Starring: Terence Stamp, Laura Betti, Silvana Mangano, Massimo Girotti
“You seduced me, God, and I let myself be seduced.”
A bourgeois Italian family receive a visit from a mysterious stranger. He proceeds to seduce and have sex with all the members of the family -- the religious maid, the somewhat effeminate son, the repressed mother, the shy daughter, and eventually the uptight, businessman father. He speaks very little, gives himself to them completely, and asks for nothing in return. Then he disappears, throwing them all into a state of spiritual upheaval and emotional chaos. Each member of the family is profoundly changed and they have remarkably different reactions to his sudden absence. The daughter becomes catatonic, the son takes up painting, the mother becomes a sex addict, and the maid returns to her village and begins performing miracles. The father, most interestingly of all, becomes a sexual prowler who has some sort of religious epiphany and strips off all of his clothes in a train station.
Teorema (aka Theorem) is a weird little film that fits in with the mid-period of Pasolini’s career in the sense that he was past the early religious allegories set in Roman slums (Accattone, Mamma Roma, La ricotta), past the Marxist-leaning documentaries (La rabbia, Comizi d’amore), and almost finished with his mythic period (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Oedipus Rex, while Medea would a year after Teorema). This period of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s — before the Trilogy of Life and his final film, the death-obsessed Salò — Pasolini made a number of allegorical parables that define the sort of post-Marx, post-Freud, postwar world that defines his body of cinema in general.
Like Pasolini’s early works, religious and/or sacred themes are continued here — the family’s servant (Laura Betti) is profoundly religious and tries to commit suicide because of the desire she feels for the guest. He rescues and comforts her, giving in to her sexual needs in the process. An echo of Pasolini’s simple yet idealized Italian villager (or slum citizen), she leaves the family’s mansion at the end of the film and returns home to her village, where she performs miracles. The father (Massimo Girotto) has a similar experience and becomes a new twist on Pasolini’s frequently used messiah character, who are both prophets and sacrificial lambs.
Through the father’s character, this is also a blatantly Marxist parable. A wealthy, successful businessman, he gives away his extensive factories — signing them over to his workers — in the beginning of the film. Though the film treats the entire family unit as a sort of collective protagonist, it is essentially a story about their attempts to transition after the father’s retirement, after his active abandonment of the capitalist machine. The film has little dialogue, so the father’s decision is not addressed in depth, but he claims to be sick and compares himself to Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy’s novel about an ambitious capitalist ladder-climber who has an accident and finds himself inexplicably terminal. He realizes the divide between what he describes as authentic and artificial life, a concept at the heart of many of Pasolini's films.
Teorema is also Pasolini’s first film with an abundance of sex and nudity, though neither are used in a gratuitous way. Like Salò, naked flesh and sexuality are tied into themes of mortality and the horror of bourgeois life. All of the members of the family are ashamed of their own sexuality, but unable to resist their attraction to the guest, who openly, almost innocently returns their affection. The brief sex scenes culminate in one of the best and most honest depictions of sexual repression and human vulnerability in cinema. While in Salò sex is about power, dominance, and violence, rather than sensuality, here it is a rite of communion. The visitor’s sexual acts serve to set each of the family members free from their bourgeois prison, but this isn’t entirely positive or care free — Pasolini in no sense gives the idea that the film has a happy ending. The visitor could be seen as God or the Devil, or merely as a force of profound change — a living epiphany.
The nameless guest is played by British actor Terence Stamp, who was at the height of his acting powers around this time. His career began just a few years earlier with Billy Budd (1962) and became increasingly more interesting with The Collector (1965), Modesty Blaise (1966), and Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), though I find his two Italian appearances — in Teorema and Fellini’s masterly Toby Dammit (1968) — to be the most fascinating. I should also add that Terence Stamp is one of the most beautiful men I've ever seen. I could probably watch him peeling potatoes for two hours and be happy.
Highly allegorical, Teorema will not be for everyone. It will either profoundly move you or bore you into incomprehension. The minimal dialogue and plot that is at once simple and complex might be too much (or not enough) for a lot of people. Aside from the sexual content being criticized by the Catholic Church, Teorema received mostly positive critical reception. It's a special and rewarding film. You can find it on Blu-ray from BFI, though I’d love to see it released in the giant Pasolini box set of my dreams alongside Pasolini’s own novel, published after the film was released.
In this movie, everyone willingly kneels before Zod. (Sorry Pasolini.)