In the early 1970s, the great Italian poet, philosopher, and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini brought to the screen a trio of masterpieces of medieval literature—Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and The Thousand and One Nights (often known as The Arabian Nights)—and in doing so created his most uninhibited and extravagant work.
In this brazen and bawdy triptych, the director set out to challenge modern consumer culture and celebrate the uncorrupted human body, while commenting on contemporary sexual and religious mores and hypocrisies. Filled with scatological humor and a rough-hewn sensuality that leave all modern standards of decency behind, these are carnal, provocative, and wildly entertaining films, all extraordinarily designed by Dante Ferretti and featuring evocative music by Ennio Morricone.
Few, if any directors compare to Pier Paolo Pasolini, the divisive and groundbreaking Italian filmmaker who has amassed a lasting and significant cult following as his films continue to find audiences on home video. Most often remembered for his final film, 1975’s Salo, or the 120 Days Of Sodom, a work many feel is at or near the top of the list of the most disturbing and abhorrent films ever made, Pasolini was a storyteller who embedded his heart on his sleeve. Pasolini was murdered prior to Salo’s release, his killer never truly identified, and Salo served as what was supposed to be the beginning of his Trilogy Of Death, an answer to his just completed Trilogy Of Life, which found the filmmaker reinterpreting classic works of fiction in three intense and provocative films – 1971’s The Decameron, 1972’s The Canterbury Tales, and 1974’s Arabian Nights.
The unquenchable Pasolini fanbase have had his films released time and again on home video, but Criterion has collected his Trilogy Of Life in a mesmerizing box set that pays great homage and tribute to three films that are very hard to embrace and love. If you have never seen Pasolini’s work in the 1970’s, he is clearly a skilled filmmaker but one who gleefully marched to the beat of his drum and could care less about a final film that was flawlessly constructed and more about the visceral reaction he could elicit from his actors and his viewers in equal measure.
One important distinction regarding the Trilogy Of Life comes in looking at the fascinating booklet included in the set. The first article is an essay from Pasolini, published shortly after the director’s death wherein he rescinds his support for these three films, largely because of the criticism and mimicry which emanated as these films were released and also because Pasolini himself claimed he grew weary of sex, in the depicting of it, showing of it, and putting forth his thoughts on the topic.
“I reject my Trilogy of Life, although I do not regret having made it. I cannot in fact deny the sincerity and the necessity which drove me to the representation of the bodies in it and the culminating symbol, their sex. Sincerity and necessity of this kind have various historical and ideological justifications.”
I cannot think of the last time I have been asked to review a film condemned or rejected by the filmmaker outright. Then again there has never been, nor will there ever be anyone like Pier Paolo Pasolini.
An eternally challenging and polarizing figure, Pasolini seemingly was a man never settled or satisfied. These films clearly show a director searching for a voice and trying to find himself by ripping through classic novels and short stories, crafting fascinating and stunning films custom-made for film historians, critics, and discerning audiences to break apart and put back together again.
Pasolini uses The Decameron to lay the foundation for his Trilogy and puts in place the cornerstones of how he will present these three stories. Comprised of interweaving stories, Pasolini shot the films’ dialogue mute, later overdubbing crude and unmatched vocal tracks throughout all three of these films (the subtitles also do not seem to reflect much of what is being stated on screen). He relied on comingling crisp and beautiful takes with shaky, handheld film student-style lensing. The Decameron also marked a sabbatical for Pasolini and his long time cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli. For the remaining films in the trilogy, Pasolini employed an upstart relative newcomer named Dante Ferretti, who later went on to win three Academy Awards working with Martin Scorsese and Tim Burton. Pasolini also had famed composer Ennio Morricone write the music for all three films, and his imprint is noticeable throughout the Trilogy. For many viewers, Pasolini’s frayed storytelling approach and the headscratching manner in which these films play is too rich to taste, far too much to consider. However, Pasolini was not some hack filmmaker who lucked into a legacy, he just saw shots and compositions different than everyone else. He inspired a series of copycats, much to his chagrin, and that impact and influence may have played a role in how increasingly explicit and confrontational his last films became.
The Decameron (Rated R, 111 minutes)
Pasolini pulls out 10 tales from Giovanni Boccaccio’s critique and surveying of 14th century Italy, beginning his Trilogy Of Life with an ambitious adaptation. Casting non-professional actors in most of the key roles, and apparently earning their trust to do anything and everything asked of them on film, The Decameron is unflinching and scattershot in its presentation. Beginning with the story of a beggar who is taken advantage of twice and then becomes rich, and documenting other tales including a young couple sharing their first sexual experience while the girl’s parents are sleeping apart nearby, a deaf-mute who happens onto a convent of sexually voracious nuns, and a number of stories involving deception, betrayal, and dishonesty, The Decameron is less a critique of 14th century Italy cinematically, and more a trainwreck of debauchery, frivolity, and precociousness. Pasolini even appears in the second half of the film as a painter, commissioned to create a three-panel fresco in a community church.
The Canterbury Tales (Rated NC-17, 111 minutes)
Pasolini returns in the second film of the Trilogy portraying Geoffrey Chaucer, the real-life author of the source material. In the novel, Chaucer’s frames his story around a group of pilgrims who are recounting wild stories on a journey from their village to a church cathedral. While referenced here, Pasolini veers away from that narrative infrastructure to a more scattershot storytelling approach. Some segments work better here than in The Decameron, Pasolini’s partner at the time, Ninetto Davoli, does an inspired, if not caricatured take on Charlie Chaplin, as Pasolini completes Chaucer’s unfinished “The Cook’s Tale.” Pasolini takes other liberties with Chaucer’s works as well, re-crafting The Canterbury Tales as something of his own creation.
Notably, The Canterbury Tales earns an NC-17 and as the film moves along, the commentary and the tone takes a harsher and more flagrant arc. Early on, a man is convicted of sodomy and burned alive while villagers sell spirits and pastries to an excited throng of onlookers. Near the end, almost completely out of nowhere, Chaucer fixates on a loft where men and women are freely fornicating and Pasolini concludes his film with a joyous and harrowing journey to hell, where debauchery, nakedness, and jaw-dropping visuals are gloriously on display. Pasolini described The Canterbury Tales as a mixture of irony and pity and sums everything up with a handwritten note at the end which reads, in part, “…told only for the pleasure of telling them.”
Arabian Nights (Rated NC-17, 130 minutes)
Pasolini opens Arabian Nights with a title card reading, “Truth lies not in one dream but in many.” True to Pasolini’s two previous films, Arabian Nights interlocks and crosscuts stories, but is much more linear in its storytelling than the preceding works. Essentially there is one narrative which runs throughout, detailing a young man’s love and marriage to a slave, who she then declares as her master. After consummation, he makes a terrible judgment error which leads to her capture and he then goes on a journey to find and save her. Along the way, he encounters various women and men, who either have their way with him; or, offer a story of their own. We learn of a man who attempts to free a captive woman from a demon, another man who leaves his wife for the chance to be with a beautiful woman he encounters looking down at him from a window, and other stories which, like all of the films in the Trilogy, deal with themes of love, loss, and retribution.
While much of this film has a charming element to it, and is easily persuasive and somewhat more affable in its tone, there are definitely signs that Pasolini was tired of playing nice. Later in the film, Arabian Nights features more and more graphic violence, including a vicious sequence in the demon story and a castration scene which is cringe-inducing to say the least. And then, unlike the other Pasolini films I have seen, Arabian Nights ends on an uplifting note, the deceptive precursor for the ill-fated Trilogy of Death, which generated only one film – the aforementioned Salo.
Trilogy Of Life is comprised of 3 Blu-Ray discs (and a 64-page book), presented on a dual-layer 50GB Blu-ray with a 1.85:1 transfer. For each film, thousands of examples of dirt and debris were digitally removed and the restoration work on Arabian Nights has received praise outside of the other film transfers in this set, because of the staggering amount of work which was required to bring this to a presentable quality.
Each Blu-Ray features an uncompressed remastered Italian DTS-HD LPCM Monaural soundtrack along with English Dolby Digital Mono tracks with optional English subtitles.
There are a staggering number of special features and extras included amongst these three discs. Extras here include:
· Patrick Rumble, a film scholar, anchors what is described as a 25-minute visual essay entitled On ‘The Decameron’.
· A 2005 Italian documentary on a segment shot for the film in Yemen, which was never included in Pasolini’s final cut. Entitled The Lost Body Of Alibech, the film runs 45 minutes and is directed by Roberto Chiesl.
· An insightful and needed look at Pasolini himself in a 27-minute 2005 documentary Via Pasolini.
· Two trailers; one featuring music and text only, with the longer second trailer in Italian, with English subtitles.
The Canterbury Tales
· Filmmaker Sam Rohdie offers a 14-minute discussion on Pasolini’s approach to making films, and frankly I wanted something more extensive.
· Roberto Chiesl’s second documentary in this set, Pasolini and the Secret Humilation of Chaucer is a 2006 piece which interviews several people involved in the making of The Canterbury Tales. Similar to the feature on The Decameron, this film runs 48 minutes.
· Interviews with Dante Ferretti and Ennio Morricone offer further insight into the making of Pasolini’s Trilogy.
· Approximately 1 minute of Pasolini’s approved English dubbing of the film, which is something to see to say the least.
· Three trailers; two similar trailers are 3 minutes in length without subtitles and a longer 5 minute trailer in included as well.
· Pasolini’s introduction to the film from the Cannes Film Festival in 1974 is featured.
· Film scholar Tony Rayns offers a 26-minute visual essay entitled On ‘Arabian Nights’.
· Pasolini and collaborator Paolo Brunatto’s 16-minute scouting documentary, Pasolini and the Form of the City, focused on locations used in Arabian Nights is included here.
· Much has been made of a longer 155 minute cut of the film. While this longer version was screened at Cannes, rarely has this version been made available. Criterion comes about as close as you can, as they have gathered two lengthy deleted scenes, which comprise Pasolini’s original cut. Transcriptions from the original script are included as well.
· Two three-minute trailers are included; one in English and Italian (subtitles are available) and the other exists in complete Italian with English subtitles available as well.
Criterion Collection releases are true collector’s items more often than not, but the special features here are astounding. The films carry their own special place in cinematic history but these additional glimpses into virtually all elements of the Pasolini process are arguably the reason to nab this set.
The aforementioned 64-page book is impressive with essays from film critic Colin McCabe on all three films, Pasolini’s rejection essay, and a press conference transcript, with a frustrated Pasolini’s tone reading through loud and clear, is included from the Berlin Film Festival, for the premiere of The Canterbury Tales. An additional report from the set of Arabian Nights is likewise quite the read.
I can think of perhaps two or three people I know personally, outside of the film community, who would be interested in this set. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films are unpolished, feature distracting overdubs which Pasolini never even attempts to have sync together, and his continuity and editing gaffes are almost indefensible. And yet, these films captivate.
With a focus on non-professional and untrained actors, Trilogy Of Life features countless performances which are overacted, ridiculously overdramatized, and organic and real. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films are simply unparalleled, loudly boasting a bold and uncompromised approach with a probing and naïve heart. So if you have read this review, chances are you are either a Pasolini fan or intrigued by his work. For those discerning audiences, this is a set almost too rich to pass up.