The Decameron (Il Decameron)

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Screenplay: Pier Paolo Pasolini (based on Il Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio)
Stars: Franco Citti (Ciappelletto), Ninetto Davoli (Andreuccio of Perugia), Jovan Jovanovic (Rustico), Vincenzo Amato (Masetto of Lamporecchio), Angela Luce (Peronella), Giuseppe Zigaina (Monk), Pier Paolo Pasolini (Giotto’s pupil), Silvana Mangano (Madonna), Vincenzo Ferrigno (Giannello), Guido Alberti (Musciatto, the wealthy merchant), Vittorio Vittori (Don Gianni), Gianni Rizzo (Father Superior), Patrizia de Clara (Nun), Mirella Catanesi (Donna Gemmatta), Monique van Voren (Queen of Skulls), Giovanni Davoli (Pietro), Elisabetta Vito Genovese (Caterina)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1971
Country: Italy / France
The Decameron Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The DecameronThe Decameron (Il Decameron), the first of the three films that would come to be known as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Trilogy of Life,” is based on nine stories from the canonical 14th-century work of the same name by Giovanni Boccaccio. Pasolini discarded the frame story of seven young women and three young men spinning the tales after having fled the plague and moved the action from Florence to Naples, but he truly makes the material his own by imbuing it with his fervent beliefs in the “innocence” of bodies uncorrupted by modernity, the evils of the bourgeoisie and other wealthy classes, and personal freedom through sexual liberation. Unlike any of Pasolini’s previous works, The Decameron is a bawdy, raucous film that revels in the flesh—both literally in terms of the numerous stories involving unbridled sexuality and metaphorically in terms of the film’s appeal to vulgar comedy.

The film is ultimately as scattershot in its effectiveness as it is scattershot in its organization; at times it achieves nearly sublime heights (or, more accurately, lows) of grubby humor and vitality, but at other times it feels strained and slapdash, with Boccaccio’s ribaldry coming off like soft-core porn clichés. Several of the stories are little more than set-ups for a sex-related gag, particularly the one in which a woman convinces her cuckolded husband to hide inside a giant jar so she can continue the sexual tryst that her husband’s unexpected arrival interrupted. Similarly, a story about a young man who pretends to be deaf and mute in order to get work in a convent exists solely to “reveal” that all nuns are really sexually starved nymphomaniacs who literally wear the poor guy out with their demands for constant lovemaking.

The story of sexually curious nuns is only one of many jabs Pasolini takes at the Catholic Church, which he presents as being full of either simpletons or hypocrites. In one of two stories Pasolini intercuts throughout the film, an unabashedly sinful reprobate named Ciappelleto convinces a gullible priest on his deathbed that he has been so beatific and virtuous in life that he is buried as a saint. Gullibility is replaced by lechery in a later story in which a priest uses a story that he can turn his mare into a woman and then back again to have sex with his peasant friend’s wife. The juvenile nature of the film’s swipes at Catholic authority figures fits with its overall tenor of the carnivalesque, but it feels somehow beneath Pasolini, whose complicated relationship to Christianity (he was an avowed Marxist but also revered his staunchly Catholic mother and even made a reverent film about Christ, 1964’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, for her) will probably never be fully untangled.

Much better are the stories that that involves characters who are more than simply caricatures and stereotypes and use sex as something other than a punchline. In one story, a pair of young lovers sleep together on the terrace of her parents’ house, and when they are discovered, her peasant father is ecstatic rather than angry because the young man comes from a wealthy family into which his daughter can now marry. The contrast between the young couple’s genuine affection for each other and the father’s immediate desire to cash in on their romance is a stark reminder of Pasolini’s disgust with how everything—people included—can become commodified, an idea he would take to its disgusting literal ends in Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). The best story, however, is the one that has nothing to do with sex, and involves a young man who is robbed by a woman who pretends to be his long-lost sister and then joins a pair of thieves who are sneaking into a bishop’s tomb to steal his ring. In this story, Pasolini achieves a perfect balance of off-kilter humor and sly humanity; it’s the one story that feels completely loose and funny and clever.

Of course, the stories themselves in The Decameron are only one part of its texture, as much of the film’s impact derives from Pasolini’s insistence on a raw visual realism that favors actual medieval locations, naturalistic camerawork (often handheld and with a decided lack of stylization, although he does draw obvious inspiration from the medieval paintings of Bosch and Brughel), and mostly amateur actors who seem to have been cast for their wrinkled visages and poor dental hygiene. The film is frequently beautiful in its coarseness, which paradoxically coexists with a clearly poetic sensibility forged in the age of neorealism. Yet, some of the film’s rougher edges, particularly its downright shoddy postproduction dubbing, sometimes distract from the overall effect, creating a sense of distance that does not feel intentional, despite Pasolini’s inserting himself in the film as nothing less than a master artist (ironic nod to self-reflexivity or ego-gratifying self-casting?)

For Pasolini, the human body free of repressive institutions (namely the Church and capitalism) is the ultimate “innocence,” an ideal that is embodied in his various characters and how they engage their imperfectly perfect bodies in acts of lovemaking. (Unfortunately, Pasolini’s censors-be-damned daring unwittingly unleashed a hoard of soft-core imitators whose sleazy medieval sex farces jettisoned Pasolini’s political ambitions in favor of simplified titillation.) While many of his films from the 1960s were pessimistic and dour in their outlook, The Decameron is a decidedly joyous celebration of a premodern carnality that Pasolini sees as natural and humane—where we ought to be and what modern society keeps us from attaining. However, the very fact that he had to return to the medieval period in order to find it shrouds the film (and the rest of the “Trilogy of Life”) in an unmistakable nostalgia for something that was lost and will probably never be regained.

The Decameron Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Trilogy of Life Criterion Collection Box SetThe Decameron is available exclusively as part of the three-disc “Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life” box set (SRP $79.95), which also includes The Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1974). The box set is also available on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
  • Subtitles English
    SupplementsThe Decameron
  • Visual essay by film scholar Patrick Rumble
  • The Lost Body of Alibech (2005), a documentary by Roberto Chiesi about a lost sequence from the film
  • Via Pasolini (2005), a documentary featuring archival footage of Pasolini discussing his views on language, film, and modern society
  • Trailers

    The Canterbury Tales

  • Pasolini and the Secret Humiliation of Chaucer (2006), a documentary by Chiesi
  • Interview with film scholar Sam Rohdie
  • Interviews with production designer Dante Ferretti
  • Interview with composer Ennio Morricone
  • Trailers
  • Pasolini-approved English-dubbed track

    Arabian Nights

  • Visual essay by film scholar Tony Rayns
  • Introduction by director Pier Paolo Pasolini
  • Pasolini and the Form of the City (1974), a documentary by Pasolini and Paolo Brunatto about the Italian cities Orte and Sabaudia
  • Deleted scenes
  • Trailers

  • Insert booklet featuring essays by critic Colin MacCabe; Pasolini’s 1975 statement “Trilogy of Life Rejected”; excerpts from Pasolini’s Berlin Film Festival press conference for The Canterbury Tales; and a report from the set of Arabian Nights by critic Gideon Bachmann
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$79.95 (box set)
    Release DateNovember 13, 2012

    The three films in Pasolini’s “Trilogy of Life” have not always been easy to find on video, despite having been released on videotape, laserdisc, and DVD over the years. However, none of those previous editions hold a candle to Criterion’s, which offers all-new high-definition transfers of the films that help bring out their fanciful interplay of neorealist rawness and self-conscious artiness. Each of the films has been given a new 2K transfer from a 35mm interpositive and then digitally restored. There is still some roughness and slight damage apparent in the films even after being digitally restored, including a series of scarlet vertical hairlines in several places in The Canterbury Tales. Nevertheless, the artifacts are minimal and never distracting. Colors are excellent on all three transfers, which especially benefits the Asian and African locations in Arabian Nights and the intensely colorful costumes in The Canterbury Tales. With all the skin on display throughout the film, it is worth noting that flesh tones look natural throughout, and each transfer maintains a strong presence of grain that is essential the film’s earthy textures. Criterion has clearly done their best with the soundtracks, offering them all in clean, 24-bit, digitally restored transfers. However, no amount of digital work can improve the awful nature of the postproduction dubbing and tinny sound effects in all three films (The Canterbury Tales offers both awful Italian and English language soundtracks, the latter being preferable since that is the language most of the actors are speaking).
    Criterion’s “The Trilogy of Life” box set is buoyed by a robust set of extras that help to historically and aesthetically contexualize the three films in terms of Pasolini’s overall career as a filmmaker. While none of the three films boasts an audio commentary, The Decameron and Arabian Nights both feature edifying 25-minute visual essays by Patrick Rumble and Tony Rayns, respectively. The set also includes several recent documentaries about Pasolini and his films. These include The Lost Body of Alibech (2005), a documentary by Roberto Chiesi about a lost sequence from The Decameron; Via Pasolini (2005), a documentary composed of archival footage of Pasolini discussing his life story and his views on language, film, and modern society; Pasolini and the Secret Humiliation of Chaucer (2006), a documentary about Pasolini’s adaptation of The Canterbury Tales (there is also significant focus on several deleted sequences that are now lost); and Pasolini and the Form of the City (1974), an older documentary by Pasolini and Paolo Brunatto about the Italian cities Orte and Sabaudia. The Arabian Nights disc contains 20 minutes of deleted scenes that were included in the original 155-minute cut that won a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The set also includes new interviews with film scholar Sam Rohdie, author of The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini; production designer Dante Ferretti, who worked on all three films; and composer Ennio Morricone, who worked on The Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights. Pasolini, who was murdered in 1975, appears in a brief introduction to Arabian Nights that is culled from film and video footage from a press conference following that film’s premiere at Cannes. All three films also feature several trailers for their respective U.S. releases. The thick insert booklet includes new essays on the three films by critic Colin MacCabe; Pasolini’s 1975 statement “Trilogy of Life Rejected”; excerpts from Pasolini’s Berlin Film Festival press conference for The Canterbury Tales; and a report from the set of Arabian Nights by critic Gideon Bachmann.

    Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (2.5)

    James Kendrick

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