The Decameron Review
After reading this piece, you may wish to peruse my reviews of the other two films in Pasolini's "Trilogy Of Life", The Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights.
1970's The Decameron forms the first part of Italian Director Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Trilogy Of Life", later completed by The Canterbury Tales (1971) and Arabian Nights (1974), and as with those films takes an anthology approach, selecting ten of Boccaccio's tales and translating them to cinematic form. The director had worked on portmanteau films before, contributing episodes to 1960's RoGoPaG and The Witches (1966), although this sees the first instance of him taking sole writing and directing credit. In doing so, he manages to avoid some of the pitfalls of the portmanteau film (a remarkably prolific sub-genre, encompassing films as diverse as Ealing Studio's Dead Of Night, various American horror anthologies, and the more recent Ten Minutes Older... efforts), most notably their hit-and-miss nature.
The key success is The Decameron's all-encompassing style; each tale is told in exactly the same manner and setting, the only difference in each is their individual narratives. Pasolini chooses an overt realism, shooting with a mostly static camera (bar the occasional under-elaborate pan) and favouring medium shots of little clutter. This simplicity produces an almost documentary quality, nicely supplemented by location photography and the employment of non-professionals to make up the cast (although many faces will be familiar from other Pasolini works, in particular Franco Citti and Ninetta Davoli), the result of all this is that it allows the viewer to focus entirely on the milieu of the stories and, indeed, the narratives themselves. Of the former, it is the sheer earthiness of fourteenth century Italy that astounds, making The Decameron a paradoxically modern seeming picture; its focus on dirt and straight-forward approach to sex and nudity being a fore bearer to the late nineties period dramas such as The Wings Of The Dove (1997) and Elizabeth (1999) which similarly revelled in their grittiness and/or sexuality.
This authenticity (or rather, presumed authenticity) is furthered by the contributions of production designer Dante Ferretti and composer Ennio Morricone. Famed for their individual flamboyances, it's fascinating to see the pair produce work that is almost invisible. The impression given is that Pasolini has just turned up and shot what was available, when of course a great deal of effort has been put into creating this distinctive atmosphere: Morricone, for example, creating his score from adopting various contemporary folk songs and ditties. In fact, the same could be said of Pasolini's contributions. The Decameron initially appears to be the directors' least cinematic work, eschewing the formalism of Theorem, say, or The Gospel According To St. Matthew's unassuming grandeur for what looks like amateurism in comparison. Closer inspection, however, reveals a remarkable deftness of touch, best exemplified by the films shifting tones.
This constant to-ing and fro-ing between lighter and darker moments can be seen from the opening moments. A scene of Franco Citti beating and then disposing of a dead body gives way to Ninetta Davoli's episode in which the eternal innocent he plays so well finds himself at first covered in shit (somewhat light heartedly) and then enclosed in the tomb of a recently deceased Bishop (understandably darker). Yet rather than emphasise either moment with broad comedy, for example, or gothic clichés, Pasolini keeps his own stance pitched at the same, unchanging level. This isn't to say that The Decameron is a clinical film in any sense of the word (his final work Salò fits that description much better), rather, this level is one of bemusement; Pasolini is obviously charmed by and very fond of this parade of (mostly) innocents, and wishes the viewer will feel the same way.
The directors fondness is also evident in the way in which he breaks one of the rules of the portmanteau film; so enamoured is Pasolini of certain characters that he allows them to reappear in other tales rather than just appear in an isolated narrative. There's no intention of creating a Altmon-esque multi-layered character piece, however, the impression one gets is that the director is furthering his documentary approach as well as escaping the disjointed nature that flaws many anthology efforts by creating a more unified piece of film-making. Of course, this being Pasolini, the purpose is political. As with the other "Trilogy Of Life" entries, the director is escaping into simpler times, showing a world that was pre-capitalist, pre-proletariat and pre-bourgeoisies, or at least on the very verge. This escape wouldn't last long as many other Italian films would appropriate the innocence on display here in a succession of bawdy, soft porn romps, prompting Pasolini to make the unrelentingly bleak and cynical Salò, which doesn't contain a single ounce of charm or innocence. As such, it is hard to view The Decameron without the shadow of Salò looming into view at some point, yet its directors bemused charm is infectious, not to mention wholly pleasurable.
Released in conjunction with MGM (who had previously been responsible for a horribly dubbed version), the print quality here is by far the finest of the BFI Pasolini titles released so far. This isn't to say it’s a flawless presentation as the picture does occasionally lack sharpness and suffers from minor scratches. More frustratingly, however, is the fact that while the DVD preserves the 1.85:1 ratio, it sadly doesn't present it anamorphically (as is the case with some of the BFI's earlier releases). That said, the general quality is more than watchable.
The sound fares better, presenting the original Italian soundtrack in a two-channel monaural mix. As with most Italian films of the time, the soundtrack was recorded post-production, meaning that any synching problems are flaws of the original recording, rather than the disc, and that any attempts to mix into DD5.1 would be entirely unworthwhile.
As for extras, these are limited to sleeve notes by Roger Clarke, a meaty, though brief biography for Pier Paolo Pasolini and the obligatory link to the BFI's website. Whilst these are good as far as they go, one can't help but wish for something a little more substantial, especially one of the commentaries by leading film scholars that the BFI do so well.