Synopsis: Only Pasolini could bring Boccaccio’s classic tales of passion to the screen with all their lusty fervor intact. Winner of the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, The Decameron is Pasolini’s triumphant celebration of the flesh and the spirit, the sacred and the profane.
Eight tales from the 14th century Naples, including the seducing nuns, the three jealous brothers who murder their sister’s lover, the wizard who could change his wife into a burro and the story of a false saint. The first of Pasolini’s “Trilogy of Life” films that set the tone and tempo for the films to follow.
Il Decameron 7.75
eyelights: its evocative settings. its humour. its sexy bits.
eyesores: the performances. its structure.
“Fool! Here we have no problem with screwing around!”
‘Il Decameron’ is a 1971 motion picture written and directed by the notorious Pier Paolo Pasolini. Loosely based on Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century collection of short stories, it is the first in Pasolini’s famed “Trilogy of Life”.
I stumbled it upon quite by accident back in the day when my local library had a wide collection of laserdiscs. I had purchased a laserdisc player second-hand, figuring I could save on movie rentals by getting free movies there.
Naturally, I over-indulged: I was known to grab a stack of films and watch 3-4 movies a day. It’s largely thanks to the library that I expanded my love of cinema, as they certainly didn’t stick with Hollywood blockbusters and tripe.
Having exhausted much of the collection already, one day I picked up one of the films in Pasolini’s “Trilogy of Life”. I don’t quite remember which one, but I decided to give it a shot even though it hadn’t inspired me before.
When I watched it, I was flummoxed.
The picture was pretty damned sexy. And by “sexy”, I mean that not only did it treat of love and sex, but it was pretty darned candid about it. One might even argue that it was mildly pornographic, with all manners of acts on screen.
Naturally, I picked up the other two.
‘Il Decameron’s is set in 14th century Italy, and it mixes wry humour, slapstick, drama, and some supernatural elements to tell its tales of religion, ambition, love and sex – mostly of sex, let’s be honest, even when religion is the theme.
It also openly mocks various figures, making fools out of priests, husbands, and ambitious young men. These people are clearly either very naive, or not particularly bright, so other people take advantage of them for the audience’s benefit.
What’s intriguing is that this version of ‘The Decameron’ only has nine tales instead of ten. There is apparently a lost tenth story, called ‘The Lost Body of Alibech’ which was cut out of the finished film and hasn’t been recovered since.
In any event, seven of the stories are connected by two others:
- First, the story of an amoral young man, who is seen bludgeoning someone in a burlap bag and then tossing the body off of a cliff and the pickpocketing while wandering through crowds. He’s sent out by his master to collect a debt, but falls gravely ill. And then, even on his deathbed, he’s up to no good, lying to the priest in order to receive the last rites.
- The second story follows a renowned painter who travels to paint a commissioned mural in an abbey. Uninspired, he and his crew wait for that spark to hit. And, when it does, he furiously gets to work to complete his masterpiece – ultimately wondering to himself what the point of creating art is when it is always much better in the minds’ eye.
I’m not quite sure why these stories were picked apart and told in between the others, but their tone is complete different, being more sober than the rest. Whereas most of the others are filled with a joie de vivre, these one aren’t.
Of the seven primary tales, my favourites are:
- The first one, which finds a wealthy young man in town to purchase horses, who is played for a fool by a young woman claiming to be his long-lost sister. After inviting him over for dinner and revealing to him their purported connection, she offers him a place to stay the night so that she may contrive to steal his money.
Afterwards, locked out of the girl’s house without his clothes and smeared with excrement, the boy runs away to the countryside, where he bumps into a couple of brigands – who also take advantage of his naiveté to rob the casket of a bishop in a local Church. Naturally, they scamper off, leaving him trapped with the cadaver.
What I like about it is that it’s a humourous tale (culminating with the man scaring a second set of grave-robbers when they open the casket to find him in it!), and the main character, who though he gets swindled twice, remains optimistic – and even walks out of the tale richer than before, having smuggled a priceless ring.
- Another that I quite like is the story of a young man who, while plowing a field, is told of a nearby monastery filled with lascivious nuns. Pretending to be mute, he goes there looking for charity and is given work as a gardener. But it’s not long before the curious nuns begin to make use of him for his other… ahem… attributes.
I quite like this one both because it’s amusing and because it’s many man’s fantasy (including myself) to be used for sex by a large group of women. But this fantasy is dispelled by the demands put upon him by the nearly-dozen women there. So, in a fit, he speaks out, leading the Mother Superior to believe a miracle has taken place.
The others are also quite enjoyable, despite the performances, which are broad, sometimes amateurish at times, and some of the staging, which can be awkward in parts. Thankfully, each story is so brief that their weaknesses don’t linger.
With its eye-catching locations, ‘Il Decameron’ is lovely to look at and it’s light-hearted enough that it’s worth checking out. I’m really glad to find out that it holds up to my expectations even twenty years after having first seen it.
For years, I wanted to get a copy of the “Trilogy of Life”. Sadly, the library got rid of its collection before I could copy their laserdiscs to tape, and the DVDs that were produced were rare and expensive – nearly impossible to find.
It took me twenty years to see the movies again. Thankfully, the Criterion Collection released a boxed set – which I ordered as soon as could, while it was available. And I am deeply grateful to have seen it again. It’s a hoot.
Date of viewing: July 25, 2016