Friday, April 06, 2007

Pasolini's Teorema (1968) review


I cannot get this man out of my system, our era's ephemeral Socrates. Pier Paolo Pasolini haunts the modern mind, reminding us of the terminal crisis (ironically brought on by the human desire for freedom), in this, our common era of human society. The Italy of his lifetime passed from a preindustrial to a modern state in less than one generation and it was a shock to the WWII generation of Italians who had previously been very provincial, isolated, and basically an agrarian nation of peasants.

This would be like taking American history from 1877-1920, when we became an industrialized nation, and cramming it into roughly 30 years. The effects on the culture could only be devastating and genocidal, as Pasolini astutely described the Americanization of the Italian peninsula. Other nations fared far worse under the effects of modernization: We know the results in Russia under Stalin with the tens-of-millions dead. But the damage to Italy during the "economic miracle" of the 1950s, and passing into the 1970s, was almost unique: traditional Italian culture was slipping-away, and changing into an empty, bourgeois consumerism. This mindless industrialized technological consumerism now spans the globe. Pasolini saw the writing on the wall: the bourgeois revolutions were culminating in the destruction of the natural environment and human civilization.

Like many authors, artists, and intellectuals of (t)his era, he was doing what most artists do, namely questioning the social order around him. Like Philip K. Dick and Werner Herzog, Pasolini was concerned that this reality we are now surrounded by would strip people of their humanity, their symbols, and of any authentic qualities and spirit, and that we cannot continue along such a path, that the end was near if we did. We would lose our myths and we would lose our souls. Today, the damage is pretty obvious with movies that say nothing, music that makes the listener feel nothing, television that only seems to lie to us more than ever, devouring our creativity and our souls...a runaway consumerism that is literally metabolizing nature and a scientific and economic order that continually tells us that there is no meaning to anything, no truth.

Global warming and an
impending ecological catastrophe are the realities that these artists and intellectuals warned us all of during the Cold War, and some still are. Pasolini didn't wax-nostalgic for some sentimentalized remote past, but he saw things as getting worse and that an apocalyptic calamity was waiting at the end of it all. In 2007, this doesn't seem so far-fetched, but one should realize that the alarms were already being sounded over 40-years-ago. So little has changed. Into the bloody fray of 1968 politics and culture came Pasolini's "Teorema," or "theorem." There really isn't another film like it in any director's canon, yet he would top it with Salo at the end of his short life. The film begins with what appears to be a newsreel story taking place at the gates of a factory called "Paolo." Is it a strike? Why are all the workers there, milling-about? The journalist (probably Pasolini, off-camera) with the film crew asks them what's going on, and we find that the owner of the factory has given it to the workers, lock-stock-and-barrel. You'll never see a scene like this in any American movie. But most slaves want to remain slaves.

Pasolini goes on by taking a swipe at the Italian Communist Party (PCI), by having a worker dismissing the miracle as "part of a trend." (!) It's the end of the story, and a lesson on how the Left--and most all of modern humanity--had lost contact with the divine and the ability to recognize it in life and within each other.
Much to his credit, Pasolini scandalized all. Barth David Schwarz's biography on Pier Paolo Pasolini "Pasolini Requiem" (1992) illuminates the film's premise:
People expected Pasolini to deliver a straightforward if scathing attack on the bourgeoisie and its lack of religion. His apparently simple premise, the "theorem" of the film's title, was that when one family was faced with a power that constituted real liberation (by necessity sexual) and their values were revealed as bankrupt, its members would spin into "madness."
(Schwarz, pg. 519. Pantheon, 1992)
And so, the story "begins" where it began, the home of the industrialist bourgeois--a Milanese "borghesa"--and his family, in this antiseptic villa that seems almost empty (of belief? of values?). As in life, the bourgeois characters reside in their own social space, alone, living in virtual solitude without meaning. There is the daughter, the wife, the son, and the devout peasant maid who dream of some kind of a release from their life, some transcendence. Be careful what you wish for.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, a kind of salvation announces its coming. A herald in the form of young Italian boy announces his arrival in a note to the maid. In time, the "stranger" (played by a 28-year-old Terence Stamp) appears, and quite abruptly without any explanation. Pasolini had this to say about the stranger in his film:
Originally, I had intended this visitor to be a fertility god, the typical god of preindustrial religion, the sun-god, the Biblical-god, God the Father. Naturally, when confronted with things as they were, I had to abandon my original idea and so I made Terence Stamp into a generically ultraterrestrial and metaphysical apparition: he could be the Devil, or a mixture of God and the Devil. The important thing is that he is something authentic and unstoppable. (ibid, pg. 521)
Inautheticity withers in the presence of truth. Like all the great tragedies of Greece and Rome, the family passively accepts his presence as a symbol of their fate. The stranger rarely speaks, but he brings every family member love and a direct contact with the divine through sex. He fills the void in their lives of isolation and emptiness. Again: be careful what you wish for, you might get it.

The maid (Laura Betti) is first: he rescues her from a suicide-attempt, and makes tender love to her. Shortly afterward, she leaves the villa and the bourgeois reality itself to return to her village. She begins a fast of contrition and eventually seems headed towards some kind of beatification or sainthood, even levitating at one point towards the latter-half of the film. Her fate is the best one, although that of the son points to the interior life of artists and the authentic everywhere, and he is the next to be seduced by the stranger. Then comes the daughter Odette (played by Godard's wife at the time), who appears in some respects to be the most sexually-fulfilled. The mother and father, finally, end the seduction. For a time, they all seem to have lost that feeling of "loneliness" and incompleteness that comes with modern life...and then the stranger leaves, just as abruptly as he came, a hallmark of the divine. With his absence comes the fall, and a reminder that the void never left, a stunning metaphor for the limits of sexual-release and escapism. No, the void in life never leaves, and is made all-the-more lonely after coitus.

The once sexually repressed mother (the sultry Silvana Mangano) becomes a nymphomaniac, and begins to seduce young men in the nearby city, repeatedly trying to recreate her experience with the stranger, but to no avail. The son becomes totally immersed in creativity and contemplation, showing the dissatisfaction and longings of the artist that can never truly be achieved. Like Plato's "The Allegory of the Cave," he can never touch the true forms (the stranger) ever again. His fate is preferable to the rest of the family since he appears to at least have an outlet for his obsession. The daughter Odette lapses into a comatose state that seems permanent. After an illness that's healed by the stranger, the father becomes a sexual deviant who exposes himself at a train station by film's end. Throughout the movie, we see images of a desolate, gray landscape shot at Mt. Etna. It's meant to reflect the inner-loneliness of the characters and ourselves. This dead landscape is the modern worl, the empty space in all of our lives, and what's waiting at the end of this social order. By the end of the film the father is seen running naked through this volcanic wasteland, finally letting-out an almost inhuman scream of existential despair. From this, you can tell that Pasolini actually felt sorry for most of the bourgeoisie, something that I don't share with him.

Teorema
is available through Koch/Lorber video on DVD, and is perhaps one of the greatest films of the entire 1960s. It won a special award from the International Catholic Film Office at the Venice film festival that year, but elements within the Vatican had it withdrawn. The students in the Paris, Rome, and Berlin of 1968 adored the movie, yet Pasolini tended to heap scorn on many of them, calling them "bourgeois," and that the New Left's fight with the establishment in France and Italy was a "battle between the haves and the haves...an internecine struggle." Once again, he was correct. One can see and hear Salo (1975) coming in this film, a work that probably got Pasolin killed before his time in a field at Ostia, a place where human sacrifices were once held. Salo is a dark chocolate, while Teorema is a truffle, the appetizer before the meal.

Revised, 11.27.2009