Sunday, November 29, 2015


Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema (1968) doesn't just flirt with the ridiculous:  it plunges into full-bore idiocy with both feet.  Pasolini didn't do things by half-measures.  You find yourself resisting this film and its crazed thesis with all your critical acumen.  But ask yourself -- when was the last time, a movie made you feel that you had to defeat it, that you had to resist its weird and seductive power?  In terms of demented conviction and absurd excessiveness, Teorema succeeds spectacularly, but, of course, on its own uncompromising terms. 

As the title implies, the movie is stark, abstract, and minimalist:  it is a geometric proof as barren as its symbolic landscape, the smoking slopes of ash and cinders atop Mount Aetna, an image that reoccurs through the film.  Like Pasolini's The Gospel according to St. Matthew, an austere film made in 1964, Teorema presents the parable of a kind of savior entering the world and affecting its people.  At a party, the son and daughter of an industrialist observe a beautiful young man.  The young man is played by Terence Stamp and he looks like a sculpture hewn by Donatello, an exquisite faun with curly hair and eyes the color of blue steel.  The young man is invited to the palatial manor owned by the industrialist.  There, in quick succession, he has sex with everyone in the house -- he sleeps with the maid, Emilia, after she has been driven to distraction by gazing at his tightly trousered crotch (the sex-savior always sits with his knees wide apart); Emilia first attempts suicide, then, exposes herself to the youth who obligingly embraces her.  Next, the young man seduces the gawky adolescent son, Pietro -- like Francesco and Paolo, the two read a book together (in this case a monograph on Francis Bacon) until lust makes them "read no longer."  The industrialist's wife sees clothing strewn all around her summer house -- in this movie, people are forever disrobing and leaving their underpants on the lawn -- and, going into the woods, sees the young man frolicking with the family dog, half-naked in the trees.  She promptly strips, arrays herself on the porch as if sunbathing and enjoys a romantic interlude with the lad.  Next, the boy seduces the family's prudish and repressed daughter.  The paterfamilias seems to be ill and the visiting youth reads Tolstoy's "Death of Ivan Ilyitch" to him, whereupon Dad rallies, goes for a road trip with our hero and ends up having sex with him next to a canal in a vacant lot somewhere near Milan.  After Stamp's character has had his way with each of the members of the family -- I'm not certain about the dog -- there is a (no doubt) strained dinner in which the fatal youth, like Christ, says that he is going away.  He vanishes from the picture and the last half of the movie depicts the results of his sexual forays with this haute bourgeois family:  the daughter becomes catatonic and has to be institutionalized, the son, Pietro, begins painting on glass, layering the panes to create complex images -- he says he is unwilling to erase a stroke because each of his brushmarks are irrevocable and so must correct his abstract images on successive planes of glass.  Mom cruises the mean streets of Milan looking for attractive, tow-headed adolescents whom she picks up for sex.  Dad gives away his factory, ceding the entire vast enterprise to his workers.  Most remarkably, the maid,  Emilia, returns to her village, sits without eating for a month on a bench next to a barn, and, then, becomes a saint:  she heals the sick, levitates over the farm buildings, and subsists only on nettle soup.  In the end, an old woman takes her to a dreary industrial site, the wall marked by a huge hammer-and-sickle, and buries her in the earth -- the trickle of tears from her eyes creates a spring.  Dad goes to the dingy railroad station in Milan and, in the smoky train-shed, strips off all his clothing.  In the last scene, shot on the cinder heights of Mount Aetna, the naked father wanders through the wasteland and, when he screams at the camera in close-up, the movie ends. 

The film's opening ten minutes invokes Godard:   musical cues stop and start apparently randomly under documentary style imagery of factory workers debating the political significance of the owner of the factory having turned the enterprise over to its workers.  "Is this the end of the class struggle?" someone says in a worried way, suggesting that the arrival of the Messiah, even a Communist Messiah, is always more of a bother than a benefit.  Some sepia-toned sequences that are vague in intent and execution introduce the family members -- but since we don't know what is going to happen, this aspect of the movie has to be revisited once the film has finished and we have seen the fate of these people.  The sexual messiah appears casually out of nowhere -- he has no back-story, no family, and I don't recall Pasolini so much as giving him a name.  Once, Pasolini starts filming the material that interests him -- the seductions, the sex, and, then, the ensuing madness, he drops his Godard affectations and presents his narrative chronologically with a minimum of esthetic pretentions.  The majority of the film is scored to Mozart's Requiem.  Of course, Pasolini was homosexual at a time when being gay was considered a psychic disorder and his homo-erotic imagery is melodramatically excessive and, even, I suppose, a little campy -- gay is not just good and life-affirming; here homosexuality (or more accurately bisexuality) is eschatologically messianic, the savior fucks the world into the Kingdom of God.  The film is gendered in an interesting way -- it's impossible to conceive of the movie's messianic implications applying to the exploits of a young, sexually promiscuous woman.  She would merely be a vixen or a vamp and not the savior  of the world as Pasolini seems to envision his satyr protagonist.  Some of the scenes are overtly shocking -- an image of the Emilia levitating over a barn while peasants pray to her is extraordinary and, in fact, extremely frightening.  Her later burial in the mud, with her tears congealing in a little filthy puddle next to her staring eyes, is also startling.  Like other films with a very simple parable-like premise schematically worked-out -- I am thinking of Agnes Varda's Le Bonheur for instance or Bunuels Exterminating Angel -- the movie raises an infinity of implications.  Memorable and utterly absurd, Teorema is too extreme and stylized to be a great movie -- it lacks anything like realistic or precise observation of the world -- but, on its own terms, the film is very powerful.  I will have to think about the movie and, if it still afflicts my thoughts, in a month, I will have to deem this work a great film.  

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