By Chaz Lipp
Article first published as DVD Review: Trilogy of Life: The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights – The Criterion Collection on Blogcritics.
WARNING: The following review covers films of a mature nature. As such, there is discussion contained herein that may be considered objectionable to some readers.
Before Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered in 1975 at age 53, he directed a dozen highly controversial and provocative films. A trio of his early ’70s literary adaptations—dubbed The Trilogy of Life—preceded his infamous final film, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. While Salò was an absolutely savage examination of fascism—complete with brutal sadomasochism, rape, and coprophagia—the films in his Trilogy are decidedly lighter in tone. In fact, they are largely comical. There’s slapstick, bathroom humor, sight gags, and satire. Pasolini disavowed the trilogy sometime after the third film was released, apparently disgusted by the plethora of softcore flicks that imitated his style, without the substance.
It’s not hard to understand why such knockoffs were cranked out in the wake of Pasolini’s taboo-busting romps. Watching 1971’s The Decameron for the first time, I was immediately reminded of the international T&A flicks I was practically reared on as a youth. Many late nights were spent watching whatever “naughty,” badly-dubbed fare the pay cable networks used to air in the wee hours back in the ‘80s. I guess the difference is, Pasolini meant to say something with his films. Lots of ink has been spilled in an effort to interpret exactly what that “something” was, but especially in The Decameron it seems to me that he was just telling dirty jokes.
The film is a series of vignettes adapted from Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century novel, Il Decameron. Pasolini chose just a fraction of the novel’s 100 stories, some of which were surely shocking for their day. A young man pretends to be a deaf-mute in order to deflower nuns at the convent he works within. He doesn’t take advantage of these supposedly pious women. They practically throw themselves at him. In another tale, a woman turns her husband into an unwitting cuckold. One short story finds a young couple sneaking off to a rooftop to copulate—they receive an unexpected reaction upon being discovered by family members. Each of these medieval romps is laced with explicit nudity and sometimes stomach-churning visuals (ever seen someone fall into a 14th century pit toilet?).
When one story ends, another one begins. There’s no fuss over narrative continuity, although The Decameron turns out to be the easiest of the three to follow. The only vaguely uniting thread is the recurring presence of a group of painters, led by Allievo di Giotto (played by Pasolini), working on a mural. As entertainment, The Decameron is my favorite of the three. However, watch them all in a row, in short order, and the trilogy begins to blend together. The tone is similar, many of the same actors turn up in each, and they all feature shifting, non-traditional structures.
The Canterbury Tales, released in 1972, adapts one-third of Geoffrey Chaucer’s poems and stories. One infamous segment involves two men caught in an act of sodomy. The wealthier of the two averts punishment, the less financially secure winds up being burned alive in front of an audience (some of whom blithely snack on griddle cakes). In a lighter moment, Ninetto Davoli adopts Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp persona in “Cook’s Tale,” leading a few hapless characters to quite literally take a long walk off a short pier. The undercranked camera speeds up the slapstick antics. The Chaplin’s references don’t stop there. Josephine Chaplin (Charlie’s daughter) has a small role. The fourth Doctor Who, Tom Baker, is briefly present as well.
Arabian Nights concluded the trilogy in 1974, becoming Pasolini’s penultimate film. Its stories were adapted from a collection of Arabic folk stories, The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. The international production begins with a young man, Nur-e-Din (Franco Merli), being chosen by a female slave who is being auctioned off. Quite liberal, I suppose, for the auctioneer to allow the young lady, Zumurrud (Ines Pellegrini), to choose the man who will purchase her. The two fall in love, but Nur-e-Din somehow loses track of her by mistake. He spends the better part of the film, easily the trilogy’s lengthiest at 130 minutes, trying to locate her. As his quest unfolds, punctuated by Nur-e-Din’s encounters with numerous nubile lasses, we are treated to a variety of tangential stories of sex and temptation.
Maybe additional viewings will help me uncover the layers of profundity that others have found in Pasolini’s trilogy. For now, I’m unconvinced that it possess the depth and artistry so many attribute to it. The films are never boring, but it does take some time to get used to the excruciatingly poor dubbing. The Canterbury Tales includes a Pasolini-approved English track and really, why not go with that? The sync is terrible on the original Italian soundtracks (inherent in the original productions, not Criterion’s presentation) and the actors’ deliver their lines with overheated, histrionic glee. In other words, the stylized performances are an acquired taste that might throw off viewers unaccustomed to such theatrics.
And there’s no other way to say this—there’s a lot of penis on display in these movies. Yeah, there’s plenty of female nudity too, but the emphasis in all three films is the male sex organ. Non-pornographic female nudity is simply less “in your face” than close-up after close-up of every imaginable variety of male member (including erections). I wasn’t offended by it in the slightest, but it’s worth knowing for viewers who find such material repellent. The sex, though considered “erotic” by Pasolini, comes off as the awkward groping of people who have heard of the act but never actually done it. Late in Arabian Nights, Nur-e-Din plays “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” in a swimming pool with a group of young girls. This naïve exploration is far more convincing than any of the adult sexuality that so dominates the trilogy.
The Criterion Collection has packed their box set of The Trilogy of Life with supplemental features that help add context. The Decameron features an exclusive video essay by film scholar Patrick Rumble, “On The Decameron.” A 45-minute documentary, “The Lost Body of Alibech” focuses on a lost sequence from the film. The featurette “Via Pasolini” is comprised of vintage interviews with Pasolini. The Canterbury Tales includes three exclusive interviews (with author Sam Rohdie, composer Ennio Morricone, and production designer Dante Ferretti) and a 45-minute documentary, “The Secret Humiliation of Chaucer.”
Arabian Nights is presented as a two-disc set in order to avoid compromising the bitrate DVD. The film itself is longer than the other two, even if the extras aren’t particularly more substantial. “Introduction” offers brief comments from Pasolini himself, filmed in 1974 at the Cannes Film Festival. “On Arabian Nights” is a new, exclusive video essay by film critic Tony Rayns that provides a great deal of useful info about the film and its place in Pasolini’s filmography. Twenty minutes of deleted scenes are offered. Although they don’t have dialogue, they do have subtitles taken directly from the screenplay. “Pasolini and the Form of the City” is a 16-minute vintage Pasolini documentary about the ancient Italian cities Orte and Sabaudia. It’s an odd, but not unwelcome, inclusion.
Criterion has included a very substantial booklet, jam-packed with essays about the trilogy, including Pasolini’s own “Trilogy of Life Rejected.” A rather bewildering experience for those new to it, The Trilogy of Life is, on the surface, a mix of clumsily-staged sex scenes and bawdy, anything-goes humor. I couldn’t shake the feeling that too little time was devoted to any specific element for these films to have their intended impact. In the end, as amusing as they are at times, they come off like the product of a horny school kid with ADD.