Sounds & Images
Pier Paolo Pasolini remains one of cinema’s most controversial figures. Though other Italian filmmakers who emerged after World War II—including Roberto Rossellini,Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni—also provoked audiences, none did so as pointedly as Pasolini, who had already achieved fame as a poet, novelist and leftist public intellectual before writing and directing his first film, “Accattone” (1961).
Religious hypocrisy, sexuality and issues of class were recurring themes for Pasolini, who often explored them on film in mordant fashion. But in the early 1970s, immediately after his adaptation of “Medea” (starring a nonsinging Maria Callas) and right before the notorious “Salò” (inspired by the writings of the Marquis de Sade), Pasolini took an unexpected detour, filming three well-known collections of picaresque tales: “The Decameron,” “The Canterbury Tales” and “Arabian Nights.” Unlike much of Pasolini’s other cinematic work— which can be unremittingly dour and pedantically political—these pictures, usually grouped as “Trilogy of Life,” exude robust (and raunchy) good humor.
Having previously released both the still-shocking “Salò” and Pasolini’s deeply affecting “Mama Roma” (1962), starring Anna Magnani,the Criterion Collection has now boxed “Trilogy of Life” on DVD (four discs) and Blu-ray (three discs)—supplementing the films with documentary materials that help illuminate Pasolini’s complicated (sometimes contradictory) philosophy and career.
“The Decameron” (1971)—loosely based on Boccaccio’s 14th-century compendium of 100 tales and reset in Naples from Florence—is the first and funniest of these films, its nine episodes bookended by cinematic re-creations of two famous paintings (Brueghel’s “Battle Between Carnival and Lent” and Giotto’s “Last Judgment”). The stories of cuckolded husbands and randy nuns elicit easy laughs, but not all have happy endings: One of the later ones features a trio of overprotective brothers who kill their sister’s sweet (if lowborn) lover. The film offers plenty of nudity and more base humor than some would prefer, but anyone who finds pleasure in the “American Pie” franchise or the comedies produced by Judd Apatow won’t bat an eye.
For “The Canterbury Tales” (1972)—based on Chaucer but, again, freely adapted—Pasolini approved an English-language dub track, and Criterion includes the option. Using it makes sense given the many English actors enlisted for this project, including the great Hugh Griffith, who opens the film as an obnoxious Sir January. The details in familiar stories like those of the miller, reeve and wife of Bath have been modified, but there is no shortage of blatant sexuality and scatology. The film concludes with an unforgettable phantasmagoric depiction of hell that is entirely Pasolini’s invention. Unfortunately, the film too often lacks the energy coursing through “The Decameron,” and no mise-en-scène, no matter how artfully imagined, can compensate for that.
“Arabian Nights” (1974) is the longest picture in the trilogy and less a collection of discrete episodes than an intricate geometric tapestry of interconnected patterns, a feat partly accomplished by the telling of stories within stories. Here, too, Pasolini departs from convention—no Scheherazade, for example. Though the movie revels in exoticism, the ornate orientalism generally associated with these tales is largely banished thanks to the extensive location shooting Pasolini demanded—a virtual travelogue gorgeously shot by Giuseppe Ruzzolini in Eritrea, Ethiopia, India, Iran, Nepal and Yemen.
The film is framed by the forced parting and eventual reunion of two young lovers, a wily slave and her gentle master. Their separate adventures, as each searches for the other, generates the action. In the previous two movies (both set in medieval Christendom), sex happens in a repressed context, but that’s not the case in “Arabian Nights,” which is so thoroughly fantastical that Islam and its attendant prohibitions seem not to exist. Thus, in Pasolini’s telling, homosexual acts are as viable as heterosexual ones, and women are so empowered they may exact brutal revenge on a feckless groom who cheated on his bride-to-be.
Beyond Pasolini’s detailed evocation of the past in these films, they share with much of his previous cinema the use of frequent close-ups to capture disarming truths—much like the Renaissance and Mannerist painters he revered. In this regard and others, Pasolini must share credit with two longtime collaborators, the art director Dante Ferretti and the costume designer Danilo Donati, whose distinctive imprint the trilogy bears.
Bawdily entertaining and occasionally moving, “Trilogy of Life” gives film lovers a chance to appreciate the less solemn and disturbing—to say nothing of didactic—aspects of Pasolini’s art. It also opens a window onto broader artistic currents characteristic of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some viewers may still be offended by Pasolini’s hearty, nonjudgmental embrace (and graphic depiction) of carnality, but it’s hard to take issue with the exuberant humanity of these pictures. Ironically, the filmmaker distanced himself from the trilogy a year after its completion. He perceived that his intentions were co-opted by “consumerist powers” and wrote an essay, published after his murder in 1975, detailing his abstruse objections. Reading it—especially in light of his broader career—one wonders if Pasolini abhorred wide acceptance even more than he dreaded rejection.
Mr. Mermelstein writes for the Journal on film and classical music.