DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Trilogy of Life (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights), Blu-ray (1971-1974/2012)

A bawdy and controversial depiction of tales from Boccaccio and Chaucer plus the Arabian Nights, in three films.

Published on December 23, 2012

Trilogy of Life (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights), Blu-ray (1971-1974/2012)

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Cast: Paolo Pasolini, Ninetto Davoli, others
Designer: Dante Ferretti
Studio: UA/MGM/The Criterion Collection 632, 633, 634 (3 discs) [11/13/12]
Music: Ennio Morricone
Video: 1.85:1 for 16:9 1080p HD color
Audio: Italian PCM mono
Subtitles: English
Extras: New visual essays with film scholars Patrick Rumble and Tony Rayns; New interviews with art director Dante Ferretti, composer Ennio Morricone, and film scholar Sam Rohdie; “The Lost Body of Alibech” – 2005 45 min. documentary about a lost sequence from The Decameron; “The Secret Humiliation of Chaucer” – a 2006 47 min. documentary on The Canterbury Tales; “Via Pasolini” -documentary in which Pasolini discusses his views on language, film and modern society; “Pier Paolo Pasolini and The Form of a City” – 1974 16-min. documentary about the ancient Italian cities of Orte and Sabaudia; Deleted scenes from Arabian Nights; Pasolini-approved English-dubbed track for The Canterbury Tales; Trailers; Illustrated booklet with essays by critic Colin MacCabe, 1975 Paolini article “Trilogy of Life Rejected,” Berlin Film Festival press conference on The Canterbury Tales, report from the set of Arabian Nights (most extras in 4:3 format)
Length: The Decameron = 111 min.; The Canterbury Tales = 111 min.; Arabian Nights = 130 min.
Rating: ****½

The highly controversial Italian filmmaker, poet, writer and intellectual, Pier Paolo Pasolini has been valued as a visionary thinker and figure in Italian cinema, literature and art since his death in 1975. He is recognized as a major voice in poetry of the 20th century as well as contributing a new sort of filmic language. Much of his work displays a highly idealized version of Pasolini’s own homoerotic sex life.

That is especially true of this bawdy and sometimes shocking trilogy. Pasolini saw these medieval tales from premodern world literature as an escape from everything he hated in modern society, including the commodification of sex.   (Though nothing like his very next film, Salo.) He got criticism for his turning to this area to get away from contemporary leftist politics in which he was so immersed. In it he celebrates the innocent human body and shows the sexes taking pleasure in one another and each other, while flaunting the societal and religious mores of both the Middle Ages and today. We know there’s plenty of scatological humor in both of the first two sets of tales, but Pasolini pulls out all the stops visually and standards of decency are totally ignored. There is a definite emphasis on the penile. All three films make prominent use of Pasolini’s protégé, Ninetto Davoli, and with him as well as other actors, long frontal shots of just their faces frequently being used. Pasolini believed this was an effective communication with the viewer.

The Decameron uses stories which attracted Pasolini from Boccaccio’s 14th century moral tales—those which show the time as being less compromised. The director moved the placement of the tales from Boccaccio’s Florence to his birthplace, Naples, and the stories neatly spear pieties of religion and sex. There are randy nuns, a man’s adventures with two thieves in a church, and Pasolini—who appears in the first two films—playing an assistant of the painter Giotto, working on a massive fresco.

The Canterbury Tales was shot in England using eight of Chaucer’s bawdy tales, and with Pasolini playing Chaucer himself, having to deal with his shrewish wife. The stories include one about an elderly nobleman briefly struck blind after marrying a younger promiscuous bride, and it concludes with an amazing and outrageous portrayal of a literal hell with friars and others of the naked damned and demons.  In one tale, depicting Davoli as a sort of happy-go-lucky ne’er-do-well, Pasolini’s protégé channels some Charlie Chaplin—even to the top hat and cane. What is most striking about both of these first two films is the feeling that one is actually in the Middle Ages—more so than any Hollywood costume drama of the period. Pasolini uses wonderful ornate and partly-preserved buildings still standing from the period, and with the costumes and details of the crowd scenes, the feeling is quite an amazing one. (Only once, in Arabian Nights, is there a glimpse of some electric or phone wires against the sky.)

Arabian Nights differs from the other two films in several respects. Pasolini doesn’t appear in it. In spite of its title, Pasolini shot it not only in the Middle East but also in Africa and India. Instead of the usual fairy tales which Scheherazade told in order to put off her execution, these are more erotic tales of sexual desire, betrayal etc. There is no reference to the Islamic religion or society. The stories often break into other stories, one inside another. One of the documentaries describes Paolini as being inspired by the interweaving story lines in the Saragossa Manuscript, though he didn’t intend to achieve the complexity of that film. I’ve seen both and while I understood most of the Saragossa Manuscript, I must say I was lost at some of Arabian Nights. Some developments seem to have no explanation at all. The framing story at the beginning and end concern a young man’s love for an older beautiful slave girl, who seems to be the one entirely in charge of things, even when she is a slave. Davoli has a major role in this one again, which a film scholar describes as Pasolini’s farewell to his protégé—who had gotten married to a woman the year before. There is also a castration scene, which Paolini didn’t need to show. Again, the costumes and buildings are stunning—sometimes looking like fantasy Hollywood backgrounds but they are actualities, since Pasolini didn’t have the budget for special sets. The one taking place in India is especially gorgeous, especially the scene with all the bells.

The astoundingly realistic settings were to me the most exciting part of the Trilogy. The closeups of the faces are also most interesting, though they sometimes seem to be drawn out too long. I understand some of the films were shot with only two Arriflexes and no sync sound equipment, with the sound added later. That may explain the frequent lack of lip sync of the Italian soundtrack; fortunately there are excellent English subtitles. The Morricone scores are usually fitting, but occasionally there is strange low-level string quartet music that sounds as if Pasolini just stuck it on later without thinking about whether it was appropriate or not. There are also a few sizable vertical  scratches, even some in a color, which is not at all usual on the skillful Criterion remasterings, but generally the screen images are of high quality.

—John Sunier




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