The Canterbury Tales (I racconti di Canterbury)

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Screenplay: Pier Paolo Pasolini (based on The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer)
Stars: Hugh Griffith (Sir January), Laura Betti (The Wife of Bath), Ninetto Davoli (Perkin), Franco Citti (The Devil), Josephine Chaplin (May), Alan Webb (Old Man), Pier Paolo Pasolini (Geoffrey Chaucer), J.P. Van Dyne (The Cook), Vernon Dobtcheff (The Franklin), Adrian Street (Fighter), O.T. (Chief Witch-Hunter), Derek Deadman (The Pardoner), Nicholas Smith (Friar), George B. Datch (Host of the Tabard), Dan Thomas (Nicholas), Michael Balfour (John the carpenter), Jenny Runacre (Alison), Peter Cain (Absalom)
MPAA Rating: NC-17
Year of Release: 1972
Country: Italy / France
The Canterbury Tales Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Canterbury TalesThe middle film in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s controversial “Trilogy of Life,” The Canterbury Tales (I racconti di Canterbury) is also the darkest and least appealing of the three films, which is ironic given than Pasolini ends with himself playing Canterbury author Geoffrey Chaucer writing, “Here end the Canterbury tales, told only for the pleasure of telling them. Amen.” This line is the creation of Pasolini’s, not Chaucer’s, as it appears nowhere in the original 14th-century text. Pasolini may have very well re-told eight of the 24 tales that Chaucer completed for “the pleasure of telling them,” but his cinematic adaptation suggests an angry, masochistic form of pleasure, which shouldn’t be surprising given that he going through a particularly dark period in his life when the film was in production.

Unlike the first film in the trilogy, The Decameron (1971), which features mostly stories that hinge on light-hearted bawdiness and sex-related gags, many of the stories in The Canterbury Tales hinge on violence and death; Thanatos seems to trump Eros at every turn. The most revealing story is “The Friar’s Tale,” which occurs early in the film and also represents one of Pasolini’s greatest elaborations on Chaucer’s original writings. While it maintains the basic theme of official corruption, Pasolini invents a plot thread involving two men who are caught in the act of sodomy by a corrupt summoner. While the wealthier of the two is able to buy his way out of the situation, the poorer of the two men is hauled away and burned alive (“roasted on a griddle,” in the film’s parlance) before a large audience of onlookers comprised most of ornately dressed clergy and aristocrats. The graphic nature of the man’s immolation, prefaced by his all-too-convincing screams and panic, looks forward to both the film’s final sequence, in which a friar is escorted to Hell, and Pasolini’s notorious final film, Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), which he made as a direct rebuke to “The Trilogy of Life” after his cinematically realized ideals about uncorrupted, premodern sexuality were pilfered for soft-core knock-offs.

Scenes of death also appear in “The Pardoner’s Tale,” in which three students happen upon a treasure and then betray each other, resulting in the death of all three. This story is the most aesthetically impressive in the film, as Pasolini stages the three-way betrayal and subsequent deaths from low angles against the intense orange of the setting sun, turning the action into a compelling shadow play of ironic violence. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” of course, relies on death since the story involves her ill-fated fifth marriage, her four previous husbands having died from too much sexual exertion. Even the film’s brightest and cheeriest character, a Chaplinesque tramp in “The Cook’s Tale,” winds up in a pillory—punishment for his social deviance and vivacity. And, as mentioned, “The Summoner’s Tale,” which concludes the film, depicts a crooked friar who is first seen trying to get money from a dying man and at the end of the story is taken to Hell by an angel, which Pasolini recreates on the black slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily as a campy orgy of forced sodomy, leering devils in garish body paint, and a giant Satan literally defecating friars by the dozen (the culminating moment of the film’s visual obsession with buttocks and anality). At this point it is impossible to tell if Pasolini means for us to take any of this seriously, but what is clear is that the film is driven by an underlying current of anger, resentment, and frustration, which runs in direct counterpoint to Pasolini’s depiction of Chaucer, alone in his study chuckling to himself and smiling as he writes the stories (Pasolini largely discards Chaucer’s framing device of having the pilgrims to Canterbury actively telling their stories and instead jumps to the next level of meta-narrative in portraying Chaucer, having been one of the pilgrims, writing them down from memory).

While The Decameron was praised in many quarters for its earthy celebration of the body and uncorrupted sexuality, The Canterbury Tales frequently revels in physical debasement. “The Pardoner’s Tale” begins with the three students in a brothel, engaging in all manner of joyless kinky sex (one is being whipped by a naked prostitute) followed by one of them urinating from the balcony onto people eating at the tables below. In the opening story, “The Merchant’s Tale,” a wealthy man marries a much younger woman and is then struck blind, which allows her to pursue an affair with her lover only to be interrupted by her husband’s returning sight. “The Miller’s Tale” involves two lovers humiliating an amorous suitor by tricking him and farting in his face and ends with the spurned suitor burning one of them in the rear with a red-hot poker. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” hinges on another troubled May-December relationship (albeit one that is gender reversed from “The Merchant’s Tale”), adding to the general sense of discord and anger among the various characters. The one exception is “The Reeve’s Tale,” the film’s one truly bawdy celebration of unbridled lust, which finds two students seducing the wife and daughter of a miller while sleeping in the very room with him.

Pasolini tries frequently to lighten the film’s overall grim tone by incorporating a great deal of slapstick comedy, most of which doesn’t work, including the much extended “Cook’s Tale,” which centers on Ninetto Davoli’s Chaplinesque tramp, complete with bowler hat, too-small coat, and cane. Some of Davoli’s facial expressions and physical mannerisms are oddly humorous, but Pasolini’s use of sped-up motion at various points feels nothing less than embarrassingly juvenile and desperate (while Pasolini is a master of incorporating the art of classical painting into his films, he is virtually tone deaf when trying to reflect on cinema itself).

Despite winning the Golden Bear at the 1972 Berlin Film Festival, The Canterbury Tales is generally considered the weakest entry in “The Trilogy of Life” and one of Pasolini’s lowliest films. In many ways it stays true to Chaucer’s stories, which feature all manner of lewd behavior, scatological humor, and satire of both the Church and the ruling classes. However, the brash, arguably campy manner in which Pasolini transcribes Chaucer’s medieval bawdiness to the screen, coupled with the film’s various technical faults (particularly the lousy dubbed dialogue, whether in English or Italian), tends to make the film a chore to watch. Pasolini may have told the stories for the pleasure of telling them, but there is not much pleasure in watching them.

The Canterbury Tales Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
The Trilogy of Life Criterion Collection Box SetThe Canterbury Tales 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 Decameron (1971) and Arabian Nights (1974). The box set is also available on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural
  • English 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: (1.5)

    James Kendrick

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