The Decameron

June 28, 1971 (Berlin International Film Festival) — 112 minutes, color, 35mm, aspect ratio 1.85:1 — Genre
Pasolini’s 9th feature, colorful, exuberant, bawdy adaptations of stories from Boccaccio’s 14th century collection.

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.


The Decameron provides an ebullient start to Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life, which continues with his acclaimed and popular adaptations of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1971), and one of the most original fantasy films I have seen, The Arabian Nights (1974). The Decameron contains not only some of Pasolini’s most inspired filmmaking, but something to offend almost everyone. The film’s nine stories, based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s 1350s collection [free online], tell of an irrepressible young man who is swindled twice but ends up wealthy, lusty nuns and a sexual “miracle,” a cheating wife with a head for business, a dying con artist who manages to become a saint, how Giotto’s pupil comes to paint a fresco with a life of its own, young lovers caught in flagrante, an apprentice who loses his head for love, a gullible farmer who wants to turn his wife into a mare (she could do so much more work!), and two friends who make a pact to find out what happens in the afterlife.

Although I was not overly impressed with The Decameron when I first saw it theatrically fifteen years ago, seeing the film on the re-released DVD (now from MGM/UA) revealed it as one of Pasolini’s most captivating and luminous works. For viewers new to Pasolini, it is also a good film with which to begin exploring his work, since it includes many of his central themes, and reveals his brilliance as a visual storyteller.

On an overt level, it perfectly captures the radiant beauty of summertime, with golden landscapes awash in flowers, crystalline skies, the sounds of birds and crickets chirping.

Few films are as richly immediate; at times I could almost smell the earth. It brought to mind another cinematic poet of summer, the Eric Rohmer of La Collectioneuse (1966), Pauline at the Beach (1983), and Le Rayon Vert (1986; retitled Summer for US release).

Behind this passion for nature is Pasolini’s love of art. There are several gorgeous landscapes, which extend as far as the eye can see, and even some still lifes of breathtaking beauty, including a quick but exquisite close-up of half-eaten pears and a crumbling rose scattered on a table (which brings to mind Pasolini’s resonant first still life in “La Ricotta.”But these are not examples of empty pictorialism. They help ground the film in a particular, not to mention sensuous, place and time. From a thematic perspective, that still life serves as a witty, albeit metaphorical, foreshadowing of the resilient Andreuccio’s imminent fall from the lap of luxury. And for every beautiful vista, there is another of the squalor and misery of life among the poor.

Naturalistic as the film may seem, on a closer viewing you can discern Pasolini’s mastery of filmic composition, which is consciously informed by the works of such Italian Renaissance masters as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio, and of course the father of them all, Giotto (whose life overlapped Boccaccio’s by a quarter century).

In a stunning tableau near the film’s conclusion, “one of Giotto’s best pupils” who has come to a village church to paint a huge fresco, but who is now suffering from a creative block, has a dream. His vision of a stone-faced Madonna (Silvana Mangano, who had recently co-starred in Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex and Teorema) – surrounded by choirs of boyish angels, standing above the damned being tortured in hell – provides just the creative breakthrough he needs. At last he is able to complete the fresco. Pasolini has cinematically recreated, with enormous beauty and wit, not only Giotto’s expressively simple style but the spirit of his age.

Fittingly, Pasolini takes the role of the painter himself. He gives a restrained and moving performance, capturing the trials of artistic creation with exceptional authenticity.

Throughout The Decameron, Pasolini succeeds in (re)creating a living, breathing medieval Italy, both high-born and low. As in most of his period films, all of which are notable for their use of naturalism, he is uncanny at finding striking-looking, yet believable, real people (not extras from Cinecittà) to play the swirl of villagers, urchins, clergy, and hustlers who populate this world. Often the most beautiful women and men will smile, revealing that not only are they dentally challenged but, more importantly, that they are flesh and blood like the rest of us.

Pasolini has jettisoned the framework of Boccaccio’s book, written between 1348 and 1353, in which seven women and three men from contemporary Florence, then stricken by plague and the ensuing social chaos, retire to a countryside villa and distract each other by telling stories. (The title “decameron” literally means “Ten Days’ Work,” and refers to the ten stories which each of the ten friends tell during a – you guessed it – ten-night period.) While moving the action from Florence to Naples, Pasolini creates a double framework, in which he tells, in his own inimitable fashion, nine of Boccaccio’s one hundred stories.

The first half of the film is framed by the adventures of the rogue Ciappelletto (played by Franco Citti, who also did the title roles in Accattone and Oedipus Rex). This section of the film incorporates half of the tales. At the midpoint, Ciappelletto dies – and how this bisexual forger, thief, assassin and bill collector manages to be made a saint provides some of the film’s richest satire. We then meet the unnamed pupil of Giotto (played by Pasolini) who comes to northern Italy to paint a monumental church fresco. (Certain to send shivers throughout the Vatican, the two young priests who greet the artist are sweetly affectionate and giggly, and they just love ringing that chapel bell together.) Pasolini incorporates the other half of the stories through this second framing device.

How faithful is Pasolini to Boccaccio? Although Pasolini certainly takes liberties with the structure, and some of the incidents and locales, you can imagine Boccaccio’s ghost nodding with pleasure, and sometimes laughing with gusto, at this bawdy yet visually enticing film. And speaking of ghosts, Pasolini manages to squeeze two of them into his film. Despite the different media, stylistically both Boccaccio and Pasolini create works with taut, vivid, and suspenseful narratives, with a minimum of elaborate ornamentation. (For more information about Boccaccio, visit Brown University’s Decameron Web, with the complete Decameron in both Italian and English translation, and many resources.)

Perhaps even more than Boccaccio, Pasolini’s ultimate intention was to satirize, and hence to expose some of the endemic problems with his own society in the late twentieth century, here refracted through that of the fourteenth. The targets remain woefully the same. In skewering the hypocrisy of religion, who can forget what happens to all the nuns in a convent when they realize that their handsome hired hand can do much more than just prune the orchard… until total exhaustion sets in? On a more sombre note, Pasolini explores the violent core of bourgeois life, most powerfully in the tale of the romantic young apprentice Lorenzo who is murdered by his lover Elisabetta’s three brothers. You see, Lorenzo was not socially fit to join their upwardly mobile family.

ImageThis unforgettable story, which Pasolini places near the center of his film, is also a good example of his method of adaptation. While Pasolini ends his vignette at its emotional peak, when Elisabetta (called Isabetta in Boccaccio) transplants her basil into a large pot with that special addition to the soil, Boccaccio’s story (The Fourth Day, The Fifth Story: “Filomeno’s Tale of the Pot of Basil”) continues with several more incidents, fleshing out the denouement. The version you prefer will likely depend on personal tastes, but only a devout Boccaccio purist could fault the enormous power – and restraint – of Pasolini’s adaptation, which dramatizes the naked emotions which underlie society, both then and now.

Although Pasolini cast a radiant young woman to play Elisabetta (described by Boccaccio as “very beautiful, sweet, and modest”), he shrewdly chose a non-professional for the hapless Lorenzo. Here is a vital young man with a muscular physique and infectious smile, but who also has a beguilingly dopey expression which would forever bar him from the ranks of Calvin Klein models. But the realness of Pasolini’s Lorenzo makes him ingratiating, and his fate all the more poignant. Along these same lines, Pasolini does not depict the three homicidal brothers as monsters – although there is no ambiguity that what they do is monstrous. He shows them as a sort of sexy, but ignorant and bigoted, version of the Three Stooges, rollicking around together in the same cramped bed (since none had married yet, they all lived – and slept – together at home).

The episode is made even more poignant, and sharp-edged, by its relationship to the comparable tale which precedes it. There, a pair of beautiful young lovers are caught with their pants down by the girl’s parents. But instead of murdering the boy, the parents are delighted that their daughter will be marrying the son of a wealthy and influential family. The point about social hypocrisy has been made eloquently, without any overt clarification, simply by juxtaposing these two tales.

These are just a few of the many vivid, and sometimes shocking, details in a film where sensory beauty intersects with political trenchancy, in other words, vintage Pasolini.

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  • Directed by Pasolini
  • Written Pasolini, based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s book of the same title
  • Produced by Alberto Grimaldi
  • Cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli
  • Production Design by Dante Ferretti
  • Costume Design by Danilo Donati
  • Music by Ennio Morricone & Pasolini
  • Produced by Alberto Grimaldi
  • Cinematography by Tonino Delli Colli
  • Production Design by Dante Ferretti
  • Costume Design by Danilo Donati
  • Music by Ennio Morricone & Pasolini

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  • Franco Citti as Ciappelletto
  • Ninetto Davoli as Andreuccio da Perugia
  • Jovan Jovanovic as Rustico
  • Angela Luce as Peronella
  • Pasolini as Giotto’s Pupil (the fresco painter)
  • Silvana Mangano as the Madonna

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Original MGM/UA Video Release (Used for This Review)

MGM/UA has produced a very good transfer, superior in image and sound to the discontinued earlier release from a different distributor. NOTE that the Criterion Collection has released a box set, available in either Blu-ray or DVD, of Pasolni’s complete Trilogy of Life, that includes The Decameron, Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights.

Jim's Reviews / Pasolini
Jim’s Reviews / Pasolini

Reviewed March 31, 2003 / Revised October 17, 2020

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