Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1972
Starring: Franco Citti, Ninetto Davoli, Laura Betti, Pier Paolo Pasolini
Pasolini’s second film in his Trilogy of Life after The Decameron is this adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s medieval poem, The Canterbury Tales, about English life in the Middle Ages. A group of pilgrims arrives in Canterbury. Among them is the poet, Chaucer (played by Pasolini himself), who writes down some of what he witnesses. The eight, often bawdy tales frequently focus on sex, infidelity, difficult marriages, and sin. For example, in the first tale, a recently married merchant is temporarily struck blind, allowing his younger wife to pursue an affair. In the second, the Devil has two licentious peasants killed in the Inquisition. In the third, a foolish man searches for employment and accidentally causes mayhem, and so on.
This is a fitting follow up to The Decameron and includes much of what made the first film so masterful, such as a subtle score from Ennio Morricone and stunning cinematography from Tonino Delli Colli, which focuses on the English countryside rather than a customary Italian landscape. Bright red costumes contrast with the green, blue, browns, and grays of the countryside and this film certainly retains the painterly feel of The Decameron. In general, this trilogy represents Pasolini at his most playful, colorful, and ribald. In particular, The Canterbury Tales features far more singing and slapstick than the first film, with an unexpected emphasis on farting, mooning, and naked horseplay.
It’s nice to see Pasolini again appearing in a central role of the film — he was a painter in the framing story of The Decameron — and here he is Chaucer himself. With that said, The Canterbury Tales is maybe not as whimsical and celebratory as the other two films and there is more of a sense of underlying bitterness. The characters simply don’t have the same lighthearted attitude as in The Decameron and the body, sometimes a source of pleasure and humor, is also frequently a source of pain. There was the sense that even if bad or unpleasant things happened to characters in The Decameron, no one was really damaged physically or psychologically, but that’s less the case in this film. One character gets a hot poker in the ass when he participates in a fart joke that a woman is playing on her other lover, while a man trying to have sex with someone else’s wife pretends to have arrived on an errand of prophecy and predicts an apocalyptic flood to the tearful husband.
There are some raucous depictions of Hell in Pasolini’s interpretation of “The Summoner’s Tale,” complete with more asses and fart references, the appearance of the grim reaper, and Pasolini regular Franco Citti as a charming, if not outright smarmy Devil — undoubtedly one of the film’s best characters. One of the most disturbing, knowing Pasolini’s own history, is an anti-gay segment where a man caught having an affair with another man is saved from prosecution because he is rich; his destitute partner is not so lucky. If anything, this is a celebration of the anti-sacred and is surprisingly darker than his spiritually-themed first films, Accattone and Mamma Roma, with their depictions of martyrs from the Roman borgate.
Though The Canterbury Tales is primarily a discussion of carnal matters and the human propensity for misbehavior, Pasolini leaves his own mark on many of Chaucer’s original stories, even reworking some of them. For instance, Chaucer’s brief “The Cook’s Tale” is here turned into one of the most lighthearted segments — a lengthy homage to Charlie Chaplin starring Pasolini regular Ninetto Davoli as a fool who causes destruction while searching for employment. The sweet-faced Davoli’s character has a lovely dream sequence where a band of female musicians is suddenly playing naked, and when he’s later carted off to the shackles, he signs a delightful song. It’s likely that the dark tone of the film is due, at least in part, to Davoli. He was Pasolini’s partner for many years, but finally left the older director for marriage to a woman during this time, though they remained close until Pasolini’s death.
The Canterbury Tales comes highly recommended and the Criterion release is a must-have. Though Pasolini felt it was the least of the trilogy, I found a lot to love and it honestly might be my favorite of the three. Though I have to say I was surprised by two things. First, in the colorful depiction of Hell, a demon farts out Christian friars — and in a close up we see them fly out of his asshole and land, with a rain of shit, on nearby demons. This is actually the ending of the film and must be seen to be believed. Secondly, the film features a totally naked Tom Baker — which I still can’t decide if I was excited about seeing or deeply regret — as the unfortunate husband in “The Wife of Bath” segment. If you grew up as a Doctor Who fan, prepare for your innocence to be lost… nay, stripped violently from you.