterbury Tales is also a lot more playful and certainly more willful than The Decameron. There is an innocence to the style of The Decameron which only enhances its impact. A personal favorite. All parenthetical notations which follow quotes are citations to pages from Pasolini Requiem by Barth David Schwarz, Pantheon Books, New York: 1992.