Morality Play

Darrell Hartman on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life

Pier Paolo Pasolini, The Decameron, 1971, 35 mm, color, 111 minutes.

PIER PAOLO PASOLINI’S so-called Trilogy of Life, which Criterion is reissuing today on Blu-Ray and DVD, consists of The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1974). The explicit sexuality of these adaptations was what got everybody talking at the time, but what sets his medieval tales apart from his other work is that they represent Pasolini the filmmaker (he was also a poet, novelist, and critic) at his most optimistic.

These were Pasolini’s most commercially successful films, and they were gleefully raunchy without being anywhere near as stomach-turning as Salò (1975), his subsequent and final film, a scatological torture-fest that’s in a category all its own. (Pasolini was murdered, in circumstances that have never been fully explained, a few weeks before its release.) The Trilogy of Life’s pre-Enlightenment folktales were a perfect match for Pasolini’s idiosyncratic approach to filmmaking. With these canonical proto-novels, he had more license than ever to reject cinema’s storytelling conventions in favor of the looser, more poetic syntax he’d always preferred and argued for in his writings. Imagine a medieval artist using a movie camera for the first time and you’ve got an idea of Pasolini’s naive realism: The close-ups on characters are almost always frontal, the quivering long shots expressive without feeling composed at all. Watching the Trilogy of Life, one wonders at times whether this is how Chaucer might have filmed his England, Boccaccio his Tuscany.

Pasolini occasionally interrupts the flow of pranks, courtships, punishments, and acts of love and revenge with careful reconstructions of tableaux by the likes of Giotto, Breughel, and painters of Rajput miniatures. As schizophrenic as it sounds, his blending of naturalism and mannerism, the refined and the primitive, results in a fascinating pastiche—“one language citing another,” in the words of scholar Sam Rohdie—and a sincere, rather than winking, acknowledgment both of Pasolini’s predecessors and of the artifice inherent in any work of cinema.

The Canterbury Tales is rightly regarded as the sloppiest of the three films. In a documentary included in the new Criterion edition, Pasolini admits that editing it was “madness” and that he “wasn’t in the best frame of mind” to bring Chaucer’s ribald tales to life. It might have been interesting, against the gray English backdrop, had Pasolini tried his hand at some of the more somber stories. But he had embraced the Trilogy from the beginning as a celebration of the body uncontained by capitalist and bourgeois codes. The absence of morality was the point.

The selectivity at work in Pasolini’s loose adaptations is perhaps most evident in Arabian Nights; inspired by The Thousand and One Nights, it lacks a single reference to Islam. (In the two films set in Europe, as Tony Rayns points out in his superb audio commentary, the censorious church is always present.) Perhaps Pasolini should have widened his scope a little—if not to prevent left-wing critics from panning the film as escapist, which they did, then to acknowledge a debt of sorts. After all, were it not for the Islamic scholars who gathered these spellbinding tales or the fanciful European translations (including Pasolini’s) that followed, they might never have survived. Thankfully, they did, in abundance, and Pasolini was free to make their many forms and colors his own. Thus his Arabian Nights opens with a direct quote: “Truth lies not in one dream, but in many.”

The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights are now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Criterion.