The Canterbury Tales Review
While a case can certainly be made for the first and third films in Pasolini’s ‘Trilogy of Life’, it’s rather more difficult to justify or make any great claims for the trilogy’s middle film, The Canterbury Tales. Whether the fault lies with the stories original source in Chaucer or with Pasolini in his method of adapting them is debatable, but the choice of the stories themselves seems questionable for the purposes of Pasolini’s trilogy.
For all the apparent crudeness of their making, for the sometimes bawdy quality of the situations and the copious nudity throughout them, Pasolini clearly succeeded to a greater or lesser degree in his intentions for The Decameron and Arabian Nights, returning to the primal source of storytelling and finding the purity of expression of everything that is human in the plurality of the narratives, in the freshness of the non-professional actors, and in the flawed beauty of their naked bodies. In The Canterbury Tales we get a lot of full-frontal naked bodies, and certainly a great deal of imperfections in those spotty-faced youths with rotten teeth, but not much that would appear to have anything to do with the supposed aims of the ‘Trilogy of Life’.
With its stories of rude juvenile scatological humour revolving around cheeky chappies pissing on food, farting on faces, shoving red-hot pokers up people’s arses, smutty double-entendres, bed-hopping farce and gawping at people with their clothes off, Pasolini’s version of The Canterbury Tales can’t help but come across as nothing so much as a kind of ‘Carry On Chaucer’. The director certainly hits on the essential British qualities of finding sexual situations more amusing, embarrassing and something to smirk about, (the limp nature of the many male members seen in the film also suits this purpose - and presumably the lack of tumescence is the main reason this particular film has a 15 certificate while the others in the trilogy have 18 certificates) but whether this really fits convincingly into the egalitarian back-to-nature innocent world-view of his ‘Trilogy of Life’ is somewhat doubtful.
Taken away from the context of the ‘Trilogy of Life’ however, and Pasolini’s The Canterbury Tales is not in itself entirely a bad film. The production values are excellent, the unostentatious cinematography admirably captures the essence of the medieval English countryside locations that are so vital to the nature of the stories, as indeed are the well-cast characteristically English faces and bodies of the actors who play in them - Tom Baker in particular revealing a bit more of himself than you might wish to see. Pasolini’s regular Italian actors also fit well into the roles developed for them, with Franco Citti as a devil (what else?), Laura Betti as the nymphomaniac Wife of Bath and Ninetto Davoli as a Chaplinesque Perkin. As adaptations of Chaucer’s stories, they are certainly free adaptations, losing the context of the telling, but they are true to the nature of the stories in their bawdy, irreverent character. Taken as no more than that, they hold no great truths between jest and joke as promised from the outset, but “told for the pleasure of telling”, as Pasolini’s Chaucer notes at the end of his relating of the tales, they are indeed often funny and entertaining.
The Canterbury Tales is released on Blu-ray in the UK by the BFI. The film is held on a BD50 disc and comes with a 1080/24p encode. Extra features are all also presented in full HD. The disc is region coded for Region B only.
Of the three Pasolini ‘Trilogy of Life’ films released by the BFI in these High-Definition editions, The Canterbury Tales has the best transfer and is therefore also the one most markedly improved from the BFI’s previous Standard Definition DVD editions. The qualities of the HD transfer are clear to see, the newly struck transfer from the original 35mm negative revealing excellent detail, fine colouration, strong blacks and reasonably good shadow detail - even interiors look impressive with an almost 3-D-like quality in places. There are one or two tiny stray flecks that have escaped the digital restoration, but literally no more than that, and only the rare instance of some flutter of aliasing brought out in camera pans. The other obvious benefit of the HD transfer is the fluidity and stability of the moving image, though some telecine bumps might be detected at transitions between cuts.
Although the English dub (see Extras below) is a viable option, particularly considering the nature of the post-synch dubbing of both soundtracks, the disc defaults to the original Italian soundtrack. This is presented in 48 kHz PCM 2.0. It’s a little bit rough around the edges, sounding loud and harsh to the ear with a faint underlying buzz noticeable only at a few quieter passages. Generally however it’s reasonably fine and the tone is clear throughout.
English subtitles are provided in a clear white font and are optional. They seem to capture the nature and tone of the Italian dialogue well, but not as well as the English Hard of Hearing subtitles which can only be selected with English version of the film and therefore translate the Chaucerian dialogues with more accuracy.
The English version differs from the Italian in its United Artists title and English language opening credits, the film itself being almost entirely the same transfer as the main feature only with an English language dub with the same minor marks in the same places. By some magic of 21st century technological wizardry, the English transfer also manages to insert English-language notes and cutaways to Chaucer writing in English, whereas the Italian version has Italian-language inserts. The English-language dub was recorded alongside the Italian soundtrack in post-sync, and has the benefit of the predominately English actors lip-syncing in their own voices, something that is lost in the Italian version - so this is certainly a viable alternative, if not in fact probably the better, more authentic option. Unfortunately, the delivery which sounds fine in Italian sounds rather dead when dryly post-dubbed in English often by non-professional actors reciting Chaucerian dialogue, but you could get used to it. The sound quality of the English dub is also better than the rather harsh-sounding Italian track. Optional English Hard of Hearing subtitles can be selected for this version of the film.
The original Italian Trailer (4:47) is included, compiling some of the bawdier sequences in the film and containing plentiful nudity.
Alberto Farina and David Gregory’s documentary Pasolini and the Italian Genre Film (36:39) looks at the subgenre of cheaply-made medieval Italian comedy smut that Pasolini’s films unwittingly spawned by getting so much sex and nudity past the censor, with interviews from many of those involved, including Pasolini’s former producer Alfredo Bini exploiting his former association with the director. Clips from the various films are also included, but not at any length.
A booklet is also included containing commentary on the film and its literary source by Roger Clarke and the film’s original 1973 review from Monthly Film Bulletin by Nigel Andrews. The booklet also contains the same essay by Sam Rohdie on The Trilogy of Life and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s biography of Pier Paolo Pasolini found in the booklets of the other two films, The Decameron and Arabian Nights. Cast and Credits listings are also included here and technical information on the transfer.
The Canterbury Tales particularly English view of sexuality as something smutty and shameful perhaps doesn’t best serve the purposes of Pasolini’s ‘Trilogy of Life’, nor does its notoriety reflect well on the rather more serious intents of the director with the copious nudity and sexual situations spawning a whole industry of medieval erotic cinema in Italy. Taken on its own terms however, there are certainly qualities to admire in Pasolini’s adaptation of Chaucer, qualities that are certainly more evident for the fine High Definition transfer that the film receives here on its Region B Blu-ray release from the BFI. In this light, the film is certainly worth another look and reconsideration.