Terence Stamp and Anne Wiazemsky in Teorema (1968)

Breaching Closure in Pasolini’s ‘Teorema’

Pier Paolo Pasolini's classic drama, Teorema, grapples with the parable -- the manner of knowing that which always remains just beyond our grasp.

Pier Paolo Pasolini
18 February 2020

When asked by journalist Cécile Philippe about Teorema (1968) in a brief interview included in the Criterion Collection’s new edition of the film, Pier Paolo Pasolini claimed it was a “parable” or an “enigma”. He disclaimed any special knowledge of its meaning, even though he was the filmmaker behind it: “it’s difficult for me to explain or define it.” When the interviewer points out that the title of the film (“Theorem”) would suggest that the meaning ought to have been relatively clear (as theorems are designed to be), Pasolini replies that this is a “mysterious theorem”, a contradiction in terms.

He expands upon his paradoxical claim: “I’ve chosen the title Teorema because there are statements.” He then lists the members of the Milanese bourgeois family and he lists them as types: the father, the mother, the son, the daughter, and the maid. He insists that there is a “hypothesis” and a “demonstration by reduction to the absurd.” The hypothesis is that “a young man—maybe God, maybe Lucifer, that is to say, authenticity—arrives in this family and all the characters are in crisis. The demonstration is not resolved.”

This kind of tantalizingly gnomic statement is characteristic of Pasolini and, as usual, it is worth considering carefully rather than passing it off as the Romantic insistence of an artist on ambiguity over clarity. First, Pasolini treats his “mysterious theorem” as being on par with a parable or an enigma. Of course, in the most typical understanding of these terms, they are not at all apposite. A theorem is not only meant to be clear, it is meant to be demonstrable and thus a model of clarity. An enigma is a puzzle: unsolvable, inherently ambiguous.

A parable lies somewhere in between and, as we will see, its definition with respect to ambiguity is a point of critical contention. So, the question arises: in what sense is Pasolini justified (or is he justified) in equating three terms that have starkly different meanings?

img-2916Smoke by werner22brigitte (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

Second, the nature of Pasolini’s hypothesis is equally befuddling. If I understand him correctly, Pasolini seems to claim that authenticity (in the form of this young man, who is himself an avatar for the otherworldly—either God or Lucifer) places the bourgeois family in crisis. In other words, authenticity is inimical to the maintenance of bourgeois familial stability and leads to its destruction (or better, as we will see, its deconstruction).

Finally, in buttressing the notion that Teorema is, indeed, some kind of theorem that attempts to prove its hypothesis, Pasolini lists the characters or rather their prototypical roles (the bourgeois mother as such rather than this specific mother) as statements. This is another puzzling statement. In what sense are types (or social roles) statements within a proof?

In what follows, I turn to each of these three issues in turn: 1. the status of this film as a “mysterious theorem” or a “parable as theorem”; 2. the nature of the hypothesis it seeks to demonstrate; and 3. the notion of types of people as statements in a theorem (that is, what aspects of the proof get worked out through these five types?).

On Theorems and Parables

A theorem is a statement that is not self-evident but is proven to be true based on axioms or other theorems (which are grounded on axioms as their ultimate anchor). An axiom is a statement taken to be self-evidently true. Therefore, a theorem, in the most rigorous use of the term, is deductive and analytic. It is deductive in the sense that it moves from axioms, through a series of logical entailments, to the conclusion, the proof, the Q.E.D. “Quod erat demonstrandum“—”that which was to be proved”—appears at the conclusion of a properly conducted theorem to suggest that it is closed, that all that has to be shown has been shown.

The proof generally ends with a restatement of the theorem itself (now at the end of a chain of reasoning that demonstrates it to be the case). So the Q.E.D. is a kind of return to the point of departure but now the statement is no longer a mere claim; it is taken to be grounded through logical reasoning from self-evident truths.

Notice that the phrase has an implicit but unstated clause: “that which was to be proved (has been proven).” A theorem is analytic because it is formally true; its truth depends upon definitions and axioms, not upon empirical data or facts about the world. The theorem, in other words, generally adds to knowledge not by discovering something new per se but rather by teasing out something that was not self-evident from something that was (an axiom). Hence, a theorem is ideally self-contained and tautological, or at least built on tautology. Its validity follows from its logical form.

A theorem is closed; it relies upon closure as its claim upon coherence and completion. Ideally, when a theorem is concluded, when we reach the Q.E.D., nothing more requires demonstration; all that needs saying has been said. This is the beauty of a theorem—it is a well-formed whole, complete unto itself, unassailable.

The term “parable” is used in a less definitive manner in that different writers seem to apply rather starkly different understandings to their employment of it. The term derives from the Ancient Greek parabolé (literally: “thrown alongside”), meaning “juxtaposition” or “comparison”. Its etymology suggests a sort of casualness befitting the characteristic brevity and indirect nature of the parable. Parables contain moral teachings and therefore, are purportedly designed to instruct. And yet, Jesus, one of the most celebrated purveyors of the parable and undoubtedly the figure Pasolini had in mind in evoking the term, distinguished between messages designed for those with ears to hear (meaning his disciples) and the parables designed for others.

In the famous passage from Mark 4:11-12 we find Jesus proclaiming: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven.” Jesus suggests that parables are meant not to clarify but to obscure—or at the very least they are designed to puzzle (perhaps intrigue) the uninitiated. The message is clear for those already with ears to hear and eyes to see.

The parable attempts to show something like a theorem (the term “theorem” derives from the Ancient Greek theorein, meaning “to look at something”) but unlike the theorem, the parable doesn’t prove anything. Neither does it remain eternally inscrutable in the manner of an enigma and yet it is designed to obfuscate to some degree. It reveals its secrets, provided you have the eyes to see.

In short, Pasolini’s seeming confusion of contraries turns out to be rather revelatory: a parable shows things in a mysterious manner, it alludes to the truth without rending the veil that separates our experience and the ultimate truth that resides within it. The parable is a form of disclosure in that it opens up what had been covered over—but not once and for all; the knowledge informing a parable cannot be paraphrased so readily. It is the manner of knowing that which always remains just beyond our grasp.

Teorema is structured in the manner of a theorem. It begins, as we will see, with an oblique statement of a hypothesis (framed in the manner of a question), sets out the conditions of the case studies (the five members of the bourgeois family), introduces the catalyst of change (a young, attractive, unnamed visitor played by Terence Stamp), and outlines a series of five seductions between the young man and each member of the family. A messenger calls the young man away—no reason is given for his arrival or his departure. The members of the family (aside from the maid) then each confess to the manner in which he has changed them and the film concludes by tracing out the consequences or “results” of the destabilizing force of the young man’s influence. Hypothesis, Account of Previous State, Catalyst, Results.

Teorema also has much in common with the parable. Like a parable it is concerned with human ethical behavior. Indeed, we might summarize the film by claiming that it forces each of the five members of the household to confront who they are and how they want to be—a foundational ethical concern. The film is clearly an attempt to convince by witnessing human behavior rather than laying out its claims in an objectively logical manner. And like the parable, one finds oneself kind of “getting it” and yet not being entirely sure of the meaning in all of its implications. Like the parable, Teorema seems to mean more than it says.

The Bourgeoisie Is Always Wrong

The film opens with a television on-site news interview, in a kind of flash-forward in the timeline to an event that takes place after the main storyline. The head of a major factory (we will soon find out this is the father of the main family) has turned over the ownership of his property to the factory workers. The news reporter interviews the factory workers, eliciting their opinions regarding the significance of this seemingly momentous occasion. While this can easily strike the viewer as a throw-away scene, it actually serves to crystallize the hypothesis of the film (albeit not in quite the manner in which Pasolini phrases it in that interview).

The interviewer confirms that the bourgeois capitalist (the owner of the means of production) has really ceded his holdings to the workers. Then he asks a series of politically driven questions. Even after handing over the company, the interviewer asserts, the capitalist himself is still the center of attention. The implication is clear: even in the act of divesting himself of his property (the means by which he is marked as different, more socially integral than other people), the capitalist remains the focal point. He reigns even in his absence. The interviewer then queries whether this means that a possible “future worker’s revolution” has been thwarted. The noncommittal answer comes: “Possibly.”

He then wonders if this act portends a general trend leading to the “transformation of all humanity into the bourgeoisie”. A worker rejects the idea: the bourgeoisie will never succeed in transforming the rest of the world into its own image. Notice the implication here. The worker does not make the more commonplace argument that simply by making everyone into the bourgeoisie, class struggle would dissipate and there could no longer be a distinct, privileged class, the very definition of the bourgeoisie. Rather, the worker views those currently occupying the position of the bourgeoisie as inherently and irredeemably corrupt; any directly amicable association with them would be degrading and inevitably lead to moral debasement.

The interviewer dismisses the argument as “unoriginal”. “Even if it gives away its factories,” the interviewer summarizes, “whatever the bourgeoisie does is wrong”—a kind of original sin transposed into a Marxist view of the world.

But if the class struggle ends and everyone can attain a reasonable standard of living, then what is to become of the bourgeoisie—not the bourgeoisie as a class entity but rather the individuals currently occupying the class? “Then you have to answer the new questions posed by this changing bourgeoisie,” the interviewer insists. No one seems willing or able to answer. This is the hypothesis of the film: it posits what will happen to these people if they are no longer held within the class construct of the bourgeoisie.

This is why Pasolini, in the interview, frames the hypothesis as involving authenticity. The assumption of the workers, Pasolini, and the interviewer seems to be that the bourgeoisie, in its current manifestation at least, is grounded in a kind of willful inauthenticity. The bourgeois family is insular, closed in upon itself. It has a system of rules and implicit knowledge by which it lives and thrives; but it lives, in part, by lying to itself, by maintaining a determined misprision of its own manner of being.

Perhaps this is why Pasolini refers to his characters by their familial roles (father, mother, brother, sister, maid) rather than by name: because in their early formulation in the film, they are hardly worthy of naming. They are types and the code of the bourgeoisie demands that they fully inhabit those roles. Paolo (Massimo Girotti) disappears entirely into his role as the capitalist, the head of a factory and the head of his household. Lucia (Silvana Mangano) inhabits the role of mother so entirely that her very face strikes one as mask-like, obscuring any individuality that might lie beneath it.

The bourgeoisie is always wrong for Pasolini because they resist living beyond these roles. False life cannot be lived rightly. The seductions that ensue are no simple matter. In no case does the young man initiate them. The maid Emilia (Laura Betti) is so disturbed by her feelings for him that she attempts suicide; it is only in intervening that the young man responds to her, or thought another way, it is only then that she feels emboldened to offer herself to him. The son Pietro (Andrés José Cruz Soublette) stares at the young man as he sleeps. When caught, he becomes ashamed and it is then that the young man comforts him.

In each case, the young man answers a call from the family members that gives voice to what they seem to experience as a lack within themselves, a lack that Pasolini suggests is endemic to the bourgeoisie and that relegates it to the status of the inauthentic. The young man’s authenticity is what both redeems them and leaves open the possibility of their collapse. The bourgeois family is a closed system; the young man in his authenticity is what breaches that closure.

The Consequences of Rupture

If the family is a closed system with each of its five members playing their role (and only their role), then the young man in coming and going away has dismantled that inauthentic wholeness and left each of the five struggling to find a way to reach an authentic wholeness. That closed system depended upon rupture in order for the members to become more than roles, to function as people (however flawed, however damaged). Each of the five reacts in a different way, and I contend they each represent a closed system in their own right, a system that, while depending on closure to function, nonetheless requires the breaching of that closure to produce meaning. Let’s examine the consequences each of the five family members experience.

After the young man leaves, Emilia, the maid, leaves her employment and returns to a small village where she becomes a local saint. She eats only boiled nettles, her hair turns green, and she begins to perform miracles: she levitates high above the village and heals the sick. Emilia obviously represents the system of religion. Religion can be viewed as a closed moral system. Christianity, for instance, is closed in several ways. There is the liturgical calendar that wraps around upon itself, filling the year with cyclical events. Then there is eschatology (the drive toward the final judgment), which closes the arc of history from Creation to Final Apotheosis.

And yet, Christianity depends upon a rupture within its closure, it depends upon an experience of the unexperienceable: that is, the faith experience, or the experience of God. The most important part of Christian experience is that which is, by definition, beyond the possibility of grasping, beyond the possibility of experiencing. Miracles are an example of the breach from within Christianity’s closure; they mark an intervention into the system of something that is simultaneously outside of it and the kernel of Truth residing at its core.

Thought is another system that relies on closure. We investigate the ways in which our concepts and perceptions link up to explain the world around us. Ideally, our perceptions link up with concepts that explain them, closing the loop. Immanuel Kant represented the world as split between the phenomenal (the things we perceive and think about) and the noumenal (the “things-in-themselves”, the reality of the world to which we have no direct access, perhaps no access at all). And yet for thought to be anything other than tautology (telling us what we already know) our conceptual closure has to be breached by something unknowable.

Pietro, the son, after his encounter with the young man, seeks out new ways of thinking in art. He turns to aleatoric art—allowing paint to drip along a canvas, peeing on a painted surface. This is art over which he relinquishes total control in order to encounter the new: the new experience, the new thought. This is his salvation.

After the young man’s departure, the mother Lucia seeks to replicate her encounter with him by seeking out anonymous sex with young strangers. Perhaps the most personal closed system in our experience is the relationship of the body to the world through touch. Touch operates through the closure of our bodies. And yet it depends upon the ultimately untouchable. When we reach out and touch another, we press the effectively impenetrable boundary of our skin against the boundary of the surface we touch. Essentially, a touch is a push corporeally that is affectively treated as the opposite of pushing. We touch the other to bring the other closer; in pushing away we bring close.

Language too is a system that requires syntactic and conceptual closure to operate. Sentences make sense because they form coherent wholes; subjects and objects line up in a syntactical manner that reinforces the semantic point being made. Much of what we say depends upon tautology. We reinscribe the same thoughts in our expression again and again. And yet, the very point of saying is ideally to transcend that closure, to transgress the limitations of what has been said and even the bounds of what appears to be sayable. Language attempts to breach its own confinement in an attempt to say the unsayable, to articulate that which is just beyond its grasp.

The daughter Odetta (Anne Wiazemsky) seeks out some manner of expression with the stranger that will unlock her individuality from her role in the bourgeois family structure, where she languishes as the devoted child, supporting and adoring her father and hardly being noticed at all. When the stranger departs, she suffers in the most open and debilitating manner, falling into a speechless, catatonic state.

There is one final system at play in Teorema, and it is the system that Pasolini seems most intent upon crushing: capitalism with the father Paolo as its avatar. Capitalism depends upon a closed system of exchange; everything is fungible and everything has its price. And yet, by its very nature, capitalism cannot stagnate. Stability is death to capitalism, it must always absorb more. Its logic of closure depends entirely upon expansion, upon the incorporation of what is now unexchangeable.

We see this more and more clearly as social media profits from what had been considered interpersonal and private interactions—friends are now commodities sold to us through a platform that monetizes our need for others. Paolo’s abdication of his role—he not only gives his factory to his workers but also strips naked and runs alone and screaming in the volcanic desert—signals an attempt to break from the closure of capitalism.

But are any of these breaches successful? Is the implicit hypothesis—that the interjection of authenticity into the bourgeois family will rend asunder its closure and lead to radical change—proven? The prologue presents this question. Is there the possibility of a new bourgeoisie, predicated upon the demolition of the destructive aspects of the old, or are there no means of escape without eradicating the bourgeoisie altogether? The reporter finds himself simply repeating the question and indeed moving on to a related one: “Can you answer those questions?”

Pasolini’s Teorema remains caught between the theorem and the parable, attempting to demonstrate a moral teaching, to show what resists appearing. The question becomes whether or not we have the eyes to see what is presented. Quod erat demonstrandum is not possible here. Rather we are left with “That which was to be proven (has not and cannot be proven).”

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Criterion Collection has released a new Blu-ray edition of Pasolini’s troubling film Teorema. It looks gorgeous, its warm colors inviting viewers to linger on puzzling images. The edition comes with several extras including a commentary track by Robert S.C. Gordon, author of Pasolini: Forms of Subjectivity (1997) the 1969 interview with Pasolini mentioned above; a 2007 interview with Terence Stamp; and an interview with scholar John David Rhodes.