Teorema Of Relativity

By Default, Pasolini's 1968 Salvo Signals the Key Battle in the Walker's 'Revolution'

Released amid the turmoil of 1968, Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema (Theorem) blew the beanies off American audiences and critics. The usually blistering reviewer John Simon was so dumbstruck by it that he could only recount its plot in minute detail, like a child describing a recently witnessed car crash. Pauline Kael reported to have giggled throughout it, but she marveled that some friends appeared to have had a religious

experience. And no less a critical authority than John Waters deemed Teorema the ultimate art movie: a hundred-proof cocktail of prurience, angst, lounge jazz, and overindulgence, typifying the late Sixties as much as a Jules Feiffer beatnik or a Get Smart lunchbox.

Me, I'd say that Teorema is the most interesting--if not necessarily the "best"--selection in the Walker's 11-film series "Before and After the Revolution: Italia Anni 1962-1972." Ah, the myths of periodicity that nourish curatorship! The idea here seems to be that in the wake of Italian neorealism, a new...something emerged, a something having to do with increased sexuality, increased flirtation with amorality, and increased ambiguity of authorial intent. The program notes make some reference to Italy's conversion from an agricultural to an industrial society--although, unless I'm mistaken, I'd say that transition took place at least 60 years before Marcello Mastroianni stuck his hands into the pockets of his slouchy black suit. And the 1962-to-1972 span seems arbitrary, too, as all the "Revolution" titles seem haunted by the European provocations of May 1968.

Casualties of war: Pasolini's 'Teorema'
Casualties of war: Pasolini's 'Teorema'

Clearly the program does reflect some sort of cultural shift. The closest analogy I can find to describe it is critic J. Hoberman's assessment of the impact of Reservoir Dogs on American independent film: "At last, the flavor of hamburgers and ketchup came to the land of granola and lowfat milk." In the late 1940s, Italian cinema found its voice in the bombed-basement naturalism of DeSica and Rossellini, who made the gussied-up surfaces of commercial cinema look aptly shameful. Recovering from its postwar shellshock, Italy continued in this vein until 1962, when Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew made a decisive break. Ostensibly shot in vérité style, on craggy seaside locations with nonactor fishermen as the Apostles, Gospel combined the dirty-laundry look of neorealism with a new conceptual severity. Pasolini used the faces of real people as a comment on filmic representations of the Bible, although the movie's documentary surface was as self-consciously artificial as a Fragonard canvas. Clearly, neorealist "purity" could be no more.

Though Gospel isn't featured in the Walker series, all the selections can be seen as that movie's scarred, dazed orphans. Little seems to unify them except for an ideological "committedness" and an apparent formal tendency to lash out against philistine bourgeois. What strikes one most violently about Teorema (which screens 8:00 p.m. Thursday, November 15) is the unique, theoretical manner in which Pasolini organizes both fantasies and fright scenarios about his own sexuality. The movie is so deprived of the ordinary human dimensions of narrative cinema that it could only be an allegory--although it seems to allegorize nothing but itself. The characters are archetypal: the Tycoon, the Wife, the Daughter, the Son, the Maid, and the Mysterious Stranger. It's unclear whether this last character, a sexy interloper played by Terence Stamp, is a member of the family or a leech tolerated for opaque reasons. In any case, his fleshly ministrations, rendered in close-ups of his snug crotch and ass, send the family reeling.

Some of the characters are destroyed; others reach a state of grace through the sexual interference of said stranger. There's nothing particularly radical about that basic setup (which ought to be familiar to fans of Down and Out in Beverly Hills). Rather, it's the surrounding elements that make Teorema as groundbreaking as Godard's Weekend. Pasolini begins with images of a blighted desert--a wilderness associated with the urban Italy of auto factories, remote mansions, and catecomb-shaped city centers. He permits almost no dialogue whatsoever, while what words do exist are strictly functional. And he rigorously excludes the backstories of the characters: They are what they wear and the chairs they sit in. Lacking anything like humanity, they might as well be coordinates in a geometric theorem.

And yet the sensuousness of Pasolini's images combats the austerity of the conception. The resulting tension exquisitely dramatizes the filmmaker's anguished struggle between a John Donne-like, world-as-a-bed cosmology, and his very public responsibility to socialism: two utterly incompatible desires in the same body. Pasolini would later intellectualize this split in Salo, but here it has the rawness of violently excavated, extremely personal material.

"Before and After the Revolution" features other well-known masterworks, such as Antonioni's sleek, shrewd, icicle-like La Notte (8:00 p.m. Saturday, November 10); and Marco Bellocchio's Verdian incest sitcom, Fists in the Pocket (8:00 p.m. Saturday, November 17), which plays like a psychosexually charged duet between Fellini and Scorsese in a wailing high C. There are also many other, possibly distinguished works that are unknown to me--and, in fact, to most anyone in the United States, where they have not received distribution.

Indeed, one of the things that's most worthy about "Revolution"--its focus on rare and previously unsubtitled films of the period--makes it hard to assess comprehensively. Yet it's difficult to imagine a stronger film than Teorema--the one movie in the series that appears to take place both before and after the revolution. Has a major filmmaker ever created a work that simultaneously seemed so rational and so stark raving bonkers at the same time? Later in his career, Pasolini would learn Rainer Werner Fassbinder's lesson that "love is the part that does not produce capital." But in Teorema, he still held out hope that sex could spring the bourgeois to revolution, that it could heal the psychic wounds of the oppressed, that it could bring spirituality back into a materialist society. The concept is theoretical, certainly, but the artist is also venting his very personal, sexual desire to be as free as a bird, unfettered by convention and romanticized in his struggle.

 
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