Decameron, The (1971)

Pasolini’s first film in his unofficial ‘Trilogy of Life’ is wildly provocative and blasphemous where religion and sex meet at the crossroads of art.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #1,085

Dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini
1971 | Italy | Comedy/Drama | 111 mins | 1.85:1 | Italian, Neapolitan, German & Latin

R21 (passed clean) for sexual content, nudity, and mature themes

Cast: Franco Citti, Ninetto Davoli, Jovan Jovanovic
Plot: An adaptation of nine stories from Bocaccio’s “Decameron”: Pasolini is up to his old tricks satirizing the Church, and throwing in liberal doses of life and love.
Awards: Won Silver Bear – Special Jury Prize (Berlinale)

Distributor: MGM

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Mature – Religion, Sexuality
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: General Arthouse

Viewed: The Arts House – Pasolini Retrospective
First Published: 6 Oct 2014
Spoilers: No

In a series of films set in the medieval period centering on characters fascinated by sin, sex and violence, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Decameron marked the beginning of a new creative phase for the Italian master who was most infamous for his final work Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). 

Based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century novel containing one hundred tales, Pasolini’s film centers on nine of them, and gives theological weight to most, albeit in the form of blatant blasphemy disguised as comic satire.  Or is it the other way round? 

In any case, The Decameron is offensive, wildly provocative, yet colourful and zesty, perhaps even intelligent.  It is the mark of an auteur who had never compromised his artistic vision, and perhaps paid the ultimate price when he was mysteriously murdered in 1975.

Staged like an open-air play with a multitude of characters, The Decameron is one-of-a-kind, and fascinating to watch.  The centuries old architecture, the period costumes and props add false authenticity to the proceedings.

“Why create a work of art when dreaming about it is so much sweeter?”

I say false because the film isn’t bothered with historical realism, but the artificiality of its time.  It is concerned with Man’s eternal preoccupation with greed, lust, desire and temptation, time notwithstanding.

The almost cartoon-like characters of the Renaissance period as depicted in the film, tremendously flawed and seemingly beyond redemption, are no different to Man in 1971 when the film was made, as he is now in 2014, and as he will be in 2071.  Pasolini, who also has a role as a painter in the film, calls to attention how art informs us in ways that transcends time. 

With The Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1974) further establishing Pasolini as a singular force breaking down taboos amid increasing resistance, it is only fitting (in a macabre sort of way) that his path ended with Salo, a film still misunderstood now as it was then. 

The Decameron, with stories of nuns enjoying sex, of a noble priest tricked into exalting a sinner, and many more lurid and immoral tales, intentionally offends us with copious nudity and lewdness.  It is where religion and sex meet at the crossroads of art.  A toxic combination it may be, but Pasolini has the last laugh, for I think it is the fecal mind that threatens, not the holy body.

Grade: A-  



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