Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Screenplay: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Stars: Silvana Mangano (Lucia, the mother), Terence Stamp (The Visitor), Massimo Girotti (Paolo, the father), Anne Wiazemsky (Odetta, the daughter), Laura Betti (Emilia, the servant), Andrés José Cruz Soublette (Pietro, the son), Ninetto Davoli (Angelino, the Messenger), Carlo De Mejo (Boy), Adele Cambria (Emilia, the second servant), Luigi Barbini (Il ragazzo alla stazione)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1968
Country: Italy
Teorema Criterion Collection Blu-ray

How you feel about Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema will be determined largely by how willing you are to apply heavy import and meaning to a vague, potentially silly premise. Virtually everything that happens in Teorema is either absurd, empty, or pretentious, but because Pasolini is an avowed auteur who has written extensively in theoretical, political, and poetic veins, we have a duty to take what he has put on the screen seriously, no matter how ridiculous it is on its face. Reading years of critical and scholarly responses to Teorema is much more engaging and interesting than the film itself because most of its meaning has to be inserted by the viewer. Many have written that Teorema is open to multiple interpretations, but really it is open to virtually any interpretation because Pasolini leaves it wide open in every regard.

The story centers around a bourgeoise Milanese family into whose midst arrives a mysterious visitor (Terence Stamp). The visitor has no name and no discernible characteristics aside from being handsome and lithe, saying very little, and having a penchant for sitting in a way that maximizes the view of his crotch, which apparently arouses the lust of every member of the family: First the teenage son Pietro (Andrés José Cruz Soublette), an awkward, would-be artist; then the gorgeous middle-aged mother, Lucia (Silvana Mangano); then the quiet, reserved teenage daughter, Odetta (Anne Wiazemsky); and finally, the father (Massimo Girotti), a stern factory owner. Oh, and he also turns on the family’s maid, Emilia (Laura Betti ), who is deeply religious. One by one the visitor seduces each member of the household, after which they become aware of how empty and awful their lives are, which sends them into fits of madness, catatonia, and/or despair (except the son, whose artistic wells are suddenly opened, and the maid, who returns to her earthly village and becomes a saint with the ability to levitate and heal the sick). Just describing it sounds patently absurd, especially when you consider that most of this transpires with little or no dialogue so that we learn virtually nothing about the characters except the sudden, canned realization of their own despair. Sex with the visitor somehow frees them, but only to recognize their fundamental emptiness.

But, of course, we’re not supposed to read any of this literally. Sex isn’t really sex, the characters are all symbolic stand-ins, and every action is just a reference to something else. Pasolini, at the time of the film’s production, was deep into his own world of theorizing, and he presented Teorema as a kind of theoretical test case for how a film could engage the symbolic and the allegorical. The title, which means “theorem,” alludes to the fact that Pasolini uses the narrative as a means of “proving” his hypothesis about the Italian bourgeoise—that essentially they are vacant and fragile and meaningless and that the introduction of something outside their control will cause them to collapse. The very fact that this class-based allegory is at best rudimentary has to be acknowledged (a Marxist who loathes the wealthy? Imagine that!), as does the fact that other filmmakers have used that foundation to make much more intellectually stimulating and cinematically engaging films (you can pick any number by Luis Buñuel, including 1962’s The Exterminating Angel and 1972’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise). Like some of his later films, particularly the three films in the “Trilogy of Life,” Teorema is aesthetically sloppy, alternately beautifully framed shots with lazy compositions and ragged editing that often cuts away too quickly or lingers for too long.

Pasolini is no dummy—he was really quite brilliant, in fact, and an able practitioner of many arts—but he was also susceptible to falling prey to his fascinations, obsessions, and desires to the point of myopia. For him, Stamp’s visitor is some kind of divine intervention—either Christ figure or demon, who knows?—but only because he tells us. The film itself simply presents Stamp’s visitor as physically occupying the same space as the family and interacting blandly with its members; the only real hint of something otherworldly is the absurdist loon played by Pasolini regular Ninetto Davoli who shows up with telegrams announcing the visitor’s arrival and sudden departure. By the time we have gotten to the end of the film and the last family member is stumbling stark naked across a barren, volcanic landscape raging at the meaninglessness of it all, the film could mean anything, which is why many critics and art-house aficionados have found it a transfixing object over which to obsess. I can’t help but find it, in the words of critic Pauline Kael, “intolerably silly.”

Teorema Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • Italian Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Alternate English-dubbed soundtrack featuring the voices of actor Terence Stamp and others
  • Audio commentary from 2007 by scholar Robert S. C. Gordon
  • Introduction by director Pier Paolo Pasolini from 1969
  • Video Interview from 2007 with Stamp
  • Video Interview with scholar John David Rhodes
  • Essay by film scholar James Quandt
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateFebruary 25, 2020

    The image on Criterion’s Blu-ray was transferred in 4K from the original 35mm camera negative at Cinecittá in Rome and then digitally restored. It looks extremely impressive, with a notably filmlike appearance that does not shy away from grain. Some of the shots, particularly the opening credits, are extremely grainy, while others are quite smooth. There can be substantial variation from scene to scene, and to the transfer’s credit it maintains those distinctions as inherent to the film’s look. Colors are strong throughout, and detail is robust. There are virtually no signs of age or wear. We get the option of two different soundtracks: the original Italian track and an alternate English-language track that features Terence Stamp’s voice (it should be noted that both versions of the film are essentially “dubbed” since almost all the voices were added in postproduction and different actors spoke different languages while the camera was rolling, so neither is really more authentic than the other, although the Italian track sounds better overall). In terms of supplements, we get a well-argued and thoughtful audio commentary by Cambridge University professor Robert S. C. Gordon, author of Pasolini: Forms of Subjectivity, which originally appeared on the BFI’s 2007 DVD. It didn’t change my mind about the film’s shortcomings, but Gordon certainly elucidates it well and encourages reflection and engagement. The same can be said for the 16-minute interview with scholar John David Rhodes, author of Stupendous, Miserable City: Pasolini’s Rome. Rhodes discusses different aspects of the film thematically and formally. We also get a half-hour interview with Stamp from 2007 (which also previously appeared on the BFI DVD) and a brief excerpt of a black-and-white interview with writer/director Pier Paolo Pasolini from 1969 that serves as a kind of introduction to the film.

    Copyright © 2020 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (2)

    James Kendrick

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