Theorem Review

There’s something simultaneously infuriating and delightful about Pasolini’s Theorem. On the one hand, the apparent simplicity of the theorem’s proposition seems ludicrously reductive – a stranger’s interaction with a bourgeois family on one half of the equation results in their lives undergoing a radical transformation in the other half – but at the same time, the sheer nerve of the film to offer no explanation or justification for what occurs, as well as the manner in which it expresses its ideas, is daring and intriguing, opening up many possible interpretations.

For no apparent reason, a handsome young man (Terence Stamp), “just a boy”, 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. Having done his work, 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 their repressed lives and desires that it appears to be on the surface – though 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. Revolution 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 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 – 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, as a prophet and an artist. The ultimate purpose of Theorem or its relative success may therefore be difficult to define, but its purpose is to challenge the viewer and force them to re-evaluate what they think they know and perhaps discover something new.

Theorem is released in the UK by the BFI. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, is in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.

The BFI’s transfer here is very impressive, easily on a par with the excellent work done on the Tartan releases of Pasolini Volume 1 and Pasolini Volume 2, particularly in regards to the colour films Oedipus Rex and Pigsty, whose look and feel Theorem most closely resembles. Contrast is high here, meaning that blacks are strong and very deep, not always showing great shadow detail. They are however very stable and well-encoded – I only noticed one brief instance of low-level noise where the blacks momentarily flattened out into deep blue. Clarity is good, though slightly soft in places, and colours are accurate - sometimes strikingly so – in interiors and exteriors, in the volcanic landscapes and in the sepia-coloured introduction. Even a couple of scenes at a misty riverbank are resolutely stable and show no sign of compression artefacts. The print is very clean, but there are occasional speckles, some faint tramline scratches and one or two larger marks – one frame exhibits a serious tear in the print – but these are few and generally restricted to single frames. Depending on your tolerance, edge-enhancement may be an issue. I didn’t find it overly pronounced, but it was somewhat irritating on an otherwise beautiful transfer.

The audio track 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.

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, including the commentary, are also fully subtitled in English.

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 (33:14)
Recorded recently, Stamp reflects on 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. It’s edited down quite a bit, but Stamp is given plenty of time to develop his thoughts and stories about getting involved on the film, 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.

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 DVD release is most impressive, with an amazing transfer and some excellent worthwhile features.

7 out of 10
8 out of 10
7 out of 10
6 out of 10


out of 10

Latest Articles