The Decameron Review
Coming as it does after some of the director’s darkest films and just before what would become his final nihilistic statement, Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom, the three films that comprise the ‘Trilogy of Life’ occupy a significant position in the progression of Pasolini’s film career, and presumably mark an important part in his life and formulation of his own personal philosophy. In the films previous to the trilogy, particularly in Theorem and Porcile (Pigsty) you can see the director grappling with the major subjects of religion, death, capitalism, sexuality, violence - the treatments increasingly delving into mythology and moving towards the taboo in an attempt to break away from conventional attitudes towards them, forcing the viewer to consider them in a new light.
The bleak, dark outlook in these films is characteristic of Pasolini, but it’s far from being the only register that the director would work on, and even within these films there are clearly proletarian and humanitarian concerns raised. A different approach however was presumably called for in order to better understand and illuminate these areas, extending the filmmaker’s exploration of the world around him and locate his place within it. In order to do this, Pasolini would delve back to ancient, classical literary sources - Boccacio’s ‘The Decameron’, Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’ and ‘1001 Arabian Nights’ - works perhaps not quite of the literary gravity of his previous explorations of mythology in Oedipus Rex and Medea, but works whose qualities lie within the oral storytelling tradition, stories to entertain and illuminate the lives of the common man, based on subjects, behaviour and characters that they could all certainly relate to.
The first film in the ‘Trilogy of Life’, The Decameron (1970) is based a number of tales from a collection of popular medieval stories by 14th century writer Giovanni Boccaccio. In his selection of stories for the film, Pasolini does indeed manage to capture a sense of the joys and sorrows of life as it relates to the common man, mixing the sacred and the profane, the good and the evil, the clever and the gullible, subjects wrapped up in the all daily aspects of living and dying, working for a living, buying and thieving, the whole thing spiced up to be entertaining through a fair helping of bawdy sexual situations.
It’s particularly in this aspect of life - sexuality - where common man and rich man are equal and can be equally exposed and ridiculed for their base desires, and Pasolini’s selection of stories revel in the potential for irreverence that this implies. In many of the stories, those in sacred and respectable positions find themselves brought down to the level of common men, while peasants are often elevated beyond their lowly positions. Rich men are shown as being nothing but usurers, leeching off poor people, no better than common thieves. Holy men are shown as having common base characteristics - as with a sacristan robbing the tomb of a bishop for his ruby ring, and another priest who takes advantage of a gullible farmer he has met at the horse market in order to rut with his wife - while common people are elevated to holy men when a notorious thief, murderer and rapist Ciappelletto (Franco Citti) - deceitful right to the moment of his final confession - ends up being canonised as a saint. Even miracles are not providential, but arise out of the most base and human desires, as with a young “deaf-mute” man who finds his voice only to protest at being forced to sexually satisfy too many of the randy nuns at the convent.
The film’s stance towards the dichotomy of life and death, the sacred and the profane, is summed up perhaps most effectively in the final story of the film where two friends, both filled with desire for women, each have different outlooks on how they should behave. One is devout and chaste, while the other commits what he believes is a mortal sin sleeping with as many women as he can as often as he can. As they have made a pact to tell each other about the afterlife, the sinful man comes back and tells his friend that he has discovered that sex is not a sin, but should be fully enjoyed. Whether sinful or devout, both will die in the end, so they might as well enjoy life to the fullest while they can.
Raised up or brought down, rich and poor are thus all equal in the eyes of God, or to put it a colourful way relating to the location where this all takes place that implies just as much - they’re all Neapolitans. No-one is allowed to rise above themselves, and all are made equal through the medium of the story, the satire, through mockery and irreverence. Pasolini’s Marxist brand of filmmaking also seems to accordingly lower its standards for The Decameron, relying less on elevated intellectualism with mythological overtones of the director’s previous work, and joining in with the common man, using many non-professional actors, with sagging bodies, unruly hair and rotten teeth. The film consequently can look crude, ugly, unstructured and badly acted, but it’s an essential part of the film, of the reality of life and how it is lived.
Despite the vulgar nature of the subject matter, Pasolini’s The Decameron has a very clear purpose, one that is perhaps made clear by the director’s own role as an actor within the film, a famous painter, a student of Giotto who has been commissioned to paint the wall of the cathedral. Dressed up in poor peasant rags after a rainstorm, Pasolini seems to revel here also in a manner that reflects his approach to the film, the famous man brought to a position of commoner. The Decameron is similarly dressed down, but has much more noble and elevated intentions at heart, as the painter looks at the all this fevered activity of Neapolitan life that will eventually go into this mural that he has painted as a celebration of God’s creation. A nightmare sequence of the Last Judgement however suggests that a more serious settling of accounts is ahead, a premonition even of Pasolini’s repudiation of the trilogy’s ideas in what would become his final film, Salò.
The Decameron 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.
For the Blu-ray release, the BFI have obtained a fresh High-Definition transfer from the original 35mm negative, so there is no question of the source being from the highest quality available, but much evidently depends on the state of the original materials. Fortunately, they are in pretty good shape, if not quite perfect condition. There is evidence of grain in the transfer, but certainly not to the extent that was visible on the previous BFI DVD release a number of years ago. It’s reasonably well managed here, though some blockiness can be detected if the frame is examined in close up.
And indeed there are two ways you can regard this transfer - at optimal viewing distance, where any flaws that are in the transfer are rendered minor - or at much too close a distance and in freeze-frame, in which case you will notice the flaws that remain in the form of flecks and discolouration. A digital restoration has cleaned up most of the issues, but presumably introduced in some of its own - though not to the extent of the Arabian Nights transfer. The resultant image is nevertheless often very impressive indeed. The benefits of the High-Definition transfer are clearly evident, showing excellent detail and strong, vibrant colours, with skin-tones in particular looking very pleasing. Blacks are a little flat, though interiors show acceptable levels of detail and contrast. The tone is slightly yellowish in places, with greens consequently not being fully verdant, but this varies from scene to scene. It’s by no means a demo quality transfer of a pristine source, but the transfer delivers everything you expect of a High-Definition image and is unlikely to disappoint. Without a cost-prohibitive restoration of the film negative itself, it’s about as good a transfer as can possibly be obtained, so this is probably as good as it gets.
The film’s original Italian soundtrack is presented in 48 kHz PCM 2.0 and the tone is clear throughout. Dialogue and sounds are clearly audible with no real issues of his or background noise. It’s not a particularly dynamic track, and the limitations are revealed in louder passages where the sound is a little harsh, but otherwise this is a more than adequate representation of the original materials. Lip-syncing issues are of course part of the process by which the film was made, the sounds and dialogue not recorded on set, but synced in post-production.
English subtitles are included and are optional. They are in a clear white font and clearly readable. English Hard of Hearing subtitles with captions are included with the English Version of the film included in the extra features.
The extras offer up an English Version of the film that apparently differs only from the Italian in its United Artists title and English language opening credits that match the style and font of the original. The film itself would appear to be the same transfer as the main feature only with its original English language dub track. The English dub isn't really a viable option however. The accents are all American, adequately performed, but the voices never fit the characters, and post-dubbed, they come across rather stiff. Optional English Hard of Hearing subtitles can be selected for this version of the film. The film’s original Italian Trailer (2:30) is also included.
The main extra feature here however is Pasolini’s 1970 film Notes for an African Oresteia, one of a series of explorations of ideas in Third World countries that Pasolini made around this period (Notes for a Film on India and The Walls of Sana’a are included on Tartan’s Pasolini Volume 2 collection). Narrated throughout by Pasolini, the director explains the thinking behind setting Aeschylus’ Greek tragedy The Oresteia in the period of the independence and self-determination of many African nations. There is extensive footage of the remotest and poorest regions of Uganda and Tanzania, and a great deal of interest shown in the faces of the people of these regions, particularly male, Pasolini looking for a “mythical, sacred moment” of the past that he believes they carry within. The director also puts his ideas to a group of African university students, sparking off some interesting debate on the appropriateness of his treatment. Pasolini films some preparatory scenes and bizarrely follows an idea that veers off into making the film as a kind of jazz opera, but it’s all an utterly fascinating insight into the director’s filmmaking thought processes, and one that is certainly related to his mythical, early-civilisation ideas that are explored in the ‘Trilogy of Life’. The transfer of the film, presumably filmed on 16mm for handheld portability, has been restored by the Cineteca di Bologna and looks superb.
A booklet is also included containing commentary on the film and its literary source by Roger Clarke and the film’s original 1972 review from Monthly Film Bulletin by Nigel Andrews, as well as an essay by Sam Rohdie on The Trilogy of Life and a biography of Pier Paolo Pasolini by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith’s that is included also in the booklets of the other two films The Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights. Details and introductory notes are also included for Notes for an African Oresteia.
Pasolini’s adaptation of The Decameron perhaps gains more from being thematically connected with the other films in the ‘Trilogy of Life’, and indeed from its position in the director’s fascinating filmmaking career than it does as a standalone film in itself. That doesn’t mean that there are not other merits in his approach to Boccaccio’s medieval stories, which are entertaining in their irreverence and have deeper social meaning than might at first be apparent. It’s these themes that interest Pasolini and the director brings them out reasonably well, but they gain much more relevance and meaning by the time you follow them up with The Canterbury Tales and particularly Arabian Nights. All three films are of course now available in High-Definition editions in Region B (UK and Europe) from the BFI, and as far as The Decameron goes, in a quite impressive edition. Some minor flaws in the original elements are unavoidable, but the transfer deals with them as well as can be expected, and the benefits of the HD image are clearly apparent. Add to this a fascinating rare work by Pasolini, Notes for an African Oresteia, and this makes for a fine package.