One of the most controversial and often scandalous figures to emerge from the world of twentieth century arts and letters, the Italian poet, filmmaker, columnist and thinker Pier Paolo Pasolini, was also a lifelong contrarian. For someone who claimed an avowed and unrelenting atheism, much of his work seems to ache with mystic longing for some unobtainable sacred transcendence while at the same time often managing to land both him and his producers in various court rooms across Europe, attending to charges of blasphemy or indecency – or both. He was an ideological leftist whose tortured relationship with his own homosexuality saw him quickly kicked out of the Italian Communist Party after a conviction for ‘the corruption of minors and obscene acts in public places’; while his constant antagonism towards the entrenchment of a postwar/post-Fascist democratic political consensus in Italy (which, to Pasolini, had spawned a displacing alienation that was in synch with the bourgeois complacency of mass consumerism) frequently saw him adopting, towards the end of his life, some provocative and counterintuitive social positions on various issues: Pasolini was virtually alone among left wing commentators of the period, for instance, in repudiating the students and siding with the police when the violent youth street protests of 1968 fanned revolutionary fervour all across mainland Europe. Similarly, as reactionary attitudes to sex and sexuality were being increasingly challenged by the social revolutions of the sixties and seventies, Pasolini declared all sexual liberation (gay or straight) to be ‘a sham’, and began to use his journalism as a vehicle for denouncing contemporary sexual mores.
A gradual convergence of his Marx flavoured critique of capitalist hegemony with the Catholic religious heritage of his youth, seems to have occurred in Pasolini’s thinking at this time, leading him to retreat ever further into an ambivalent, deeply personal and idiosyncratic form of historicism which sought refuge in a lost world of primitive religions and symbolic myth. He felt that modern post-industrial 20th century capitalism had made any authentic sense of the sacred untenable for those who were now condemned to live a life ensnared within its meshes. Instead, he retained nostalgia for Italy’s dying peasant traditions and the beleaguered peoples of Southern Italy – the true proletariat -- whose dialects and traditional ways of living were increasingly being encroached upon and threatened by prosperous northern cities such as Milan after the ‘economic miracle’ of the 1950s, which singularly failed to extend its benefits their way.
Thus, for Pasolini, the student radicals of ’68 were merely bourgeois, middle-class pretenders playing at being revolutionaries, while the police they threw rocks and sneered at were ‘the true sons of the poor’, forced to earn a meagre living as best they could. The so-called sexual and political revolutions of the era were really just the inauthentic expression of a capitalism corrupted by its own consumerist foundations, which had been minted in the sadism and licence born with the fascism out of which modern, postwar mainland Europe had been nurtured … a pessimistic analysis no doubt, uncompromisingly expressed in Pasolini’s last film, the harrowing “Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom”. Although many of his movies were censored and/or prosecuted for their perceived depiction and enactment of sexual transgressions of varying types, these films were engaged in allegorical representations and poetic reconstructions of a vanished, pre-industrial past -- where the joyful pre-civilised innocence of various forms of sexual conduct was supposedly somehow much more rooted in a spiritually authentic sense of being now utterly beyond the reach of contemporary society.
Perhaps the most personal and pronounced expression of Pasolini’s tortured, self-immolating, myth-based socio-political worldview occurs in his unsettling 1968 film “Theorem”, in which handsome ‘60s London hipster Terrence Stamp plays the living embodiment of divinity in a cashmere sweater and tight cords. Looking like a lost member of The Who circa 1966, he passively transforms the lives of all four members of a prosperous Milanese family (and their peasant maid) after sleeping with each one of them in turn over the course of an extended stay in their elegant home on the edge of the city. Having shown them with his erotic presence a glimpse of the transcendent reality which lies beyond the bourgeois conventions of the modern world, he leaves them all individually bereft in different ways after announcing his departure just as casually as when he first appeared in the wake of the arrival of the mysterious telegram that first signalled his existence to them.
Certainly the film works better when interpreted as personal poetic expression that captures some sense of its creator’s own anguish and conflicted ideological struggles, than it does as an objective analysis of the dysfunction and malaise of the Italian middle-class of the late-sixties, despite this being its apparent raison d'êtr ; it is in fact a dense non-narrative system of audio and visual signification and quotation that feels like it constitutes a biographical palimpsest particular to the concerns of the director himself at the precise period in which the film was shot, and is consequently somehow both more powerfully diverting yet at the same time opaque and hard to process, though the narrative events of the film in summery always sound straightforward enough.
The casting is interesting, though. Pasolini was renowned for using non-actors and personal acquaintances in his films, imitating neorealist technique in an effort to capture a reality and some form of immediacy from the naivety of the performances of non-professionals. This film is no different in that a variety of ‘real people’, including the director’s own mother, Susanna Pasolini (who had previously played Mary the mother of Jesus as an older woman in Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to Matthew”), appear in bit parts throughout. But, setting aside Orson Welles’ role in ”La ricotta” -- the director’s segment of the 1963 anthology "RoGoPaG" -- “Theorem” marks one of the few works in the Pasolini's filmography that places then well-known names centre stage: Massimo Girotti who plays Paolo, the factory owning patriarch of the visited family, first became one of the great presences of Italian cinema during the Forties, after his work with Luchino Visconti; while Silvana Mangano was a former beauty queen who had also become another of Italy’s big name actresses by the time she came to be cast as the repressed wife Lucia in “Theorem”. Terrence Stamp, meanwhile, was a rising stars of the new breed of photogenic ‘60s British actor-celebrities who celebrated their working class roots (Stamp famously flat-shared with Michael Caine during both their early ascendancies) and who was also just as famous for being the boyfriend of the first Sixties supermodel, Jean Shrimpton -- although the couple had recently been through a painful high-profile breakup just as Stamp was starting to look at more obscure European arthouse films to procure his roles, and had recently worked with Federico Fellini on his update of “Toby Dammit” for the Edgar Allan Poe anthology movie “Histoires extraordinaires” (“Spirits of the Dead”).
It’s clear, though, that whatever their evident talents as performers, each actor had actually been cast for what their presence might bring to the film because of the off-screen associations their names could evoke with audiences as much as they had for their actual abilities in front of the camera. Girotti and Mangano’s roles as the husband and wife, forever changed by an encounter with a force that leaves them enlightened yet internally broken apart, are each able to give subtle, nuanced performances but they were nonetheless cast here to be easily recognisable representatives of Italian cinema’s old aristocracy, who were now required to play out this role against Stamp’s mesmerising tender iconoclast. Stamp claims in the accompanying interview on the DVD copy of this dual-disc release that he had no idea who Pasolini was at the time he was first offered the film (after Peter O’Toole had pulled out at the last minute) but was persuaded to accept it merely because it was also to star Mangano, with whom he’d been infatuated ever since seeing her when he was a teenager in the 1949 film “Bitter Rice”. Pasolini would not speak to Stamp on set at all about the unnamed ‘visitor’ he was to play, and whose presence wreaks such havoc in the lives of those he encounters. The actor managed to persuade Mangano to ask Pasolini about the character and report back to him during the making of the movie, but ‘he is a boy’ was all that could be ascertained from the tight-lipped auteur. Stamp also reports that during the shooting, any instructions or requests Pasolini might have for him were delivered through co-star Laura Betti (playing the family’s peasant housemaid, Emilia), who was, according to the actor, ‘Pasolini’s creature’ and his conduit for communicating his desires. Most of these requests consisted of things like being told ‘to open your legs wider’!
‘Terence Stamp was offended because I never asked him to demonstrate his acting ability,’ Pasolini later said in an interview about the film, given in the US after it first opened in the country. ‘It was like I was stealing from him; using his reality’. Once again, the director was more interested in capturing qualities that were more direct or essential ingredients of Stamp’s publically perceived persona at the time than in overseeing another conventional performance. Pasolini apparently even secretly filmed Stamp with his own hidden camera to try and capture un-guarded moments of ‘truth’ that defined the essence of what the young actor had been employed to represent in the film. In the event, Stamp is electric in the role, although he is only present in the first half of the movie. He eventually settled on a portrayal of the character that emphasised his benign, blank, non-judgemental quality, which the actor achieved by emptying his mind of all thoughts before each take and attempting to exist in a state which was simply ‘being’. The gaze and its significance and the idea of ‘looking’ having transformational qualities are given key roles in the internal symbolic language of the movie. As Robert Gordon repeats on the audio commentary that is present on both Blu-ray and DVD discs in the set, the etymological origins of the term ‘Theorem’ lie in the Greek verb ‘to look’. The film relays a formula for the relational dynamics which exist between the upper class bourgeois family members at the centre of the film, by having Stamp’s character, both literally and figuratively, disrupt their way of seeming themselves and each other through his refractive presence. The film is filled with carefully framed fixed shots which feature tightly edited representations of characters looking at each other and being irrevocably changed and affected by the process of gazing and what they are seeing. These symmetrical or geometrically aligned images, which capture the details in architecture or landscape of what they depict, echo the style of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films from this period, but Pasolini contrasts this formal aesthetic with the use of hand-held camera, swapping freely between the two modes of photography to add the voyeuristic gaze of a faux documentary style to the film’s visual vocabulary.
A dry and barren volcanic landscape, wreathed in smoke and the ominous shadows cast by a mobile canopy of clouds, forms the central visual motif of the film, and is used as the backdrop to a titles sequence which unfolds to the strains of a mournful, funerary march of a jazz piece called Tears for Dolphy, by Ted Curson. The film will later conclude itself by returning to this self-same imagery -- but this time with the naked figure of the factory owning father, played by Girotti, who is pictured wandering amid the arid desolation. During the course of the following movie, bookended by these scenes of wilderness, snatches of imagery from the same landscape briefly, but with great frequency, re-occur and are used as visual symbolic punctuation marks to indicate a moment of internal crisis for each of the five characters who fall under the Visitor’s spell. After the opening, a brief sequence set in the forecourt of what turns out to be Paolo’s factory then intrudes in the hand-held style of a vérité newscast, where an insistent reporter asks a group of bemused-looking workers (who look like non-actors, perhaps even real factory workers) if the owner’s decision to hand over ownership of his factory to them means that class distinctions have finally been eroded and that everyone is now a part of the bourgeoisie. Then the feel of the film shifts radically again as an edgy, atonal piece of music for strings by Ennio Morricone soundtracks a sepia tinted section which mimics the feel and style of a silent movie, and in which the father travels home from his factory to the luxury villa where his wife Lucia (Mangano) is waiting for him, while the couple’s two children -- the teenage son Pietro (Andrés José Cruz Soublette) and the daughter Odetta (Anne Wiazemsky – at that time the wife of director Jean-Luc Godard) are shown also returning to their well-to-do nest, from private school and convent school respectively.
The disquieting lack of diegetic sound accompanying this sequence, combined with the contrast that is created between the apparently happy, carefree nature of characters being pictured as they’re engaging in normal and unremarkable routines, and the brooding discordant atmosphere created by the music set to these images, sets up an expectation that the complacency of this comfortable lifestyle is about to be interrupted and shattered. Over dinner, one of the few times that the entire family is seen together (they rarely interact in more than groups of two), a telegram is delivered to the gate by a skipping, child-like post-boy (played by Pasolini’s young companion Ninetto Davoli, who was often cast in similar ‘comical-naïve’ roles in many of the director’s films) and is handed over to the patriarch by the housemaid Emilia (Laura Bette). The boy turns out to be an emissary for the Visitor’s imminent arrival, his appearance heralding an interruption of the morose Morricone strings cue by an airy, light pop piece, heard jangling out of the post-boy’s hand-held radio. The unsigned telegram communication says merely: ‘I arrive tomorrow.’
These two truncated introductory prologue passages presage Stamp’s first appearance on screen, and the commencement of the first act of the main body of the film. Now Giuseppe Ruzzolini’s photography bursts into colour and diegetic background conversation chatter of a dinner party gathering assembled in the smart, decorous interiors of the family villa, introduces Lucia and Odetta’s first sight of the casually dressed, clean-shaven young man who will go on to realign their understanding of their relationship with each other and the material world. This section of the film consists merely of all five members of the household in turn having encounters with the Visitor that each have an erotic element to them and can be seen as seductions -- although they are more seductions of the soul than of the body, which is conceived as merely being the conduit through which the Visitor’s message of spiritual transformation comes to be involuntarily illuminated within them. Virtually no dialogue is spoken during the whole of this section of the movie.
The first encounter occurs between the Visitor and Emilia the maid, in the grounds of the family’s picturesque, white-walled villa. As previously stated, the process is represented by the depiction of an exchange of looks between the protagonists. Emile sees the Visitor relaxing in a chair while reading a volume of Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry on the lawn in front of a statuette of cupid, and is overcome as a result with a dawning realisation that unsettles her so much it compels her to attempt suicide. She is saved by the Visitor, who then makes love to her in her cramped quarters. Next, what seems to be a fraternal relationship with the son Pietro, in which the serene Visitor tutors the teenager in his artistic studies by introducing him to the work of Francis Bacon as the couple sit idly perusing an art catalogue in the couple’s shared room (with particular emphasis on the fleshy, surreally distorted phallic physicality embodied by Bacon’s 1944 triptych “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion”), soon becomes a sexual relationship as well, or so it is implied (all of the encounters are non-explicitly suggested) after the two begin sharing a bed during the night. Lucia, meanwhile, is drawn to shed her clothes in a nearby chalet on the bucolic grounds of the family estate, and sleeps with the Visitor after spying on him as he enjoys his early morning sprints through the autumn woodlands bare-chested. The father -- the factory owning patriarch at the centre of the family dynamics -- begins to look upon the Visitor as a soothing Jesus-like figure who nurses him through a mysterious illness, and becomes something like a mentor and a guru-cum-friend whose social status is equal to his own and therefore allows him to experience a sense of freedom through their spirited, child-like play. The daughter Odetta, whose relationship with her father is portrayed as being particularly strong, is also then drawn to the Visitor through observance of the succour he seems to provide the beloved head of family during his illness. She’s a student of photography whose studies all seem to centre round the family patriarch up until the Visitor’s arrival, when he then starts to become the main focus of her hobby instead. It is while showing him the private album of portraits she has put together and in which he now features heavily, that their sexual union begins. Both the son and daughter’s relationships with Stamp’s sexy, non-judgemental, contemporary Jesus-like figure, are visually and symbolically tied to the father through intersecting triangles of shared gazes which suggest that Freudian undertones already shade the conventional family unit, as the Father’s initial interest in the Visitor was also earlier shown first being piqued by his observance of his son’s intimate sleeping arrangements with him.
The next and last (and lengthiest) section of the film displays, in non-chronological order and over varying periods of time which, in the case of the maid, seem to encompass many years, how each member of the household is variously affected by the Visitor’s sudden announcement over dinner one morning that he is to leave the family home the next day. Each one of them, apart from the voiceless maid, is allowed a lengthy monologue in which they express to the departing stranger, in heightened poetic language, how their lives without him can never be made whole again; each expresses a new awareness which has transformed their understanding of the world and the social structures that formed and informed their previous lives, and talk of how this new consciousness has occurred directly as a result of their contact with the Visitor. But their turmoil indicates that this state of understanding also leaves them no means of orientating themselves in the world in his absence. Thus the four family members find themselves drifting away from the central symbol of their former bourgeois lives, the grand city villa, and embarking on doomed attempts to recapture the primal sacred qualities which have been revealed to them, but which they cannot attain themselves.
In this pessimistic conclusion we see perhaps something of Pasolini’s own internal torment and conflicted attitudes to his bourgeois background, his artistic practise and his own sexuality. The son is depicted hopelessly attempting to express this new realm of spiritual being through modernist forms of art that reject the hollow rules of his forebears; yet he is all too aware of the futility of the project and that he is merely an impostor, making inadequate shrines to chance combinations of his own random scribbles and daubings, each of which singularly fail to capture the true nature of a transcendent reality, but which can nevertheless be passed off as radical and new. He is last seen blindfolded in his student garret, disconsolately urinating onto a blue canvas which reminds him of the colour of the Visitor’s eyes! The daughter, meanwhile, is left alone in the plush but now deserted family home, living out scenes captured in her photo album by retracing her exact steps with the aid of a tape measure in order to live out the experiences the album depicts again inside her head. Eventually she becomes so withdrawn from the corporeal world that she enters into a state of blank-eyed catatonia and is carted off to an asylum. The mother attempts to recapture or replace the physical nature of what she had with the Visitor (Stamp disappears completely from the second half of the movie and is last seen being driven off down the highway outside the villa in a shabby taxi cab) by cruising Milan in her mini and picking up boys and young men who bear some physical resemblance to him in order to have casual sex with them, first of all in their student digs, then in ditches and laybys, or up against the wall of a roadside chapel.
The Husband is himself almost tempted by a similar illusion that the feelings opened up by his relationship with the departed Visitor can be re-captured through physical contact with others: he is drawn to Milan’s central railway station and almost succumbs to a sexual encounter in the toilets with a man wearing Stamp’s particular brand of mod-trendy bollock-tight pants. But he pulls back at the last second, shedding his clothes like St Francis in the middle of the busy station and finding himself transported to the arid desert region glimpsed throughout the film as a signifier of Stamp’s transformative presence in the lives of each of the family members, and which is representative of the ascetic life each one of them has been trying to attain. The mother/wife and the father/husband each seek out an impossible, physically rooted experience of a realm which exists beyond: ‘The mother and father, because of their middle-class, industrial values,’ Pasolini states, in an interview about the film, ‘have not been able to learn from a religious experience.’ ‘The father gets closest but,’ according to Pasolini he has been: ‘historically made in another manner. He arrives almost to the limit of being saved, but doesn’t make it’. Even the one member of the household who does appear to attain some sort of supernatural ascendancy -- the maid Emilia, who travels back to her semi-derelict peasant village in the south and becomes a living folkloric religious symbol for the poverty-stricken locals -- does so by becoming a manifestation of forces which cannot be reconciled with or acknowledged by a modern post-industrial capitalist economy, and ends up voluntarily burying herself beneath what will one day be a high-rise development on a building site. In many ways her reaction to her encounter with the Visitor mirrors that of the daughter’s, for both begin by entering a pronounced state of withdrawal from their initial surroundings. Yet while the unhappy Odetta’s entrenched position within the heart of the bourgeoisie makes her experience become one of fixated nostalgia for the past, and therefore a mental case who eventually has to be carted off to an insane asylum, Emile’s asceticism is nurtured and revered by the simple village inhabitants, who benignly tolerate her for years as she sits unmoving on a wooden bench while they continue to send their children out to collect nettles to make soup to feed her, until she one day attains a state of such holiness -- because of the simplicity of her surroundings -- that she is able instantaneously to cure leprosy just by making the sign of the cross, and eventually becomes a sort of symbolic non-person, levitating above the rooftops of the village as the peasant community look on.
Pasolini’s rarefied film poetics springs from his own tortured sense of artistic pessimism and his utopian search for a mythic past, shrouded in the mists of a pre-history that can only be accessed through the imagination. It takes on a shape built from elaborate patterns of recurrent visual and auditory signifiers which are combined and juxtaposed throughout in evocative combinations to produce a subtle, mesmerising and powerful work in which meaning seems ever-present though always entirely elusive. In this strange, unnatural world, the repetition of images of discarded clothing takes on a strange, tragic sense of significance; glancing rays of sunlight glimpsed through windows or across a parched landscape at dawn momentarily blind us and acquire other-worldly resonances. A striking geometrically aligned landscape of straight roads running through flat land on the edge of a peaceful autumnal countryside setting, lined with leafless poplars where meandering canals are blanketed in ground mist, forms an environment that is suggestive of a hinterland suspended between the spiritually bereft turmoil of the urban industrialised North of late-sixties Italy and the folksy pre-industrial South. Such imagery is juxtaposed with frequently recurrent audio cues that add to the film’s aura of poetic ambiance as they return in a variety of slightly differing contexts: snatches of a Mozart requiem mass, the sound of tolling church bells, the ambient bustle of the sleepless city as it forms a backdrop to the intimate but spiritually vacant sexual liaisons taking place between the troubled Lucia and her various boyish street conquests; and, of course the imagery of smoky volcanic emptiness to which we return in glimpses throughout -- all this can be obscurely read as an opaque mix of Catholic longing and obscurantist, long-since-superseded Marxist theory that, in the end, was probably only ever properly accessible to the artist himself. As Robert Gordon states on the commentary track, “Theorem” is one of the high-points of auteurist cinema – and as such its value lies not in our ability to track the precise meaning of each and every visual symbol or allegorical scenario it elaborates for us (an almost impossible task) ,but in its creation of a film language that forges for the viewer an emotionally stark and truthful attempt to represent its author’s own troubled sense of inner inadequacy and spiritual struggle with images that remain crystalline, powerful and as aesthetically compelling forty-five years later as they were in the latter years of the 1960s when the film was shot.
“Theorem” was remastered in High Definition from an original 35mm interpositive held by the UK’s Channel 4. The quality of the image is variable but the Blu-ray adds some degree of extra clarity to many scenes, although the improvement is not necessarily as vast as one would have wished. Two audio tracks are featured: the Italian dub with removable English subtitles and the English language dub. A scholarly and interpretive audio commentary by film critic Robert Gordon is extremely helpful for getting some kind of a handle on this quietly but determinedly abstract piece of work and the Blu-ray disc in the dual pack also contains a theatrical trailer created by the BFI to announce the original DVD release. The DVD disc in the set also includes a fine 34 minute interview with Terrence Stamp conducted by academic Rossana Capitano, which is invaluable as Stamp talks here in detail about his life during and after his Italian adventures working with Fellini and then Pasolini. The actor provides great insight into how he went about playing such an abstract and inscrutable character, and he also talks about his career since then too, including how he came back to cinema after many years spent on an Ashram in India. He also reveals that he didn’t actually earn a penny from “Theorem” thanks to his naivety in waiving the strictures of his original contract supposedly so that the movie could be completed, only to discover that the producers had earned a fortune in selling the movie abroad with lucrative overseas deals. Ruefully Stamp notes that in spite of his apparently strict left wing Marxist beliefs, the director seemed pretty adept at ‘looking after number one!’
The dual-disc release from the BFI also features an interesting booklet of current and contemporary essays on the film (by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Philip Strick); a profile of Terrence Stamp by Roma Gibson; a biographical overview of the life of Pier Paolo Pasolini (also by Nowell-Smith) and film credits and acknowledgments.
“Theorem” was given a special award by the International Catholic Film Office when it was shown at the Venice Film Festival in 1968. But the award was then withdrawn, and the film renounced by the Pope because it apparently did not ‘respect the sensibility of Christian people’. These contradictory reactions sum up a film which seems by its very nature to embody opposites: the possibility of a supernatural transcendence is contemplated, yet all those who encounter it are left destroyed. Is the Visitor an angel or a devil? Do the reactions of the visited family (which seem to echo the forms of escape sought by many in late-sixties Europe) excoriate 20th century capitalism or are they merely the historically inevitable results of humanity’s estrangement from its primal past? Such questions are raised by the film almost without our being fully aware of their presence in the mind, and many more half-formed disquietudes of the soul are seeded by its lyrical, visually intoxicating poetry. It also has worth as a late-sixties cultural time capsule, capturing urban and pastoral shades of a transforming Italy during a period of great cultural upheaval and uncertainty. This BFI package is a must for the student of 20th century cinema, providing both the best possible reproduction of the movie and a host of enlightening, educational commentaries on it with the extras and booklet pieces. Recommended.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!