Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1971
Starring: Franco Citti, Ninetto Davoli, Pier Paolo Pasolini
Based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century novel of 100 ribald tales, Il Decameron, Pasolini chose nine stories of varying content. A carefree young man is cheated by a woman claiming to be his sister and later by a pair of thieves, though he ends up with wealth. A man claiming to be deaf and dumb is hired as the gardner at a convent and begins a tryst with some of the nuns, though their sexual demands soon exhaust him. A woman cheating on her husband manages to have an affair literally behind his back when she claims her lover is in the house to buy a massive clay pot. An excessively sinful man lies to a priest and convinces everyone he was actually a saint. Young lovers plan a secret tryst but discover their parents approve of the match, while other young lovers are separated by the girl’s jealous brothers. A man cons his friend into having sex with the man’s wife when he convinces the couple he can turn her into a horse. Two sinners dream about heaven and hell, and a painter (a cameo from Pasolini) completes a difficult church fresco.
This Italian-French-West Germany coproduction is the first film in Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life, which truly celebrates life in all its imperfections, humanity in all its frailty, and the stories we tell each other. Renaissance paintings come to life in this most beautiful of Pasolini’s films to date, and Pasolini himself plays an apprentice of real-life 14th century painter Giotto, a contemporary of Boccaccio, in the film’s loose framing device. The film is well worth watching for the visual splendor alone and the richness of color and texture is so dazzling that it’s easy to forget about the different plots. This wondrous portrait of daily life in medieval Italy has a few professional actors — including some great appearances from Pasolini regulars Franco Citti (as a luxuriously sinful man), Ninetto Davoli (as an innocent tricked into jumping into a latrine in the first episode), and Silvana Mangano (as the Virgin Mother) — but is primarily made up of extras and non-professional actors from rural Italy that brings an enormous weight to the proceedings.
While Boccaccio’s novel is set during a plague outbreak in Florence, Pasolini moved the proceedings to the southern Italian kingdom of Naples. You can occasionally hear the Neapolitan language, an Italian dialect, and the southern setting is an intentional movement from “civilized,” cultured northern Italy to the more unruly, rural south, a division explored earlier in Pasolini’s documentary about sex and love, Love Meetings. Despite the use of earthly humor, frequent nudity, and sexual themes in The Decameron, there is something inherently innocent and optimistic in all the film’s debauchery. Characters are frequently punished — a young man is dumped in a pile of shit and then locked in a tomb, another dies of a life-threatening illness, a woman’s lover is killed by her brothers, and so on — but they are not presented as being fundamentally changed or ruined by these hardships. Nearly all of the stories have happy endings and the characters are often presented as ridiculous, if sympathetically so.
Like all of Pasolini’s films, The Decameron is undoubtedly satirical of religion and bourgeois society, but he seems to have left the scalding, Marxist criticisms of bourgeois life — the kind found in Porcile andTeorema — behind for something lively, earthy, and utterly devoid of cynicism. A common theme throughout Pasolini’s career is that he viewed poor Italians and those in rural communities with a sort of unchecked romanticism and he does depict many of the characters in The Decameron through rose colored glasses. They are essentially the same pre-Industrial, borgate type citizens of Accattone and Mamma Roma, just filtered through a different age. Pasolini continued the Trilogy of Life with these period settings and simple characters in The Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights, but I get the feeling that there was something more personal here in his choice of an early Italian text.
The Decameron comes highly recommended, particularly the edition from Criterion. In addition to the masterful directing and legendary cinematography, there are a number of performances that represent the best of what neorealism was trying to achieve, as well as an enjoyable score from Ennio Morricone. Be sure to follow it up with the rest of the Trilogy of Life — all three are uninhibited, humorous, whimsical works that provide a great introduction to Pasolini for anyone scared of his more overtly Marxist, intellectual works. Though be forewarned that Salò is not Pasolini's first film to explicitly feature fecal matter.