Pier Paolo Pasolini: the Poet of Contamination. Movies Reviewed: The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, The Arabian Nights
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM, looking at high-brow and low-brow movies, indie, cult, foreign, festival, documentary, genre and mainstream films, helping you see movies with good taste, movies that taste good, and how to tell the difference.
Pier Paolo Pasolini: You may have heard his name, but not know why. He was an Italian novelist, poet, artist and director, born in Bologna. He got his start in movies writing screenplays (including Fellini’s La Dolce Vita) before directing his own films. His films – he directed movies from the 1960s until the mid 70s, when he was murdered – celebrate the poor, the outcasts, the people in the margins. They dig at the complacent middle-class, and the oppressive and corrupt church and nobilitiy. He cast non-professionals in his films for their looks and attitude – he wanted his actors natural not contrived. Naturalism was all-important.
Pasolini was in the Italian Communist Party but was kicked out for his criminal activity. His crime? Being gay. So Pasolini embraced his status as sexual outlaw.
All of these elements – politics and sexuality shown in literature and art – come together in his movies: beautiful to watch, full of laughter, but with a rough and tragic streak running through them.
Pier Paolo Pasolini: the Poet of Contamination is a retrospective of his films now playing at TIFF. This week, I’m going to tell you about three of his movies, often called a trilogy, all based on Medieval stories. They are extraordinarily beautiful films and you should see them on the big screen while you can. There’s an English romp, an Italian comedy, and tales of middle-eastern magic.
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the classic collection of stories told by religious pilgrims on the road to Canterbury. Set in 14thcentury England, it’s filled with monastic robes, pious nuns, Oxford students, religious pilgrims. But it’s also a world full of shouting and drunkenness, farts and belches. The old are missing teeth, fat and ugly, and prone to violence. The young, though still beautiful, are selfish and arrogant. And everyone’s apt to break into raucous, unscripted laughter as they do medieval things like milling corn or polishing eggs.
But what do they all desire? Sex (and money). They come up with complex schemes to cheat on their husbands and wives. This movie is very bawdy.
Religion and the supernatural are omnipresent. Angels, devils and wood spirits are as likely as a passing neighbour to appear outside a window. A widow wears out a succession of husbands by being too good in bed. An arrogant student fools his mentor into thinking a great flood is coming. Three brothers go from cavorting in a brothel to plotting dangerous and murderous schemes. And a bright red devil shoots the black-clothed sinners of hell out of his ass!
Most of all, it’s a place where large-breasted women and plain-faced men stand around staring… naturally, naked.
Based on 14th century writer Boccacio’s sexual comedy, these piqaresque stories centre on Naples and other medieval Italian cities. Women are tricksters who fool hapless travelers, while sinners look for sex. It’s a comedy about sex, thumbing its nose at church-mandated restrictions.
Here’s a typical story. A nunnery is off limits to all men but the elderly. A young guy, sensing opportunity, pulls his hat down low – like Bob and Doug McKenzie — and pretends to be a deaf-mute simpleton. He gets hired as a gardner. Soon enough, all the nuns are sneaking out to the shed for their daily roll in the hay. But what happens when the mother superior gets her turn? He tells her he’s had enough. He can speak! It’s a miracle!
This is an amazing movie (I liked it even better than Canterbury Tales) shot around ancient castles and down narrow allies.
Arabian Nights (1974)
The 1001 Nights is the famous collection of intertwined stories-within-stories across the Arab world. Pasolini skips the tale of the Persian Scheherazade as the storyteller, and instead uses a loving relationship between a wise and beautiful slave-girl named Zummarud, and her young master. She’s smarter than all the men she encounters, and somehow manages to snub potential buyers at her own auction — rich old men who won’t satisfy her sexually – in favour of love at first site. But she is kidnapped by a spurned buyer. This launches a series of journeys as she outsmarts the men she meets and eventually – disguised as a man – rises to the level of king. And all the way her lover, Nur ed-Din tries to find her.
Pasolini skips the most famous stories – the Ali Babas, Alladins, and Sinbads – and instead adapts less-well-known ones. Especially the sexy parts.
Like Canterbury Tales and the Decameron, The Arabian Nights was rated “X” when it first came out. Though it includes a lot of nudity, it’s very tame, sweet and almost naïve, by present-day standards. Some of the same actors show up in all of these films. Franco Citti (usually with bright red hair) plays the devil in Canterbury, an unrepentant sinner and homosexual in Decameron and a magical demon in Arabian Nights. Ninneto Davoli (Pasolini’s former lover), is the toothy, curly-haired clown who bursts into tears or laughter, or else stares, dumbfounded, at new things he encounters. Pasolini himself also appears in small — but central — roles in his own movies — as Chaucer in Canterbury Tales, or as a master painter in The Decameron, who says his art is never as good as what appears in his dreams.
Arabian Nights was shot in Ethiopia, Yemen, Iran and Nepal, and to say the locations are breathtakingly beautiful doesn’t do them justice. It’s mind-boggling, ranging from lunar landscapes and strange curved mud homes, to cavernous, white-and-blue tiled cathedrals, and ancient wooden Nepali shrines. And the faces of the local actors and extras add still more beauty and authenticity to the locations. (A collection of still photos from this film by Roberto Villa is on display now at the Italian Cultural Institute in Toronto.)
Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poet of Contamination is playing now at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; details on tiff.net. Beginning next Thursday is the CFF a festival of low-budget and independent Canadian films at the Royal: go to canfilmfest.ca for more information. And cult favourite The Room is playing at the Carlton starting tonight.
This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com