Saturday, July 28, 2012

Understanding Auteurs: Pier Paolo Pasolini (Teorema and Porcile)

Teorema (1968) is perhaps the most difficult of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films up to this point, a work that brings many of the director’s pet themes to their logical conclusion while remaining almost maddeningly elusive about what those conclusions are.  Rather than follow the sea change in aesthetics and theme that Oedipus Rex (1967) seemed to suggest, Pasolini again pursues the conflict between Italy’s Christian ideals and its complacent bourgeois realities.  But the conclusions that the writer-director reaches in Teorema are far less easy to summarize than those in Mamma Roma (1962) or The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), both of which made challenging but easy to identify points about the cultural confusion of the society that Pasolini lived in.  One can come to certain conclusions about various thematic aspects of Teorema, but there is far more ambiguity built in to this film’s structure than there is in Pasolini’s previous films.

Teorema focuses on a typical upper-middle class nuclear family whose daily routines are disrupted by the inexplicable arrival of a strange, quiet man listed in the credits as “the Visitor” (Terence Stamp).  The Visitor seems to bring out the latent desires and frustrations in every member of the household, prompting them each to make bold changes in their lives.  The father (Massimo Girotti) decides to give up control of his business, letting his workers take charge.  His wife (Silvana Mangano, returning from Oedipus Rex) experiences a sexual awakening, feeling passions that have presumably disappeared from her dull married life.  The son (Andres Jose Cruz Soublette) realizes to his shame and humiliation that he is a homosexual, with the Visitor allowing the boy to experience what is apparently his first same-gendered sexual experience.  The daughter (Anne Wiazemsky) tentatively breaks free from her sheltered “good girl” status through her own sexual relationship with the Visitor.  Even the maid (Laura Betti) is affected by the strange man’s presence, as he prevents her suicide attempt and ultimately prompts her to return to the humble village where she grew up.

The Visitor leaves the family just as abruptly as he arrived, and his disappearance has a tremendous impact on the household.  Only the maid seems to take a positive inspiration from the mysterious guest’s visit, as she begins to perform miracles in her old village, ranging from curing a child of what appears to be leprosy to mysteriously floating above a building.  Once again Pasolini seems to be suggesting that the poor are closer to the peasant roots of spirituality and are therefore the only ones in a position to accept true religion.  This positive interpretation is complicated, however, by the bizarre and highly ambiguous conclusion to the maid’s story, which finds the woman instructing one of her disciples to bury her alive for no discernible reason.  

The effect that the Visitor’s leaving has on the bourgeois family is no less mysterious, and in many ways more interesting than what happens to the maid.  It would be easy for Pasolini to take a high and mighty position and mock the wealthy family for their banal concerns.  But although the members of the family are used more as representative figures than fleshed-out characters, Pasolini seems to empathize and even identify with their existential struggles.  The son who struggles with his sexual identity is going through feelings that Pasolini undoubtedly dealt with as a homosexual growing up in a macho culture, and the fact that the son ultimately channels his frustrations through increasingly violent abstract art suggests a particularly bracing autocritique.  The wife’s futile search for transcendence through tawdry sex with young hustlers may have also hit close to home with the writer-director, who was allegedly murdered while attempting to pick up a gigolo.  Pasolini’s biggest howl of despair comes from the father, who renounces all ties to his business, strips himself of his clothes, and goes out into nature.  But the father cannot simply become one with the world in the style of Saint Francis.  He is too much a product of his middle-class industrial world to escape from it, and the film ends with him utterly lost in the middle of a weird volcanic wasteland, screaming incoherently at the camera.

The mysteries revolving around who exactly the Visitor is (he could be interpreted, with equal justification, as a Christ or Satan figure) and how much he can be held accountable for the destinies of the family make Teorema the most challenging and intellectually stimulating of Pasolini’s films to this point.  At the same time, the intense yet ambiguous directions that the family members go in following the Visitor’s departure may make this the most nuanced and complicated of Pasolini’s provocations at this point.  That said, while Teorema is a triumph of bold thematic complexity, the script’s poetry doesn’t necessarily translate cinematically.  Where Oedipus Rex presented a huge leap forward for Pasolini as a visual stylist, Teorema is somewhat clunky from a directorial standpoint.  Aside from the highly memorable aforementioned final shot, and the effective use of Terence Stamp’s passive yet intensely sensual stare, Teorema is pretty basic on a visual level, with some of Pasolini’s overt attempts at stylization falling flat.  An early scene is arbitrarily presented in the style of a silent film, which might have at least been a charmingly weird diversion if Pasolini were more technically equipped to actually replicate the style of early cinema.  While the film is smartly and logically structured overall, it nonetheless opens awkwardly with a TV news-style report about the father’s business, a scene that could have easily been cut from the film altogether.  Teorema isn’t an easy film to warm up to, and in some senses it is a stylistic failure, but it is undeniably a major statement.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Pasolini’s next film.  Porcile (1969) is the most outwardly confrontational of Pasolini’s films to this point, and it was clearly intended to provoke a strong, possibly hostile response from its audience - which would be fine if it was at all clear what the writer-director was trying to say with this very muddled effort.   The film is divided between a mostly dialogue-free story set in the distant past that follows a man (Pierre Clementi) as he is mysteriously hunted through the same volcanic hellhole that was featured in the final shots of Teorema, and modern-day scenes set in a villa occupied by a Nazi-turned-businessman (Alberto Lionello) and his bored son (Jean-Pierre Leaud).  Continuous cross-cutting between the two stories suggests that Pasolini means to draw some parallel or contrast between the old-fashioned barbarism of the medieval story and the contemporary fascism found in the latter story, but it isn’t even remotely obvious what Pasolini’s intentions in combining the two stories are. 

While Pasolini’s films have sometimes felt a bit blandly directed, the strength of their ideas has usually made up for any visual deficiencies.  But Porcile seems intended only to provoke a knee-jerk response of disgust from the viewer, and ultimately fails even on the level of pure shock value.  For a film that prominently features cannibalism, beastiality, and Nazi war atrocities, Porcile feels awfully tame, allowing most of its potentially disturbing material to happen offscreen.  Most of the contemporary material is devoted to tedious scenes of the Nazi and his business associates tediously tossing half-baked philosophies at each other, or Leaud and his fiancée (Wiazemsky, returning after Teorema) sharing some abstract political frustrations.  The material set in the past fares somewhat better, if only because of the stunningly odd volcano location, but it mostly feels like a poor man’s version of Oedipus Rex, or even Medea (1969). 

The post-synched dialogue proves to be more of a problem in Porcile than it has in previous Pasolini films.  For the most part, audio sync hasn’t been a major issue in Pasolini’s previous films, though it is a little awkward to see Orson Welles’ part clearly dubbed over by a different actor in La ricotta (1963).  Where the Welles character was not a major focal point of La ricotta, Jean-Pierre Leaud is an important character in Porcile.  It is really distracting to see the well-known stand-in for the French New Wave being clearly dubbed by an Italian actor while playing a German character.  It is understandable that Pasolini would want to work with Leaud, one of the best and most intense actors of his era, but he is terribly miscast in this role.  The post-dubbing of Welles’ character in La ricotta is undeniably distracting, but there is enough else going on in that short film to nullify the issue.  Porcile, on the other hand, is nothing but a series of awkward, half-baked ideas signifying nothing.  With the murky, confused Porcile and the redundant Medea, Pasolini seems to be in a bit of a slump.  Hopefully his next project, a trilogy based on classic works of literature, will reinvigorate his art.

UP NEXT  The Trilogy of Life (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights)

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