There’s something simultaneously infuriating and delightful about the situation explored in Pasolini’s 1968 film Theorem. The director teases the viewer with a proposition during the opening minutes of the film, shot documentary-interview style, in which he considers what would be the impact should a bourgeois owner of a factory give his business over over into the hands of the workers. Would this now make the workers the new bourgeoisie? On the one hand, the apparent simplicity of the theorem’s proposition and Pasolini's testing of it seems either obscure or ludicrously reductive, the film detailing a stranger’s interaction with a bourgeois family on one half of the equation with the result that their lives undergo a radical transformation in the second half. The film offers no explanation or justification for what occurs, but the manner in which it expresses its ideas is daring and intriguing, opening up many other possible interpretations.
For no apparent reason then, a handsome young man (Terence Stamp) arrives at the house of a wealthy bourgeois family in Milan and his presence seems to exert a terrible power over everyone in the household. One by one each of them submits to him, unable to resist the attraction of the enigmatic young man. The maid Emilia (Laura Betti) first tries to kill herself before offering herself to him, the son Pietro (Andrés José Cruz Soublette) can’t contain his curiosity over his body, the mother Lucia (Silvana Mangano) feels compelled to divest herself of her clothes when she sees him running around outdoors without a shirt and the daughter Odetta (Anne Wiazemsky) is similarly sexually aroused. Even the father, Paolo (Massimo Girotti), a wealthy businessman, is profoundly affected on a deep emotional and physical level. His work here done then, the young man leaves and the family have to deal with the consequences of what has occurred.
What exactly it is that the young man brings to their lives isn’t clear, but I think it’s safe to say that it’s more than sexually liberating them from the repression of their middle-class lifes - although that certainly is also a part of it. Since the film is merely based on presenting a theorem however, it doesn’t need to be any more specific, and Pasolini consequently delights in throwing in allusions to Christianity, Marxism, Tolstoy, Rimbaud, Bacon and numerous other literary, modernist and revolutionary references in a manner that is very much associated with the period in which the film was made. Revolution then seems to certainly be the key and it’s a violent one - each of the seductions intercut with scenes of a desolate volcanic wasteland - not only for this bourgeois family, but intriguingly their maid also. The young man would seem to have opened their eyes through the message he brings, shattering the illusion that their bourgeois beliefs are founded on. They are willingly complicit in their corruption/redemption - “You have seduced me Lord and I have let myself be seduced”, Pasolini provocatively quotes from the Bible.
Destroying the complacent, natural order of their existence however brings each of the members of the family no release and the sense of pain they endure in their downfall - no more so than in the case of the father stripped of everything at the very end of the film - is profound. The young man’s gift appears to be both a blessing and a curse, and perhaps true change really is as difficult for a rich man as getting a camel through the eye of a needle. These are certainly banal, all-purpose observations, but Pasolini both embraces and ridicules such beliefs throughout, no less so than in the format and structure of the film itself, the director exploring his ideas while making the film and, according to Terence Stamp in the interview included here on the DVD - organising and rewriting them afterwards. Stamp is marvellous in such a role - handsome, charismatic and quite capable of seducing a whole household, while at the same time being a perfect empty vessel for Pasolini and the viewer to place their interpretations on.
Social change, personal development, freedom of artistic expression, sexual liberation and shattering of bourgeois values are all Pasolini’s targets, and like Godard, particularly during this period, that revolution extends to the screen, breaking the format, defying expectations, playing the part of revolutionary, prophet and artist. The ultimate purpose of Theorem or its relative success may therefore be difficult to define, but its intent is at least to is to challenge the viewer and force them to re-evaluate what they think they know and perhaps discover something new.
Previously released by the BFI on DVD only, Theorem has been upgraded to a Dual-Format Blu-ray and DVD edition. The film is presented both on Blu-ray on a single-layer BD50 disc, and on a dual-layer DVD-9 disc. The Blu-ray is encoded at 1080p/24fps, the DVD is in PAL format. The Blu-ray and the DVD were viewed on checkdiscs and not final copies, so region-coding wasn't checked. As a UK release however, the discs will at least be Region B/Region 2 compatible.
The quality of the transfer was already high on the existing DVD release, so there might not be any major improvement evident here in its upgrade to High Definition. The Blu-ray has the same look and feel of the DVD (as well as a commonality of tone with the Pasolini films Theorem most closely resembles - Oedipus Rex and Pigsty). Contrast is strong and there is not an exceptional amount of extra detail in the HD image. The deep blacks are certainly more accurately rendered, but there is still not a great amount of shadow detail. Colours have a cool, neutral, natural tone. A significant amount of exteriors however are shot during early mornings or evenings and the golden glow of the sunrises and sunsets come over well in the transfer. Some minor print wavering or flicker is evident and grain is visible, but nothing more than you would expect from a film of this age. Overall however, the image is remarkably clean and sharp, with only a few stray dustspots visible. Some compression blocking or noise reduction artefacts are evident, but there are only really detectable in freeze-frame.
The Italian audio track (PCM mono 48k/24-bit on Blu-ray, Dolby Digital 2.0 mono on DVD) doesn’t exhibit a great dynamic range, but it is clear and has few problems with analogue noise. Surprisingly, while small sound effects are relatively clear, it is the music score that is most lacking, but this is probably down to the original mixing and source materials.
In an addition over the original DVD release, the film's English dub is also included on the Blu-ray and the DVD. The dub obviously dates from the film's release and uses mainly American voice-actors for most of the cast, but presumably Terence Stamp speaks his own dialogue (he doesn't really have enough lines to be certain of this). Not surprisingly, considering the international casting and the way films were made in Italy at this time, the lip-sync in English is much better than the Italian version. It's clear that almost everyone, even the Italian actors, were actually delivering their lines in English here, and it was only dubbed afterwards into Italian. The quality of the English dub has some low-level background noise, but is generally fine and clear. I thought it worked perfectly well with the film.
English subtitles are included, in a white font and they are clear throughout. Some minor interjections and phrases where the meaning is quite apparent are left untranslated. In a film where there is not a great deal of dialogue, there is a certain balance to maintain and it strikes me that it has been achieved here. All extra features are subtitled in English except for Robert Gordon's commentary, which is curious, as it was subtitled on the previous DVD-only release of Theorem.
Italian film expert Robert Gordon presents a full and informative commentary for the film. It’s often descriptive of what is happening on the screen, but at the same time interpretative and makes many interesting observations. Gordon also takes the time to place the film in the context of Pasolini’s other films, as well as his writing, his life and his themes. It doesn’t perhaps offer any major illumination on the film’s treatment than can be grasped by any viewer themselves, but Gordon is a decent commentator and it’s never dull or overly academic.
Interview with Terence Stamp
In a simply delightful and fascinating interview from 2007 - available only on the DVD - Stamp reflects on what was an important period for him, liberating himself as an actor first for Fellini and then for Pasolini before abandoning it all and going to live on an Ashram in India. The interview is edited down quite a bit - Stamp, as we've seen in some recent appearances could talk for hours - but he is given plenty of time to develop his thoughts and stories about getting involved on this film specifically, working (or not, as it were) with Pasolini, trying to figure out the man and his contradictions, as well as how he sees his own character in the film. Very frank and often very funny, Stamp is mesmerising here – you could listen to him all day.
The extras are rounded out nicely by BFI's booklet, containing an essay by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Philip Strick's original 1969 film review and biographical information on Pasolini and Stamp. The only other addition to the new edition is the 2013 Theatrical Release Trailer.
Provocative, controversial, experimental, Theorem is definitely a product of its time, but such is Pasolini’s brilliance, his method of keeping the subject elusive and vague while at the same time simple and meaningful, that the film stands up very well today. The BFI’s High Definition dual-format upgrade doesn't significantly improve on the previous DVD release, but this is still an impressive release with some good extra features that contribute to a fine appreciation of the film.