The Canterbury Tales Review
To accompany this review of the second film in Pasolini's "Trilogy Of Life" are my reviews of the first and the final films in the trilogy: The Decameron and Arabian Nights respectively.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1971 adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales remains to this day the only major cinematic take on the fourteenth century classic. Owing to its bawdy nature, and ample sex and nudity, a number of films were later retitled More Sexy Canterbury Tales and the like in order to cash in on its success, but otherwise it is the small screen where Chaucer is more actively found; as well as their forthcoming series of adaptations, the BBC also produced a 1969 series starring Joss Ackland and Patrick Magee.
Sandwiched between The Decameron and Arabian Nights, The Canterbury Tales was the second of Pasolini’s “Trilogy of Life”, three films which saw the director take a lighter approach to his work. Indeed, his intention behind the filming of these various literary works was to break away from the darker tones that had inhabited the films made just prior. Certainly there are none of the satirical or nihilistic elements from Pigsty, Medea or Theorem present in The Canterbury Tales, rather a good natured humour and very open sexuality.
This isn’t to say that The Canterbury Tales shows Pasolini abandoning his usual style however. Indeed, this lighter tone was present in Hawks and Sparrows and the segment he directed for the 1966 anthology film The Witches. Similarly, the straightforward look at sexuality was present in the director’s first two features, Accatone and Mamma Roma, that dealt with a pimp and prostitution respectively. Most notable, however, is the director’s fascination with the human face, no matter how ugly (in fact, the uglier the better, as in often the case), and the collection assembled here more than matches anything present The Gospel According to St. Matthew.
There is one major change, however; namely the episodic structure, and it is this proves to The Canterbury Tales’ primary flaw. Of course, it would be impossible to structure Chaucer’s collection of stories any other way, yet Pasolini often creates difficulties for himself. Understandably, the film uses only eight out of a total of twenty four tales in order to keep the running time to minimum, yet the director also abandons the introductions to the each separate narrative, replacing the various narrators with himself in the role of Chaucer. Whilst this at first appears to be an astute way of minimising the screen time, it also creates complications as the author is not always present between tales, rather the film occasionally, and abruptly, jumps from one to the other.
As well as himself, Pasolini also adopts his regular technique of employing a number of non-professional actors. This, of course, adds to the realistic tone (indeed, the film is quite remarkable in its recreation of 14th century England, primarily the result of Dante Ferretti’s wonderful set designs), yet also sits uneasily with the number of professionals the director has also used to populate his cast. Whilst the use of trained actors was nothing new in Pasolini’s films (Jean-Pierre Leaud, Maria Callas and Terence Stamp are amongst those who have appeared in previous films), he often limited himself to one or two amongst the amateurs. With The Canterbury Tales, however, a large number of mostly British faces have been used and this serves to seriously unbalance the film; the limitation exists within individual tales, yet the order in which the tales have been put provides a procession of well-known names early on, and none towards the end. (Admittedly, Confessions star Robin Askwith does appear in the penultimate tale, though he can hardly be described as a major actor.) Of course, it goes without saying that the youthful members that inhabit the latter stages prove no match for the more experienced hands that appear before them.
That said, two of Pasolini’s non-professional finds provide the finest performances in the film. The appearances of Franco Citti and Ninetto Davoli, in The Friar’s Tale and The Cook’s Tale respectively, prove to offer far more life that those made by Hugh Griffith or Tom Baker. Indeed Citti’s performance as the Devil is truly terrifying, all the more remarkable given his limited dialogue. Of course, it can be argued that by this point in their careers neither actor could be described as a non-professional. Both had made their debuts in Pasolini pictures and continued to work almost exclusively with the director until The Canterbury Tales, allowing for a remarkable amount of experience (indeed, Citti would make an appearance in Coppola’s The Godfather the following year). It is also worth stating that both are, of course, Italian, whereas the vast majority of lead parts are played by British actors, presumably making their dealings with the director a great deal easier. That said, there is still something intrinsically fascinating in seeing such a quintessentially English actor as Tom Baker dubbed into Italian whilst playing an English character from an English work of literature filmed in an English location!
The Franco Citti and Ninetto Davoli episodes also serve to emphasise another flaw in Pasolini’s structure. As said, Citti plays the Devil and as such his tale has a notably darker edge than many of the others, encompassing amongst other things a sodomite getting burnt alive. Whilst it has its individual merits, this episode is immediately followed (with no introduction) by Davoli’s tale which sees the director pay homage to Hollywood’s silent comedies, in particular those of Charlie Chaplin. Again, this piece works exceptionally well on its own, indeed these two segments are perhaps the finest in The Canterbury Tales, yet the tonal shift between the two proves jarring, and therefore detrimental to the film.
Despite these failures The Canterbury Tales still offers a number of pleasures elsewhere. The casting of Pasolini as Chaucer is especially telling, as it makes explicit the connection between the two. As such there is a genuine feeling that the director is having fun with his subject, though it is arguable that this enjoyment is perhaps the reason why he has overlooked such essential elements are creating a coherent whole. There is little oversight when it comes to recreating the middle ages, however. Pasolini eschewed his usual technique of including bursts of classical music (Accatone, for example, made wonderful use of Bach, whilst Mamma Roma utilised the work of Vivaldi) and instead allowed composer Ennio Morricone to adapt a number of old folk tunes and simplistic melodies played on the flute or other basic instruments. Also, the decision to film at various English locations helps immeasurably, thereby escaping the somewhat bizarre dislocation that exists in a number of Italian westerns. This realism is then suddenly dropped to startling effect for the penultimate scene. Whilst lasting only a matter of minutes, Pasolini creates what must rank as one of the most memorable interpretations of Hell, and yet is still able to maintain the irreverent tone that has prevailed throughout. Indeed, this scene is so gob-smacking one is almost tempted to forgive the director for some of the rougher edges present in The Canterbury Tales, as does the final shot: a reveal of the words Pasolini/Chaucer has been writing with a smile on his face, “Told only for the pleasure of telling them. Amen.”
The Canterbury Tales has been presented on DVD with a print courtesy of MGM. Whilst the film can be seen in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 (non-anamorphic, though this is hardly necessary in such a case), the print is not in the best condition. As well as damage caused by age, such as scratches and other blemishes, artifacting is also highly noticeable on occasion. Sadly, some of the colours have also suffered over the years, with the reds in particular being a little less vibrant than originally intended.
The sound is a little harder to judge. As was common at the time in the Italian film industry, The Canterbury Tales was dubbed in post-production and as such the dislocated quality is to be expected. Moreover, the original Italian mono is provided (spread over the front two speakers) and as such is preferably to the crudely dubbed English language version that MGM have previously made available.
As for special features, the BFI have limited these to a brief biography of director Pier Paolo Pasolini and a weblink to their website.
There are two other R2 DVDs of this title worth noting. The French release by GCTHV/Carlotta also features the English soundtrack, though no English subtitles, plus a few extras: an 11 minute interview with actor Ninetto Davoli, a photo gallery and the original theatrical trailer.
The Italian DVD, released by CDE/Eagle, similarly features no English subtitles, but does offer a 5.1 Italian soundtrack. This release has no extras.