Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968)

Pier Paolo Pasolini called himself a pasticheur. Best known as a film director, he was also a poet, novelist, screenwriter, actor, essayist, painter, and provocateur. His style and subject matter ranged from neo-realism (Accattone [1961], Mamma Roma [1962]) and classic Western literature (Oedipus Rex [1967], Medea [1969]), to the inventions of his own imagination (The Hawks and the Sparrows [1966], Pigsty [1969]) and even the word of God (The Gospel According to Saint Matthew [1964]).

Perennially on the Left, Pasolini chastised the principal embodiments of power in Italy, the Church and the State, without caution or calculation. More than once, his work was condemned for blasphemy, but he also took on his ideological compatriots for deviating from his view of what needed to be done. To Pasolini, the dogma of the Vatican, the government, and the Communist Party needed to be punctured. At times, his perspective came across as willfully perverse, as when he excoriated the laissez faire disposition of middle class young people during the 1960s. At the same time, he was also criticized for romanticizing pre-industrial peasantry in his adaptations of Boccaccio and Chaucer, and objectifying the frequently naked bodies of the working class non-actors he cast in these commercially successful films.

For many, Pasolini’s often contradictory reputation rests in his taboo-breaking, horrifying final film: Salo (1975), essentially the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom transposed to the final days of the Italian fascist regime in Word War II. One grotesque scene after another shows the degradation of the totalitarian personality, while suggesting the complicity of victims in their own torture. This acquiescence possessed a queasy resemblance to the dismal facts of Pasolini’s own murder, shortly after the completion of Salo. For many years a habitue of Rome’s adolescent street trade, he was beaten to death by one of the many young men whose company he sought.

Teorema (1968), now released by Koch Lorber on DVD for the first time in the U.S., is among the most influential of Pasolini’s original scripts. It shares with contemporary art house features (Godard’s Weekend, Bergman’s Shame, Lindsay Anderson’s If…) an apocalyptic energy that denied audiences reprieve from the restlessness outside the theatre walls.

The DVD includes a 53-minute documentary, Pasolini and Death: A Purely Intellectual Thriller, a consideration of the director’s career and demise by one of his closest friends, the painter Giuseppe Zagaina. In his view, death lies at the core of all Pasolini’s work, and his murder must be understood as, in effect, an “organized suicide.” If it explains his death, this reading fails to attend to other dimensions of his varied career. How does one contrast, for example, the impulse to dissolution in Salio with the so-called “trilogy of life,” the adaptations of Boccaccio, Chaucer, and elements of the Arabian Nights (1974), that preceded it?

Anyone who watches Teorema, or any of Pasolini’s other central works, will confront a figure who infuriates as much as he fascinates. The film focuses on a beautiful young man (Terrence Stamp), who insinuates himself into the sumptuous residence of an upper class industrialist (Massimo Girotti). One after another, the mother (Silvana Mangano), daughter (Anne Wiazemsky), son (Andres Soublette), and servant (Laura Betti) succumb to his charms. Despite the emotions he elicits, the young man never judges his hosts. Then, just as suddenly as Stamp’s character appears, a letter instigates his departure. No one discourages his decision, but, almost immediately, each of the family members deviates from the status quo. The daughter ceases to eat or speak, takes to her bed, and is eventually removed to a hospital. The son abandons his education and takes up idiosyncratic, non-representational forms of art. The mother recoils from her husband and seeks out a sequence of young lovers. The father gives away his factory to his workers, strips off his clothing, and exiles himself from civilization. Most perplexing, the servant quits her job, returns to her rural home, rejects any but the most rudimentary food, is treated as a spiritual icon when she inexplicably elevates above ground to hover in the air, and, finally, buries herself in anticipation of a metamorphosis.

This plot summary fails to convey the film’s effects. Much like his contemporary, Michelangelo Antonioni, Pasolini creates a sense of anomie and alienation, suggesting that rigid social structures were instilled into architecture. During interpersonal exchanges, the camera is less fixed, as though it is drawn by an actor’s physiognomy, cutting between physical behaviors to bring a choppy, even chaotic quality to the action. This chaos is indicated as well in recurrent, unannounced shots of a barren, desert-like landscape. The setting first appears under the opening credits, and it is the same locale to which the father flees, naked and screaming, in the final shot. Providing an obvious counterpoint to the lavish accouterments of the family residence, this image also presents us with a visual equivalent of life reduced to its simplest ingredients.

By contrast, the casting adds complexity, as virtually all the leads bring some resonance achieved by their work. Mangano, wife of producer Dino de Laurentiis, starred in one of the primary documents of Italian neo-realism, Giuseppe de Santis’ Bitter Rice (1949). Her elegant features complicate the wife’s sexual degradation. Girotti starred in Luchino Visconti’s first film, Ossessione (1942), an adaptation of James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. An icon of Italian masculinity, he makes his character’s transformation seem like he’s pulling the rug out from under traditional gender dynamics. Wiazemsky was Godard’s second wife, and the star of Robert Bresson’s Au Hazard Balthazar (1966). This fable enters into a tradition of Catholic doctrine, whereas Pasolini leaves aside the question of just what form of divinity, or its opposite, operates in Teorema.

This notion of a deity brings us back to Stamp’s character, both his elusive motivations as well as the actor’s many roles prior to this film. He made his mark first by playing Herman Melville’s Christ-like sailor Billy Budd in Peter Ustinov’s 1962 adaptation, a striking contrast to the other picture he filmed in Italy in 1968, Federico Fellini’s short subject Toby Dammit, in which a foreign actor succumbs to dissolution and eventual death during the shooting of an over-the-top foreign production. The collision of these two images comes through in his character in Teorema, as one can regard him as angelic or demonic depending upon how one views his effects on other characters.

That ambivalence is the aspect of Teorema that resonates some 40 years later. You have a sense of people expanding their personalities outside fixed definitions. However, at the same time, the helter-skelter manner with which the film conveys the processes undercuts any sense of viewer satisfaction. In the end, Teorema is more arresting in theory than in execution. As much as anything, the film suggests the director felt impatient with its erotic core. However much the camera lingers on Stamp’s features, Mangano’s heavily made up face, or the unembellished physique of Laura Betti, the characters remain corporeally opaque, more embodiments of ideas than urges and appetites.