After stumbling with the half-baked provocation Porcile (1969) and ripping off his own Oedipus Rex (1967) with the noticeably weaker Medea (1969), Pier Paolo Pasolini sought a new creative direction with a series of films that he dubbed the Trilogy of Life. The director’s first three movies of the ‘70s were each adaptations of beloved medieval texts, each of which are an anthology of shorter tales. Pasolini’s versions of these books would emphasize the gritty carnality of the original text, while ostensibly providing a lighthearted examination of the intersection between art and everyday life in the pre-industrial world.
The trilogy begins with The Decameron (1971), based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s Italian classic collection of one hundred stories. Pasolini’s version only includes a fraction of the stories, and is missing Boccaccio’s framing story, in which ten young people gather to relate the tales to each other. The lack of any sort of structuring principle to Pasolini’s script makes The Decameron feel like one of his least disciplined efforts. Pasolini does introduce a recurring motif about halfway through the movie that follows a painter (played by Pasolini himself) who searches for inspiration while painting a cathedral, but there is no rhyme or reason to why this story needed to be told in such a fragmented way while most of the other tales are given their own individual segments of the film. Many of the stories have promising setups, but none of them really feel like they come to a point before the film arbitrarily moves on to a new story. Pasolini’s determination to preserve the bawdiness of the original text rather than making a stuffy Masterpiece Theater episode is admirable, and he does conjure up a convincing overall depiction of medieval Italy. But the plotting in The Decameron is way too lackadaisical, especially considering that the movie is meant at least partially as a tribute to storytelling. With its lazy pacing, seemingly arbitrary structure, and generally inconsequential tone, The Decameron resembles many of Fellini’s films from this period; like Satyricon (1971) or Roma (1972), The Decameron mostly seems like an excuse for its director to indulge himself. Where Fellini at least has enough technical skill to occasionally make this aimless, masturbatory style work, Pasolini remains a fairly straightforward stylist (albeit one with a good eye for exotic locations), and the eccentric social commentary that distinguishes most of his oeuvre is almost totally absent here.
Unfortunately, there is hardly any more depth to the second film in the trilogy, the Geoffrey Chaucer adaptation The Canterbury Tales (1972). As in the previous film, Pasolini jumbles the order of tales arbitrarily, while removing the original text’s framing story – though in this case he alludes to it by having a character suggest that a group of villagers take turns telling stories as they travel to Canterbury, which only makes it more awkward when the film completely abandons this structure. Pasolini again appears in a quasi-framing story, this time playing Chaucer himself, though these brief scenes mostly only consist of the author sitting in front of his notebook and laughing to himself about his writings. A few of the stories are lightly amusing, such as one where a jolly beggar made up to look like Chaplin’s Little Tramp (Pasolini favorite Ninetto Davoli, who actually looks more like Chico Marx) attempts various hustles in exchange for food, but the film’s rambling structure only allows it to work on a moment to moment basis. Where The Decameron could at least boast some interesting, highly photogenic locations, The Canterbury Tales feels constrained by its somewhat bland British locations (despite the fine work of cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli). Pasolini’s depiction of medieval England is not as immersive as his portrayal of primitive Italy, mainly because of his distracting decision to dub the dialogue into English even though most of the actors are clearly speaking Italian. Why Pasolini didn’t simply hire an English-speaking cast is a mystery, though his decision to stick with recurring cast members like Davoli and Franco Citti is consistent with the generally lazy and carefree feel of this film and The Decameron. There is a crazy low-budget vision of Hell toward the end of the movie (with screaming demons firing out of Satan’s ass in what appears to be the same volcanic wasteland seen in Porcile and 1968’s Teorema), but it may not be worth sitting through the rest of this tediously inconsequential effort to get to the rare good moments.
Considering the slump that Pasolini seemed to be in after Porcile, Medea, The Decameron, and The Canterbury Tales, it is almost shocking that Arabian Nights (1974) is as vital as it is. The final film of the Trilogy of Life shares many traits with the first two parts, including some of their flaws, but overall it is the first of Pasolini’s exotic pagan films to live up to the beauty of Oedipus Rex. Somehow the rambling structure of Arabian Nights works where it fails in the previous two films, perhaps because Pasolini actually allows the stories time to develop and come to a conclusion before abruptly moving on. There are still some odd scripting decisions – such as having a young hero (Franco Merli) enjoying an orgy in one scene before being inexplicably distraught in his next appearance – but the overall atmosphere of Arabian Nights is spellbinding enough to make the film feel like the only truly coherent chapter of the Trilogy of Life. The mysterious, poetic Arabic tales are a good match for Pasolini’s aesthetic, and the flights of fancy are nicely balanced by the earthiness that Pasolini brings to the film’s frequent good-natured sex scenes (with their nicely matter of fact handling of both male and female nudity). With its consistently gorgeous imagery and its compelling mixture of fantastical storytelling and raw carnality, Arabian Nights single-handedly justifies the highly flawed Trilogy of Life.
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