September 5, 1968 (Venice Film Festival) — 98 minutes, color, 35mm, aspect ratio 1.85:1 — Fantasy / Drama
Pasolini’s 6th feature, a beautiful, enigmatic youth – who may be God, the Devil, or just a man – seduces every member, female and male, of a well-off Milanese family, allowing each one to come to a new understanding of their life… amid the emotional fireworks.
FILMS: Shorts and Documentaries | 1. Accattone | 2. Mamma Roma | 3. Gospel According to Saint Matthew | 4. Hawks and Sparrows | 5. Oedipus Rex | 6. Teorema | 7. Porcile | 8. Medea | 9. Decameron | 10. Canterbury Tales | 11. Arabian Nights | 12. Salo.
Teorema, which translates as ‘theorem,’ is one of Pasolini’s most enigmatic and visually ravishing films. The story, of a mysterious young man who seduces everyone in an upper-class family, is simple at face value, but the emotional, and philosophical, depth charges which Pasolini sets off are not. If you see it with friends, don’t be surprised if each one of you comes away with a very different reading of this many-layered political/spiritual allegory. It has remained one of Pasolini’s most controversial films, from the day it opened. At the 1968 Venice Film Festival, it won the International Catholic Jury grand award, even as the Vatican issued an official condemnation, and the courts charged Pasolini with the criminal offense of obscenity (as he had been for earlier novels and films): once again, he was exonerated. The film is also a landmark in the history of LGBTQ Cinema, for its unprecedentedly explicit, and tender, portrayal of bisexuality. This is one of Pasolini’s greatest – and most multi-layered – films, and it’s a privilege finally to have it on DVD (although the bizarre full-length documentary, on the same disc, is another matter).
Pasolini has made Teorema richly ambiguous, to the point where the mysterious and seductive Visitor (played by Terence Stamp) has been interpreted variously as God or the Devil… or just an extremely attractive youth who manages to couple with every member, female and male, of a well-to-do Milanese family. Not only that, he forces (or is it allows?) them to come to a new, deeper understanding of who they are, and of what their social world is like behind its veneer of polished respectability. As we see in the second half of the film, each person’s response to their new-found self is radically different, ranging from artistic abandon to catatonia to virtual sainthood, complete with the ability to levitate thirty feet off the ground.
You may jump directly to my interpretation of the film, or read the following background information, which briefly covers:
- Pasolini’s evolution of Teorema as play, film, and novel,
- the film’s five principal actors,
- how this picture figures in the long tradition of tales about mysterious visitors, and
- how it connects with Pasolini’s overall body of work.
Teorema had perhaps the most convoluted development of any Pasolini work, from film to verse play to film again to novel. This most European of art pictures, set in Milan – which Pasolini called the most representative “European city in Italy,” was actually conceived in New York. In 1966 Pasolini was at the New York Film Festival to present The Hawks and the Sparrows, but he skipped out on official events and instead hung out in Harlem, Greenwich Village, and Brooklyn, perhaps because he’d been warned about all of the “dangerous” people there. He soon fell in love with the United States, which he felt was in the process of giving birth to some new and powerful force, as represented by the passion of the black civil rights movement. Perhaps also his “love meetings” with various gay men there made him feel hopeful about gay liberation (the Stonewall Rebellion was less than a year in the future). In any event, he concocted a film scenario about God visiting New York City, which Pasolini now considered the center of the world, and making the sacred visible through everyday reality.
Pasolini soon reconceived the story for theatre. In a 1968 interview in Inquadrature (included in Oswald Stack’s indispensable, an out of print, 1969 collection of interviews, Pasolini on Pasolini), Pasolini said that Teorema was originally intended as the last of seven verse tragedies, the first time he had explored writing for the theatre (after achieving enormous acclaim, and controversy, as a poet, novelist, philosopher, and screenwriter/filmmaker). He noted: “And then I realized that the love between the divine Visitor and these bourgeois characters would be much more beautiful if it were silent. [NOTE: The finished film contains remarkably little dialogue, just over 900 words in all.] So then I began to think it might be better to make it into a film, but I could not see how to do this. So I wrote a first draft, which was very schematic, and then worked on that until I got a scenario, which I changed around and filled out, and [that, in turn,] became a fairly autonomous literary work.”
Below, in the interpretive section, we’ll look at how Pasolini’s development of this project, from language to image and back again, inspired some of his most provocative philosophical ideas, about the connections between cinema, the real world, and even the divine. And in the film version, a total of only about 900 words are spoken.
For some viewers, the most divine thing in Teorema is the impossibly handsome Terence Stamp as the Visitor. For Pasolini’s film about the “ultra-terrestrial” made flesh, he wanted the most beautiful male actor he could find to play the seductive stranger: Pasolini slyly never clarified, in talking about the film, whether the character was God, an angel, the Devil, a demon, or something else. He found the ideal actor in Stamp. Born in 1939, he was already an international star, having worked with several illustrious filmmakers, often starring in projects based on well-known literary works, beginning with actor-turned-director Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, William Wyler’s adaptation of John Fowles’ The Collector (1965), John Schlesinger’s version of Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd, and just prior to this film, he did the “Toby Dammit” segment for Federico Fellini – Pasolini’s cinematic mentor and friend – from the anthology film Spirits of the Dead (aka Tales of Mystery and Imagination), based on tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Stamp remains one of the world’s most acclaimed, if reclusive, actors, having appeared in over sixty films, including such notable works as Stephen Frears’s thriller The Hit (1984), Stephan Elliot’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), in which he plays an emotionally real yet totally fabulous drag queen, and in 1999, Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey (1999) and George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999). Trivia fans take note: while the Visitor reads, and subtly passes around, a copy of the great bisexual teenage poet Arthur Rimbaud’s works in Teorema, two years later, in 1970, Stamp played Rimbaud in Una Stagione all’inferno (1970 – literally, A Season in Hell, the title of Rimbaud’s best-known prose-poem), directed by Nelo Risi (a director I’m unfamiliar with; this picture seems all but inaccessible today – although the doomed romance of Rimbaud and poet Paul Verlaine is on full display in Agnieska Holland’s 1995 biopic, Total Eclipse).
Pasolini has also cast exceptional actors in the five other principal roles, three of whom he worked with on other pictures. To emphasize the allegorical nature of the film, when discussing it Pasolini referred to the characters by their roles – the Visitor, mother, father, daughter, son, and maid – although each one’s name is mentioned, usually just once. (Below we’ll look at how these characters, including the symbolic significance of their names, contribute to the film.)
Silvana Mangano (1930–1989) – who played the mother, Lucia – turned her early success as a dancer, model, and beauty pageant winner into a major career in postwar Neo-Realist cinema, making her breakthrough in Giuseppe De Santis’s Bitter Rice (1949); and she married its producer, Dino De Laurentiis. (Among their four children is producer Raffaela De Laurentiis; she co-produced with her father Mangano’s next-to-last film, David Lynch’s Dune, in 1984.) Alhough she never achieved the superstardom of her contemporaries Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida, Mangano remained one of Italy’s most popular stars between the 1950s and 1970s, appearing in Alberto Lattuada’s Anna (1951), Vittorio De Sica’s The Gold of Naples (1954), and Luchino Visconti’s Death in Venice (1971). She appeared in four other Pasolini films. Before Teorema, was she in his segment in the anthology film The Witches (1966) and starred as Queen Jocasta in Oedipus Rex; after Teorema, she was in his segment from Caprice Italian Style (1968) and had a cameo playing the Madonna in Decameron.
Massimo Girotti (1918–2003) – who played the father, Paolo – made the unlikely move from engineering student to movie star, although his prowess as a polo and swimming star and virile good looks certainly didn’t hurt. He was unforgettable starring in Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943; an unauthorized, and somewhat homoeroticized, adaptation of The Postman Always Rings Twice – I think it remains the best version of James M. Cain’s oft-filmed thriller; this picture is also sometimes considered the inaugural work of Italian Neo-Realism). Later performances, in his seven-decade career, ranged from Vittorio De Sica’s The Gate of Heaven (1946) to a series of popular swashbucklers, as well as occasional appearances in such art house films as Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972). With Pasolini, prior to Teorema Girotti worked in his segment in the anthology film The Witches, and later he was memorable playing the duplicitous King in Medea.
Anne Wiazemsky (born 1947) – who played the daughter, Odetta – debuted in Robert Bresson’s deeply moving ‘donkey film’ Au hasard Balthazar (1966), and the next year married Jean-Luc Godard, appearing in eight of his films, including such revolutionary works as La Chinoise, Week End, and Tout va bien (she was Godard’s second wife; they divorced in 1979). Wiazemsky appeared in over forty films, but left the screen in 1988 to become an author. Her novels include Canines, Une poignée de gens, and Hymnes à l’amour (filmed in 2003 as All the Fine Promises by Jean-Paul Civeyrac, and starring Bulle Ogier). It could be said that Wiazemsky has literature in her blood, since she is the granddaughter of Nobel laureate François Mauriac (1927 novel Thérèse Desqueyroux, 1938 play Asmodée). His works – as the prodigiously well-read Pasolini undoubtedly knew – examine the same themes, although in a very different form, as Teorema, namely, the conflicts between religion, convention, and human passions among the bourgeoisie.
Andrés José Cruz Soublette – who played the son, Pietro – made only two other films, both within two years of his debut in Teorema. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find out any other information about this talented and ingratiating performer.
Laura Betti (1934–2004) – who played the maid, Emilia – won the Venice Film Festival Volpi Cup for Best Actress for her performance here. Her first role was in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, followed by appearances in almost eighty other pictures as diverse as Mario Bava’s Reazione a catena (1971 – translated as Bay of Blood, Twitch of the Death Nerve, and a dozen other alternate titles in English alone – this is the grandaddy of all slasher movies, from the still under-appreciated Bava) and Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976).
Betti was a close friend of Pasolini, even making a 90-minute documentary about him in 2001 entitled Pier Paolo Pasolini e la ragione di un sogno (although I have not seen it, I wish it had been included on this DVD instead of the silly documentary we’re stuck with). She appeared in six other films for Pasolini, playing the Diva in “La Ricotta” (from Ro.Go.Pa.G.), a tourist in “The Earth Seen from the Moon” (from The Witches), Queen Jocasta’s maid in Oedipus Rex, Desdemona in “Che cosa sono le nuvole?” (from Caprice Italian Style), the irrepressible Wife of Bath in Canterbury Tales, and the voice of Signora Vaccari in Salò.
Tales of mysterious visitors – divinities disguised as mortals – are as old as humankind, spanning the globe. These Visitors could embody contradictory impulses, as we can see in ancient Greece, where two “opposite” gods – Apollo, god of beauty and reason, and Dionysos, god of drunkenness and the irrational – both put on human ‘drag’ on various occasions. Apollo often helped the downtrodden, while Dionysos’s best-known incarnation is dramatized in Euripides’s tragedy The Bacchae, in which the god gets ironic, and bloody, vengeance on a king who refuses to pay him homage. Across the globe, to take another example, we have the Incan god Viracocha, who traveled in human form, preaching virtue to the people, working miracles, sleeping in the fields – but often finding people resistant to his moral ways. There are many angelic visitations in Judeo-Christian scriptures, and of course a fundamental tenet of Christianity is that Jesus is God “made flesh.” Among Germanic peoples, Wotan/Odin, the king of the gods, often took human form and meddled in people’s lives (if he hadn’t, Richard Wagner’s operatic Ring of the Nibelungen wouldn’t be 16 hours long). There are hundreds, if not thousands, of analogous examples, as you can see in most of the world’s religions, both past and present.
Literature, theater, and film take a (usually) non-supernatural character, the mysterious visitor, and use them to stir things up in ways comparable to what we’ve seen in myth. One of Mark Twain’s last works is the delightfully caustic “The Mysterious Stranger” (1916). Gay playwrights William Inge and Tennesssee Williams wrote less diabolical takes on this motif: Inge in his 1953 play Picnic (filmed two years later by Joshua Logan), about a drifter who heats things up, especially among the women, in a midwestern town, and Williams in his 1958 play Orpheus Descending (which he’d been tinkering with since his original 1940 version, Band of Angels), about a charismatic young guitarist who descends on a small, repressive southern village. (To continue theatrical comparisons, Teorema’s complex tone, as well as its dissection of the bourgeoisie, brings to mind the unsurpassed comedy/dramas of Anton Chekhov, written between 1896 and 1904, including Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard.) Film offers many mysterious visitors, including some which may have influenced Pasolini. There are the wonderful Jean Renoir comedy, Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), and Gregory LaCava’s screwball delight, My Man Godfrey (1936). For a sinister take on this theme, there’s Joseph Losey’s eerie The Servant (1963 – Terence Stamp had appeared in Losey’s comic-strippy Modesty Blaise two years before Teorema).
Mythical, religious, artistic, and pop culture incarnations of the mysterious visitor, despite their surface differences, can be compared using the insights of Joseph Campbell, renowned for his studies of myth. Such abruptly-appearing – but unchanging – Visitors play pivotal roles as catalysts in the emotional and spiritual journeys of the Hero/ine, setting them definitively on the way to new and transformative experiences – whether it’s Apollo, Jesus, Boudu or the unnamed Visitor in this film.
Teorema itself proved transformative for several filmmakers, running the gamut from Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter (1973), in which the actor/director plays a mysterious cowboy called the Stranger, who may be angelic or demonic but who certainly loves to see a bad town burn, to François Ozon in Sitcom (1998), a clear homage to Teorema, although the Visitor takes the form of a magical white mouse. You can also see the hand of Teorema in works by Luis Buñuel (himself an important influence on Pasolini), such as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), and Pedro Almodóvar, to name just a few. Perhaps the first film to rework Teorema is Hal Prince’s bisexual black comedy, Something for Everyone (1970), starring Michael York. (Digression Alert: Although Harold Prince has directed only one other film, the woefully ineffective 1978 movie of his stage hit A Little Night Music, I want to take a moment to honor his era-defining career in musical theatre from the early ’50s to today, which includes (in chronological order) his producing The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, Fiorello!, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Fiddler on the Roof; producing and directing Cabaret and such Stephen Sondheim masterpieces as Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, and Sweeney Todd; and directing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s (dare I say overrated?) Evita and The Phantom of the Opera, the longest-running musical in Broadway history. End of Digression.)
In terms of Pasolini’s body of work, Teorema connects in many ways with his other films, both earlier and later. It came at the midpoint – 1968 – of his filmmaking career, 1961 to 1975. Later I’ll share some detailed comparisons, but now let’s briefly note the many connections. The interview, and documentary technique, of the opening factory scene recalls his non-fiction film Love Meetings, whose theme is also, as here, modern Italian attitudes towards sexuality and the self. The motif of actor Ninetto Davoli, who plays the Visitor’s messenger Angelo, flapping his arms like a bird is a direct quotation from his whimsical medieval monk character in The Hawks and the Sparrows, who learns to speak to birds so that he can save their souls by bringing them religion. Although the Visitor is quite comfortable amidst bourgeois luxuries, his underlying spiritual force can be compared to that exemplified by Pasolini’s Jesus in The Gospel According to St. Matthew; the luminous simplicity of that earlier film’s style can be seen here in the sequences involving the maid, Emilia, after she goes to the rural poor and begins performing miracles. The Visitor, as a mythic figure, invites comparison with Pasolini’s traditional mythical figures in Medea and Oedipus Rex (in the epilogue, the title character finds himself in modern Italy). The band of the son’s friends brings to mind the boys in Mamma Roma.
PLEASE NOTE: PLOT “SPOILERS” BEGIN NOW. The various hustlers, of whom the wife becomes enamored – and one of whom the father eyes in a train station, could have stepped out of Accattone. Teorema is also the first of his films which Pasolini labeled “unconsumable,” meaning that he intended them as the opposite of mindless, disposable consumer entertainments, and as such it connects with both Porcile (although this film seems richer, both are critiques of the bourgeoisie, and the symbolic wind-swept wasteland here is given much more prominence in the later film) and his stomach-churning formal masterpiece, Salò. On a more fundamental level, as we’ll see below, this film also embodies his perennial themes, or if you prefer obsessions, which give his body of work an evolving and eclectic unity. From the beginning, as well as here, Pasolini played off against each other his Catholicism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, humanism in its many forms (painting, literature, music, cinema, and more), and being a gay outsider in a hostile world (recall the antigay attitudes, recorded in Love Meetings, expressed by a wide range of people) – all refracted through his uniquely autobiographical, political and spiritual vision.
Why this title, Teorema / Theorem?
A theorem is, by definition, a statement that is to be proved. But what “statement” is Pasolini testing?
Beneath the film’s beautiful, often serene, surfaces, there is a war of clashing theorems: between society and the individual, between codified religion and what Pasolini called “natural sacredness” (the earth as a holy place in its own right), between cinematic representation and reality.
Big themes, especially for a film which is largely silent: as the original ads proclaimed, “There are only 923 words spoken in Teorema – but it says everything!” Putting such hype aside, I must say that this is one of the most haunting films I’ve ever seen. It keeps popping up at the strangest times, enriching lived experience with its unique – poetic yet critical – vision. For such a heady art film, it’s almost shockingly easy to sit through, as its rhythms seduce – or is it liberate? – us as surely as the Visitor does the family. But afterwards, it keeps coming back in many ways, teasing us with new connections between things which we might not typically compare, like factories and mansions and deserts, screams of pain and pleasure and perhaps rebirth. And more than any film, it wants each of us individually to factor ourself into its meaning, to test its theorems against our own life and values.
Structurally, Teorema brings to mind a secondary definition of theorem, as a statement of relations that can be expressed by a formula. You could even reduce its narrative form to a brief prologue, in which we see the family before the Visitor’s arrival, followed by a series of discrete (not to mention sexually discreet) scenes in which the Visitor (call him “V”) connects with each family member individually (call them “A,” “B”, “C,” etc.). Pseudo-mathematically, these relationships could be expressed as: V + A, V + B, V + C, etc. The characters, in order of seduction (or liberation) are: the maid Emilia, the son Pietro, (the family dog – although to the Visitor’s credit there is not a whiff of bestiality: they just run and play together in the woods,) the mother Lucia, the daughter Odetta, and finally the father Paolo (we’ll look at the symbolism of the names later). At the exact mid-point, the Visitor departs and each person now explores their new identity alone: A – V, B – V, C – V, etc. This [ahem!] formula, realized almost entirely through one-on-one scenes, also underscores the disconnection between all of the family members, as each one, alone, interacts with the Visitor. At the same time, the forumula makes the basic plot of this film extremely simple and clear (after the at-first mystifying prologue). That helps keep us involved, even on a first viewing, with what we later understand as a radically multi-layered work.
Those structural complexities emerge, in part, by the fascinating tension between the narrative’s underlying formalism and the images’ dreamlike quality: we are in a borderline space, somewhere between reason and fantasy. The surfaces of this world are presented with the documentary clarity of an anthropologist (exploring the modern bourgeoisie), but the characters always seem to be slightly removed from their world, both before and after the Visitor. Pasolini’s uniformly superb cast brings each character to life – I cared about every one of these people – yet there is always that nagging distance between their allegorically “flat” representation and the reality of their psychological selves and their world (more about this later).
Pasolini also effectively employs a symbolic geography, not just in the enigmatic desert which punctuates the film, but primarily in the liminal setting of the family’s house. In the back is the woods, a natural refuge where the Visitor can run free with the family dog; while in front is the congested urban world.
The mother sees an even more stark illustration of this after emerging from her first encounter with a hustler: the cityscape she sees, likely for the first time, is defined by decayed buildings and stark coils of barbed wire. But it is in the house – the spatial, psychological, and spiritual locus of the film, between the poles of nature and the city – where the Visitor allows the inhabitants’ separate dramas of awakening to come about.
Pasolini also imbues his film with humor, of a decidedly quirky kind, ranging from Angelo the (divine) messenger flapping his arms like a bird (or angel) and skipping around in circles, to the son with his new-found boldness as an artist – pissing on his painting as part of the creative process, to the sanctified maid at the end only eating boiled nettle weeds (and Pasolini thought this film was “unconsumable” – anyway, historical saints did even nuttier things; and later her miraculous levitation is filmed with such straightforward authenticity that Pasolini puts it beyond ridicule). The energy from such “ludicrous” bits also adds to the film’s momentum, but the scenes which will induce the most rolling eyeballs involve the speed with which the Visitor gets it on with each family member. There is a surreal rapidity of emotional change, coupled with an unnerving lack of spoken communication (Pasolini could easily have given us some Hollywood-conventional “explanation” through dialogue), in each of the five close encounters.
For example, take the mother: one moment she’s on the sun deck watching the Visitor cavort with the family pooch, the next moment she’s dropping her dress, while the Visitor immediately gets naked and begins making love to her – all without any verbal cues. It’s easy to imagine audiences tittering and/or guffawing at moments like this. But Pasolini, like the Visitor, is beyond fretting over such conventionality. While this is one of Pasolini’s most formally rigorous films, paradoxically it also feels like one of his most intuitive and spontaneous. And if his creativity throws up some groaners, well, we’ve already signed on for the ride, haven’t we? And from a literal-minded point of view, who’s to say how direct communion with a divinity, or even Terence Stamp, will affect you?
Rhythm is also key means for Pasolini to maintain the film’s momentum. He does this through the precise pacing of scenes, both in his coolly straightforward staging of action, made subliminally strange by the frequent hand-held camerawork (you can barely notice the slight jitter), and his editorial mastery. At times it seems as if Pasolini is conducting the flow of the film, like a piece of music. To comment on scenes, he also employs a brilliantly eclectic soundtrack. Music ranges from Mozart’s sublime Requiem, KV 626 (played under various scenes, notably those with the sick father before he connects with the Visitor) to a wide variety of pieces by his frequent composer, Ennio Morricone (whose more than 500 scores include The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Days of Heaven, and Kill Bill). Morricone’s cues run the gamut from atonal (the factory) to pop-rock (the family’s party), and much in between. In contrast to these often jarring aural/visual connections, Pasolini uses natural sounds, such as birds chirping, to provide a subtle bridge between scenes.
An example of this comes the morning when the father has his revelation not only about his son’s sexual identity (he sees him and the Visitor tenderly sleeping together) but about some undefinable natural/spiritual force, as the sunlight blinds him in his bathroom – we hear birds twittering – then cut to the father outside his opulent home, where the rising sun is even more overwhelming. Birdsong has helped smooth the transition from interior to exterior, even as it hints at the connection between the man-made and natural worlds.
All of these rhythmic elements – in narrative form, scene staging, editing, music, and sound effects – work together to carry us along, at times hypnotically, even when Pasolini periodically jolts us by interjecting enigmatic shots of a volcanic wasteland, where the film ends (and virtually begins).
Speaking of the beginning, I want to take a moment to address a controversy over the print of Teorema used in this DVD, which may (or may not) reflect an alternate opening of the film. This prologue will also give us an opportunity to see how Pasolini interlayers his various structural elements, including his not-so-linear narrative form. Since it’s also the most overtly “unconsumable” part of the film, and a stumbling block to some, talking about it may make it more accessible, if not less experimental.
The opening few minutes are so “weird” – shots of a press conference at a huge factory complex (in color), dust swirling over volcanic hills (in monochromatic color), and mini-scenes featuring several people we still don’t know (the family members – shots processed in brownish-red sepia), all with the film’s most eclectic use of music from pop to avant-garde (as noted above) – it’s as if Pasolini is daring us to stay with the film. Daring us to join him on his journey of social, self, cinematic, and even spiritual revelation. Let’s be bold and go along.
After we’ve seen the entire film, we realize that the opening sequence complexifies time… maybe. We have to ask, do the intercut shots of the desert – introduced in the first moments, and continuing intermittently throughout the entire film – suggest that everything is from the father’s point of view? This reading is given some weight since the film’s last image is of him howling in the desert – but is a howl of pain or rebirth? And is that the father’s voice intoning the narration: “And God led people out of the desert”? It sounds like the actor, but Pasolini keeps us guessing. I’ve come to consider this ‘fatherly’ interpretation too limiting, in light of the many layers not encompassed by such a limited reading.
Another instance of time scrambling also involves the prologue. From a linear perspective, we would of course expect the Visitor’s initial appearance to occur after the family receives his telegram (“Arriving Tomorrow”). But (at least in the print used for this DVD) we actually see him – in a full-color scene (all of the other family vignettes are in sepia) – at a big party. His presence is highlighted when wide-eyed young woman sighs to Odetta (in English, in this Italian-language film), “Who’s that boy?,” referring to the Visitor. He clearly stands out, even twenty feet away, among the son’s friends huddled around the stereo. Is this the Visitor doing reconnaissance, selecting a typical bourgeois family to visit (in the biblical sense)? Or is this, in effect, a flash forward? What may brand this ‘ambiguity’ as mere confusion is that some people say they have seen prints of the film, shown in the UK and Australia, in which this party scene in fact comes later in the film, after the end of the sepia sequence and the Visitor’s arrival, i.e., in the expected chronological order. (Thanks to Christopher C. for letting me know about the possibility of this alternate version.)
Although it seems unlikely that part of a reel would get mixed up in a film as important as Teorema, the (time-scrambled) structure feels right as it is. The Visitor has not yet made himself known to the family, that he’s just an unknown guest whom they can’t take their eyes off of. This arrangement of scenes also works aesthetically in that the color party scene reinforces the strangeness of the sepia sequence, even as the conventional writing and shooting of the party (with its pop-rock music) also contrasts with the in-your-face abstract quality of the sepia segment (which is underscored with Ennio Morricone’s “weirdest” atonal music, shades of Arnold Schönberg or Anton Webern – whose music is, nonetheless, constructed on principles every bit as rigorous as a Bach fugue, or a Pasolini film).
In other words, Pasolini is letting us know that no holds are barred in this film, from the conventional (party) to the avant-garde (sepia) to the utterly mysterious (interspersed shots of that volcanic desert, which with its monochromatic color scheme visually help bridge the full-color party and sepia vignettes). In terms of the narrative, seeing the family members in social settings (father at factory, children with friends, mother and the rest at the party) makes their imminent isolation, when they each individually come face-to-face with the Visitor, all the more resonant.
Now that we’ve looked at the overall structure, and some of its special qualities, let’s get to know the six principal characters better.
Let’s begin with the most enigmatic character in the film, and arguably in Pasolini’s entire body of work: the mysterious Visitor. Pasolini commented on him on various occasions, including in these two interviews from Pasolini on Pasolini:
From a BBC Television interview: “I adapted my character to the physical and psychological person of the actor. Originally, I intended this visitor to be a fertility god, the typical god of pre-industrial religion, the sun-god, the Biblical god, God the Father. Naturally, when confronted with things as they were, I had to abandon my original idea and so I made Terence Stamp into a generically ultra-terrestrial and metaphysical apparition: he could be the Devil, or a mixture of God and the Devil. The important thing is that he is something authentic and unstoppable.”
From Lino Pèroni’s interview in Inquadrature (Autumn 1968): “The character has come out ambiguous, half-way between the angelic and the demoniac. The visitor is good-looking, and good, but there is something vulgar about him as well (since he, too, is a member of the bourgeoisie)…. So there is this element of vulgarity in him, which he has accepted so as to descend among these bourgeois people, so he is ambiguous. On the other hand, what is authentic is the love that he arouses, because it is a love without any compromise, a love which provokes scandal, which destroys, which alters the bourgeois’ idea of themselves; what is authentic is this love, and the cause of this love is this ambiguous person.”
Call me a heretic, but Pasolini – who wrote extensively about his own creations (perhaps more than any other great filmmaker), and a prodigious range of other topics too – is not the final word on his own works: he expected each of us to come to our own personal reading. This essential involvement of each of his viewers is liberating aspect of his art. Still, having his (at times insufferably doctrinaire) interpretations is indispensable; they are, of course, the standard against which all other Pasolini is measured. It’s a disgrace that only a handful of his forty books have been translated into English. For Teorema, it’s especially frustrating that we non-Italians have neither Pasolini’s notebooks, his original verse play, or his own novel – written simultaneously with the film’s production – to factor into a comprehensive, multi-media interpretation. Charging ahead, with only the two snippets from the Pasolini interviews quoted above, let’s ask, What do we make of his take on the Visitor?
Spot on. Pasolini was, of course!, aware of the many layers of the Visitor, from the mythic to the political, in his role as a sexually-charged catalyst who jump starts the bourgeoisie into a multiplicity of new reactions (from catatonia to art). However, I don’t see very much of the “demonic” in the Visitor, although in Pasolini’s day “sexual liberation” was more likely to have been regarded as such than today (as we see in Love Meetings): and would a diabolical visitor, who hurts no one, use a sweetly wacky messenger (named Angelo no less)? Pasolini and Stamp’s creation of a laid-back righteous divinity, who likes to smoke and joke around and lounge and read Rimbaud, is “ambiguous” in much richer ways than if they had gone for a character who was a mere “mid-point” between God and Devil.
I especially like Pasolini’s extensive and specific comments on the unique form of love which the Visitor brings. This film can get all too heady, and it’s important to remember that we’re dealing with passionate and fleshy experience as the medium of change, not just Pasolini’s Marxist/ psychoanalytical/ spiritual – and hence, some would say highfalutin – allegorical concepts. For all of this film’s intellectual rigor, as well as its surrealist streak, it works – and stays with us – because it is ultimately, to use Pasolini’s own brilliantly perceptive word, “authentic.”
Some additional aspects of the Visitor also struck me, primarily that he was genuinely comfortable in his own skin (or perhaps “incarnation” is a more correct term). The family seems decent and likeable (despite Pasolini’s theorem that the bourgeoisie are intrinsically “wrong” – but even he admitted that he was fond of these characters), and they live in a household of conspicuous order (you know every room would pass the white-glove test) – yet you can feel the tension. While beautifully groomed, especially (and sexistly) the mother and daughter (the maid is an employee, and hence is subject to lesser “standards”), there is something mask-like about their faces, at least before the Visitor seduces/liberates them. Post-Visitor, each member of the family, and the maid, goes off in a wildly different direction, but they do so as their real selves, however disastrous or wonderful the results. One of the many questions which the film asks each one of us – personally – is, Are these people better off for having been transformed, opened up, by the Visitor?
Pasolini pairs the family members by age and gender, so let’s look first at the wife and husband, then at the daughter and son, before turning to Emilia.
We learn the most about Lucia and Paolo, as with their children and maid, from what they do after the Visitor departs. Comparably, both look to strikingly handsome hustlers who bear an uncanny resemblance to the Visitor. But while Lucia hungrily has sex with the young men she picks up (first one, then a pair), the boy Paolo sees, sitting alone on a bench at the crowded Milan train station, only inspires him to take the next step after turning his factories over to his workers. Paolo, shades of St. Francis (as well as his wife, when she first “knew” the Visitor), strips off his clothes, oblivious to the hordes of commuters around him. One moment he’s walking through the station, the next he’s alone in the volcanic desert (shots of which have popped up throughout the entire film).
Pasolini seems to use their names ironically. Lucia, which means ‘light,’ seems more about heat than illumination. (There doesn’t seem to be a specific connection with the Christian virgin/martyr, Santa Lucia, who died in 304 C.E.) However, light symbolism is a notable motif in this film: recall the father’s ‘sunrise revelation’ mentioned above, and more subtly there is a faint glow about the Visitor, and even the hustlers who come to represent him for Lucia and Paolo. We might even add Pasolini himself to this list, since his romantic yearnings often brought him to the arms of rent boys, whom he saw as fellow sexual outsiders (Pasolini because he was gay, the hustlers because of how they earned a living), intensely real (not to mention the antithesis of “bourgeois hypocrisy”) and, in their own way, divine too (although one could argue that for all of his ardor, Pasolini gave too little thought to issues of objectification and exploitation).
Since I long ago posted my “plot spoilers” warning, I can safely add that one of the biggest surprises in the film came when, after Lucia went down into a ditch (prefiguring the final scene with Emilia, in a ditch) with one of the hustlers, she was not murdered or even hurt (which would have been Hollywood’s mandatory fate for any such “tramp”). Rather, we later see her saying good-bye to the two guys, who offer her some directions (more symbolism, eh?). In other words, Pasolini is not negatively judging either Lucia or the boys – what they did is what they did – although she experiences pangs of guilt, as she now sees a large, and purposely tacky, statue of Jesus on a nearby church (and, as always, we are free to judge these characters however we choose, so long as we use the same standard which we apply to ourself).
Paolo’s name derives, of course, from St. Paul, whom Pasolini likely would have regarded not only as a foundational figure of Christianity but, far more critically, as a rigid and repressive patriarch (although he remained a lifelong bachelor), handing down interpretive laws which denigrated sexuality, women, gay people, and members of any religious sect not his own. The father, of course, undergoes a transformation almost as extraordinary as the one which turned Saul of Tarsus into St. Paul, although Paolo’s change came with the handsome Visitor, somewhere offscreen in the mist-covered marshes outside of Milan. Also significant is that Pasolini gave the father one of his own names (Paolo), and the son the other (Pietro is another form of Pier, both deriving from St. Peter).
As if to underscore his mixed feelings about Paolo, Pasolini gave him one of the quirkiest scenes in the film, at once ridiculous yet also genuinely, if strangely, moving. Paolo, lying sick in bed, incredibly believes that reading Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” will make him feel better (well, this is a fantasy film): on the soundtrack, the massed voices of Mozart’s Requiem (KV 626) sing “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona eis requiem” (“Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant them rest”). But it’s only when the Visitor suggestively hauls Paolo’s legs around his neck that the father makes a miraculous recovery from his pain. The family looks on, and is amazed. This is one of the very few scenes with more than the Visitor and just one other person; perhaps the Visitor wanted witnesses (like earlier mythic and religious figures) for this homely miracle.
As noted above, Paolo literally ends the film, as we see him running across the desert towards the camera, where we last see him screaming in close-up. What are we to make of this? We have seen him transformed by the Visitor, do a selfless and noble, even holy, deed by giving his factory to the workers, so why is he now naked in a desert? (Pasolini devotees will recognize that this is the same location he used in The Gospel According to St. Matthew for Jesus’s temptation by the Devil during his 40 days in the wilderness; it will also be one of two principal locations in Porcile.) Understandably, one of the most talked-about aspects of this film is that final shot. Some people take a very bleak reading, even seeing Paolo being tormented in a hell, whether literal or pschological. But after living with this film for a good long while, I believe it’s fundamentally affirmative and hopeful, and I read that final howl as something like the first cry of a newborn baby – that Paolo is, in a distinctly Pasolinian way, being born again. I also believe that a crucial aspect of this film, as I’ve touched on above, is that Pasolini demands that each one of us participate directly in the film, not only in interpreting what we see (and comparing every “theorem” he posits to our own beliefs) but also imagining what happens after the film stops.
It is no accident that Pasolini leaves this film with more purposeful openness than almost any other. It’s as if he gives us Act I (the Visitor and the family) and Act II (the family after the Visitor departs, and they begin emerging as new selves), but then leaves us on our own to imagine, and even interpret, our own Act III. Yes, Pasolini’s leaving us on our own seems a definite parallel to the Visitor’s leaving the family. And our individual Act III will be a clear reflection of what we believe, and who we are.
I see the final image as Paolo’s birth cry, as hope for his more authentic and better future, after he finds his own way out of the wasteland – what do you see?
Even more than with their parents, Pasolini presents a stark – and I think autobiographically-informed – contrast between the fates of Odetta and Pietro.
Poor Odetta! Despite her enthusiasms, and sweetly characterful face, she comes off the worst of all the Visitor’s visitees. Her failing, from Pasolini’s point of view, is her inability to explore herself. Unlike her brother, who becomes an artist, she is a mere snapper of voyeuristic photographs of the Visitor. In fact, she ogles him more than any other character (except Emilia, in the early scenes). Her obsession with surfaces leads her to objectifying of the Visitor solely for his physical beauty, rather than for the liberating power he possesses. Her name also suggests that Pasolini, on some footnote-worthy level, intends her as a symbol of the worst excesses, and limitations, of the Italian people: the name Odetta literally means ‘fatherland.’
One of the more eyebrow-raising elements, in this astonishingly discreet (by today’s standards) picture about sexual release, consists of several “crotch shots” of the Visitor. This motif begins just after the ‘sepia prologue,’ with a leering close-up from Emilia’s point of view (she’s trimming the lawn – more sexual symbolism, by golly – when she sees the Rimbaud-reading Visitor drop a cigarette ash onto his leg: off she scurries to brush it off), but several are from Odetta’s POV. And the daughter’s physical connection with the Visitor begins with her head in his lap. Instead of blossoming, she descends into madness: for the first time in the film, the lush expanse of lawn (an inversion of the volcanic desert) shows several bald patches, which Odetta weirdly begins to measure with a ruler. Later, she clutches her fist as tight as she can and sinks into a coma. The last time we see her she is strapped to a gurney, being wheeled off by medical personnel.
Beyond her sorry fate, as the doe-eyed embodiment of surface-obsessed bourgeois hypocrisy, I think the filmmaker also was taking a little jab at Ms. Wiazemsky’s husband, Jean-Luc Godard. Godard and Pasolini were longtime friends and fans of each other’s immense achievements, and had even worked on some films together (they are the “Go.” and “Pa.” of Ro.Go.Pa.G.), but they were also both – deservedly – on the unofficial short list for the title of Greatest Modern Filmmaker in the World. So maybe Odetta’s especially harsh resolution (she is the only principal for whom I do not see a rosy, or any, future), obliquely shows Pasolini’s human/jealous side. (If you want to stretch this line of thinking, probably to the breaking point, you can consider another possible “rivalry,” here between Pasolini and Wiazemsky’s Nobel-laureate grandfather, François Mauriac, whom I mentioned in the background section above.)
Odetta’s brother is a very different story. As mentioned above, he also shares his name with the filmmaker, since both Pietro and Pier derive from St. Peter, whose name means ‘rock,’ as in the rock/church upon which Christianity is founded. I believe there are several autobiographical connections between this engaging young artist and Pasolini, beginning with their sexual orientation. In 1968, Pietro and the Visitor’s tender yet unmistakably erotic relationship (we, and the father, see them sleeping contentedly together) was a landmark in the affirmative portrayal of same-sex-oriented characters onscreen. Pasolini also cast an actor, Andrés José Cruz Soublette, with little dramatic experience, which lets this stand out as the film’s most completely natural performance. This is especially important when trying to make an audience relate to a couple of “perverts” (attitudes, in many places, happily have evolved over the past four decades): recall that Pietro is the second person (after Emilia) whom the Visitor sleeps with, and the first family member.
As much as the young man coming into his own true sexual nature, the Visitor has awakened his artistic gifts: I, for one, was very impressed with Pietro’s abstract paintings (although, behind the scenes, I do not know who created these passionate works: one always suspects Pasolini himself). In this film with remarkably little dialogue, Pasolini gives Pietro the most important, and lengthy, monologue (which he certainly expected us to consider in light of his own works), including the key lines “One must try to come up with new, unrecognizable techniques…. Everything must appear perfect based on rules that are unknown….” Of course, this implies perhaps the slyest joke in the entire film: Pietro envisions an aesthetic which is, by its very nature, beyond criticism (the dream of artists and nightmare of critics everywhere). And with Pietro, that’s really saying something, because here is a tyro artist (all we see of his background is a coffee table book of Francis Bacon paintings, which he looks at with the Visitor while they happily rub knees) who’s not afraid to pee on his canvasses, for effect – or spew paint with his eyes closed (hence putting some real action in action painting – also recall Pasolini’s previous film, Oedipus Rex, and the insight which Oedipus achieves only after he blinds himself). But just when Pietro has become too too much, and the groans in the audience are starting to become deafening, Pasolini has him do something which no other character does: he laughs at himself. Big time. Huge guffaws, directed at his own pretensions. Talk about a saving grace.
Although we last see Pietro alone, in his expansive studio, I see him as by far the film’s most hopeful character. Even in terms of spatial symbolism, he’s ended up in the best, and most open, possible space for himself and his work. He started in the tiny cramped room where he spent his boyhood, which he had to share with the Visitor. That confining room is where the Visitor introduced him to his own sexuality, at his bidding: it was Piero who tried to quietly pull the covers off the sleeping naked Visitor, who awakens saying, “It’s all right. It’s al right,” then joins the young man in his bed. But by the end, he has his own bi-level artist’s studio. And notice that some of his “canvasses” are in fact Plexiglas, allowing him to stack one work on top of another, to experiment with layers – another feather in his cap in this most multi-layered of films.
As a surrogate for Pasolini, a symbol of the latent creative and personal potential (even) in the bourgeoisie, and an all-around decent guy, it’s good to see that Pietro is, pun intended, the “rock” upon which the filmmaker anchors the film’s optimism.
We began exploring characters with the divine Visitor, so now let’s end with the human character who becomes sanctified: the maid, Emila. Her name was so universally popular among the so-called “lower” classes in ancient Rome, that it essentially makes her – and Pasolini uses her allegorically as – a working class Everywoman figure. Although the Visitor comes to an upper-crust family in whose lives religion seems to play no part, by contrast Emilia is singularly devout. Her attempted suicide – especially remarkable because this typically-climactic act is one of the first things she does – can be explained not only because of her (till then) unrequited passion for the Visitor, but also perhaps because she realizes that she is burning with desire for a god, or even God, and doesn’t know how to process her feelings (who would?). When moments later the Visitor does, in fact, mount her – although both are fully clothed, at least as the scene abruptly ends – Pasolini establishes the extreme elliptical narrative device he uses throughout the film: the scene just ends, and the next one begins. Visually, the underlying structures of his compositions mesh, but the earlier scene’s emotional force is simply and abruptly cut off. Although nowhere near as (purposefully) disorienting as the prologue, Pasolini’s repeated use of this technique gives the film a tension, and energy, which keep us both on edge and involved.
Psychologically, Emilia seems the film’s richest character, in part because she is presented from the most varied perspectives. Pasolini shows her to us as real, pious, emotionally overwrought, flawed (attempts suicide), and funny, in her insistence on eating nettles – of course historical saints reputedly did comparable things. In fact Emilia, who goes on the most all-encompassing journey of any character, seems a remarkably full and authentic portrayal of what an actual saint, who historically might also have been called a “holy fool,” would be like. There is also real poignance in the fact that she is the only person whom the Visitor does not embrace and kiss when he leaves the family: is that perhaps punishment for the sin of attempted suicide? Or does the Visitor know that he is the presence of a saint-in-the-making, and so shares a deeper kinship with her than any of the others?
There is also a moving autobiographical connection in Emilia’s deep, and virtually silent, relationship with the woman the credits call the “Old Peasant.” She is played by Pasolini’s own mother, Susanna (a deeply pious woman, who stood by her son throughout his life – and scandals). Her presence brings to mind her quietly overwhelming performance, in The Gospel According to St. Matthew, as Jesus’s mother, Mary; she also adds to the spiritual luster of Emilia.
Pasolini’s final fate for Emilia is second only to Paolo’s as the most ambiguous in the film. After we’ve seen Emilia perform miracles (such as levitating thirty feet off the ground), we leave her in a dump, covered with dirt, crying a miracle, as her tears form a pool – but what good is it? We don’t see this miracle healing anyone, as she did earlier with a little boy suffering from a terrible skin disease. And even her faithful companion, the so-called Old Peasant, goes off, leaving Emilia alone in the earth, crying into her own tears. Among the few words she speaks in the entire film, we hear her say, here at the end, that she is “not dying” (the conclusion most people would have reached). But what is she going to do, lying there in the wet earth, alone? What do you think happens next – and after that?
Emilia seems to represent for Pasolini Catholicism, which he saw as distinct from, and in its sectarian narrowness inferior to, real spirituality. As he once noted, in discussing his stance towards religion, “Until I was 15 I believed in God with all of my adolescent intransigence, which increased the rigidity and the seriousness of my false faith…. I would provoke fake effusions of religious sentiment in myself, so much so that several times I convinced myself that I had seen the Holy Mother [Mary] move and smile….” Catholicism exerted a lifelong pull on Pasolini, as seen in his fascination with a sometimes mystical approach to death, the representation of rituals in many of his films (not least of all Salò), his move towards symbolism and allegorical representation (Pasolini had a prodigious background in art history, which also meant Christian iconography), and a certain messianic fervor, which he later transferred to Marxism. Emilia shows us Pasolini’s conflicted feelings towards the faith of his youth: he clearly admires her as a person, yet has the gravest (pun intended) doubts about the efficacy of her sainthood. The family she worked for, whom we have looked at above, shows us his Marxist and psychoanalytical fervor.
Teorema is also notable as the first work in which Pasolini directly examined his ideological “enemies” in the socialist class struggle: the über-hypocritical upper middle class. As he put it, in the 1968 Inquadrature interview, “The point of the film [its ‘theorem’] is roughly this: a member of the bourgeoisie, whatever he does, is always wrong…. [A]nything done by the bourgeoisie, however sincere, profound, and noble it is, is always on the wrong side of the track.”
How did Pasolini embody this theorem? In his disgust at bourgeois consumerism, which he saw as an examplar of their all-engulfing destructive lifestyle, Pasolini began to make, with Teorema (and later Porcile and Salò), the most “unconsumable” films he could, although he was aware of an indigestible paradox. He was thumbing his nose at the very elite who had the cultural apparatus to appreciate his films (such as the layers of symbolism in all three films, not to mention the “Essential Bibliography” with which he precedes Salò, citing works by such rigorous theoreticians as Roland Barthes and Maurice Blanchot), i.e., his condemnation of what he saw as their profoundly wrong core values, principally hypocrisy in all its forms, including their abuse of what social philosopher Herbert Marcuse called surplus repression (used to dominate people; this was distinct from basic repression, which is natural and essential for social interactions). But was Pasolini hypocritically attacking their hypocrisy? And what was that about biting the hand that feeds you? So why should “bourgeois” film lovers, then or know, tolerate so many body blows from Pasolini?
For me, the richness and complexity, and sheer humanity, of Pasolini’s vision – as reflected both in Teorema and all of his films – makes his pontificating if not easily “consumable” then at the very least provocative, and certainly understandable. And let’s not forget that while he may flatten his characters, both bourgeois and rural (not to mention “ultra-terrestrial”), he does so in a manner reminiscent of a Renaissance master like Giotto (Pasolini played one of the artist’s disciples in The Decameron). Giotto’s literally flat representations nonetheless manage to live and breathe with more vitality than, say, almost any character in any pop movie or TV show. The flatness allows the pulsing core to be highlighted, as we can see in all of the main characters here, even Odetta in her coma (Pasolini emphasizes her passion by her clutched fist), and the silent and still Emilia, on the bench by the wall at the farm, who can work miracles without saying a word. Anti-bourgeois allegory is one thing, but Pasolini’s intrinsic and profound humanity moves him far beyond it, not in Porcile (a fascinating but unsatisfying extension of his themes here) but in Teorema.
Let’s also look at how Pasolini embodies his theorem – that the bourgeoisie is “always wrong” – in this film. As we have seen at length, for all of the characters’ allegorical flatness they are anything but one-dimensional; and for all of its paraphrasable political themes, this film’s density of ideas and emotions is nothing less than extraordinary. So it will come as no surprise that Pasolini’s very next sentence in the passage we’re looking at modifies his doctrinaire view. He continues immediately by stating “But this condemnation of the bourgeoisie which used before… to be absolute and inescapable has to be suspended… because the bourgeoisie is undergoing a revolutionary change: it is assimilating everybody to the petit bourgeoisie: the whole of mankind is becoming petit bourgeois.”
Even with this modification, has Pasolini proved his first theorem, about the intrinsic wrongness of the bourgeoisie? I don’t mean to dodge the question – and I’m sure neither did Pasolini – but you’ll have to answer that question for yourself. I think that Pasolini is simply too great an artist and complex a human being to allow one little theorem to determine every aspect of a picture as great as Teorema (alas, but Porcile is another matter); this compliment can also be showered on the great socialist playwright Bertolt Brecht (Three-Penny Opera), his cinematic disciple Godard (Week End), and in turn their theatrical and cinematic disciple Rainer Werner Fassbinder – all of whom were too great as artists and human beings ever to subsume their creative work, at least entirely, to any doctrine.
Teorema also opens up worlds beyond those of political and religious ideology; I believe that this is a genuinely and profoundly spiritual film – and not just because the dramatic catalyst is a divine being. We’ve now looked at Pasolini’s first, and most overt, theorem in this film, but I believe there are at least two more crucial – and equally conflicted – ones.
Closely related to the ‘bourgeoisie is always wrong’ theorem is another one arguing for what Pasolini called the “natural sacredness” of the earth, which he saw as an intrinsically holy place which has no need for any sectarian religion to deem it holy. We have seen this embodied in Pasolini’s thoughtful, and sometimes even cautionary, approach to sexual liberation: Pietro becomes an artist while his sister goes into a coma. Pasolini is often tarred and feathered for his “promiscuity” (such people point with superior fingers to his violent death at the hands of a hustler), and his writings are clear in their attack on “sexual hypocrisy,” but in this film, and many of his other works, he implies a more nuanced view of the ratio between pleasures and perils in sexual union.
Beyond the human, Pasolini presents Nature as a sacred force of immense and ambiguous power. This is evident in most of his films (notably Medea), but here we have the profoundly rich symbol of the desert: is it biblical? psychological – specifically, inside the father’s mind? divine? Is it a place of death – or healing – or rebirth? And it is beautiful, isn’t it – even when contrasted with the paired images of the vast expanses of green lawn at the family’s estate.
The final theorem is also the most complex and elusive. At its most abstract, Pasolini also saw this film as an embodiment of the theorem that cinematic representation can embody the ineffability of reality, in effect the divine – not so much in what we see in the frames but in what our imaginations, our spirits, glean between and beyond the frames. I know, this is extremely heady stuff – but I want to highlight Pasolini’s third, and perhaps deepest, theorem here: representation / cinema can encompass the divine. On one level, intuiting this theorem, long before I tried to put it into words, may have been responsible for the intensely haunting quality of this film, not only from when I first saw it many years ago, but even during several viewings over the past few weeks, while writing this review. There is so much in this film – certainly more than I have highlighted, and just perhaps even more than Pasolini-the-theorist realized too. In this film marked by abrupt exits – the Visitor leaving the family, Pasolini leaving the radically and purposefully unfinished story – I now humbly leave you to make of this (perhaps ultimate) theorem what you will. And if you choose to ponder it, you might want to remember, as Pasolini showed us through Pietro, that it’s good to bring up an exuberant laugh now and then, especially when trying to scrutinize the inscrutable.
One more thing about theorems. Although the dictionary etymology shows that it comes from the Greek words for ‘proposition’ and ‘speculation’ (we’ve already spent plenty of time with both in this essay), I think it’s also possible that there is an even older derivation. The first part of theorem is, of course, “theo-” from ‘god.’ And I like that Pasolini has brought together, and made/allowed us to consider, those two parts of ‘theorem.’ We’ve had to look at propositions, with connotations of rationality, but the “theo-” part is also very much present in this film, as Pasolini searches for deeper connections between all of his elements – political, psychoanalytical, religious, humanistic (his love of myth, literature, painting, music, cinema), and autobiographical. This is a work which revels in the tension between reason and spirit.
With all of its intellectual and aesthetic rigor, Teorema is also a work of the richest ambiguity. Recall that final shot of the father in the desert: is that a scream of pain or, hopefully, a new birth? It’s difficult to imagine a film which could be more things to more people, but never in, say, the butt-kissing way of politicians – rather in the deepest and most personal way possible, by asking us to ask ourselves who we are, and why, and what else we might become. Challenging us to compare the theorems behind the film not only to what we see on the screen but, if you’ll pardon the overwrought imagery, who we see in the mirror.
The film can also be read as one of Pasolini’s most intensely personal. Ingmar Bergman once remarked that in The Seventh Seal (1957), his first great spiritual/political allegory, he consciously, even autobiographically, divided himself up between all of the main characters, from the knight and squire, to the strolling players, to the chess-loving Death. Although I have not read Pasolini making a similar statement about Teorema, more than perhaps in any of his other films this one seems to incarnate him among the schematic, yet human (and divine), characters. Like various aspects of Pasolini, we see them groping for sexual solidity (the Son, the Mother), trying to balance the needs of art (the Son) and business (the Father), go into deep silent personal places, whether to remain there (which frightened Pasolini, as it would anyone: note the Daughter’s fate) or to emerge with a transcendent, if ambiguous, power (the Maid). Of course, even beyond any possible autobiographical level, these characters embody the range of very personal choices, and traps, which each of us must confront in our own lives.
Yet this film is even more than the sum of its interlocking parts, with its multiple wide-open endings, and wealth of implications. This is that rare film which wants us to measure ourself against it – and which invites us to come back to it periodically, as we grow and change.
- Written and Directed by Pasolini
- Produced by Franco Rossellini and Manolo Bolognini
- Cinematography by Giuseppe Ruzzolini
- Costumes by Marcella De Marchis and Roberto Capucci
- Production Design by Luciano Puccini
- Special Effects by Goffredo Rocchetti
- Edited by Nino Baragli
- Original Music by Ennio Morricone
- Additional Music: Mozart’s Requiem (KV 626)
- Terence Stamp as the Visitor
- Silvana Mangano as the Mother, Lucia
- Massimo Girotti as the Father, Paolo
- Anne Wiazemsky as the Daughter, Odetta
- Andrés José Cruz Soublette as the Son, Pietro
- Laura Betti as the Maid, Emilia
- Ninetto Davoli as the Messenge, Angelino
- Alfonso Gatto as the Doctor
- Susanna Pasolini as the Old Peasant
There are currently several Pasolini video releases, to own (on DVD and Blu-ray), rent, stream, or borrow from your library, as well as Pasolini books. NOTE: If you use my Amazon Affiliate Pasolini link for a purchase, I may receive a commission that helps support this site, at no additional cost to you. Regardless, I stand by my opinions.
Original Video Release (Used for This Review)
Koch Lorber Films, has produced a DVD with very good image and sound; in fact, it’s one of the best-looking Region 1 Pasolini discs.
- Widescreen, enhanced for 16X9, 1.85 letterbox (aspect ratio of the original theatrical release)
- Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack (Italian) Optional English subtitles
- $29.98 suggested retail
- DVD also includes a 53-minute documentary (reviewed directly below), Pasolini and Death: A Purely Intellectual Thriller – A Testimony by Giuseppe Zigaina: a film by Enrico Candeloro and Gianluca Perilli, made in 2005.
Review of “Pasolini and Death”
The theorem proposed by this new interview-based documentary’s subject, Giuseppe Zigaina (identified simply as “painter, a PPP friend”), is so bizarre that I’ve had people write, asking if he actually said what he said: that Pasolini staged his own murder as his ultimate artistic and political act. After wading through almost an hour of Mr. Zigaina’s “testimony,” I can say, sadly, that the answer is yes: he really believes that Pasolini’s horrendous murder in 1975 was “in fact” a “ritual suicide” which Pasolini staged as the final “unifying aesthetic act” of his “entire career.” The mind reels, and not least because Zigaina presents no hard evidence whatsoever for his jaw-dropping theory. The filmmakers, Enrico Candeloro and Gianluca Perilli, present no alternative theories, and no challenges whatsoever to Zigaina. How credulous do they think we are?
The documentary provides very little detail about Zigaina, although in Enzo Siciliano’s indispensable 1978 biography, Pasolini: A Life, we learn, from a handful of references, that he and Pasolini had been friends since 1945, having met through the Communist Party. Internet-based sleuthing revealed that Zigaina had a minor function in a couple of Pasolini’s films, serving as a visual consultant on Porcile and taking the small role of a Catholic “Brother confessor” in The Decameron.
Although I intend no disrespect towards Mr. Zigaina (people should always be treated with respect, but assumptions should always be challenged), here are some of the many problems I have with his morbid theory: (1) he seems obsessed with seeing Pasolini’s death through something like The Da Vinci Code, as he notes the ritual-murder “codes” running throughout Pasolini (although his only “proof” is a comparison of the grisy crime-scene photo of Pasolini’s mutilated body with how he dramatized ritual killings in such films as Medea) – Zigaina also repeatedly calls himself a “code breaker” who leads a never-defined “double life;” (2) although he hints at “secret organizations,” he either never mentions or quickly dismisses alternative (conspiracy) theories about Pasolini’s murder, including that it might have been orchestrated by the Mafia (Pasolini had been researching their nefarious deeds for years, and some believe he was about to go public with his findings) and/or ultra right-wing political factions, who loathed the popularity of this gay/ atheist/ Communist/ genius and artist (in May 2005, the investigation of Pasolini’s murder was re-opened when his murderer, Pino “the Frog” Pelosi, stated – after 31 years – that his earlier confession was a fabrication; unfortunately, this investigation went nowhere and was shelved); (3) Zigaina syncretistically talks about Pasolini as a “shaman” who “considered himself a Christian with origins in the third century agnostics” (Mr. Zigaina inaccurately said “agnostics” when he meant Gnostics, but in any event there are no connections between the groups); (4) he states that for someone to disprove his theory, which he claims “puts everything in its proper order,” they must have an equally all-encompassing theory (preferably one based on credible facts, and not this baloney); and (5) he cheapens both Pasolini’s work and life by grinding them through this one procrustean, and unsupported, theory. I can understand the desire for all-encompassing tidiness – i.e., one size/ one theory fits all – but that doesn’t make it any less reductive and hence false. The implication is that randomness – that Pasolini was simply and tragically in the wrong place at the wrong time – is so scary to some people, including it would seem Mr. Zigaina, that they desperately need to impose a narrative, at once larger and much smaller than life. Of course, “secret knowledge” of such a Hidden Master Plan can only be comprehended by the faithful, in this instance members of what you might call The First Church of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Self-Made Martyr.
In a nutshell, I give thumbs-down to this offensively silly documentary; and I have no clue as to why Koch wasted the disc space on it. Sadly, the other major Pasolini documentary now on DVD – included in Criterion’s excellent Mamma Roma release – also focuses on the morbidly limited theme of Pasolini and death. Far better, and more appropriate, would have been the inclusion of, say, the 90-minute 2001 documentary, Pier Paolo Pasolini e la ragione di un sogno, by actress-turned-filmmaker Laura Betti (who plays the maid, Emilia, in Teorema). There is so much more to this extraordinary artist that it seems a wasted opportunity that we didn’t get a documentary, for instance, looking at Pasolini’s evolving cinematic language compared to the linguistic style in his poetry, fiction, and theoretical writings. A film like that could offer an “all-encompassing” perspective, and enrich our appreciation of Pasolini’s unsurpassed body of work.
Reviewed October 30, 2005 / Revised October 17, 2020