Pier Paolo Pasolini at MOMA
The retrospective of the films of Pasolini at MOMA is such rich fare that one can only selectively digest it. Pasolini, who was so prolific in so many genres - poet, novelist, philosopher and political activist is also a lot to digest in a few words. His themes are mythic in their presentation operatic. It is a feast for the eyes and food for thought.
Teorema, which was made in 1968 and stars the preternaturally beautiful Terrence Stamp as a mysterious stranger who has somehow insinuated himself into the household of a prosperous bourgeoise Milanese family. The entire family is completely in his thrall even as he challenges their notions of propriety. But this seems to account for his allure as it allows each of them to project their most deeply held and closely guarded desires on to him. What follows is the serial seduction of each family member and the housekeeper. But it is impossible to say who is seducing whom. It almost seems as if they have seduced him and he has reluctantly succumbed. No matter, they are each brutally and traumatically yanked out of their reality and nothing will ever be the same.
The maid becomes a saintly apparition who even ascends as the villagers surround her for days and watch as she exists on a diet of nettles. The daughter sinks into a catatonic state. The son unleashes his artistic bent. The mother becomes an insatiable nymphomaniac. The father renounces all worldly possessions and becomes an ascetic seeker wandering naked across a desert. All of their bourgeoise trappings have fallen away leaving them stripped down to their essence. Pasolini was the enemy of the hypocrisy of the bourgeoise pieties of his time and it is clearly shown in Teorema.
Canterbury Tales is based on the Geoffrey Chaucer work of the same title. It is made up of tales from a competition among the religious pilgrims journeying to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in the 14th century. They were all tasked with telling stories to pass the time and keep each other entertained. As the individual pilgrims ran the social gamut from the highest to the lowest the stories were similarly disparate. But the common denominator in all of them is the extreme bawdiness. There is lewdness, both elevated and loutish in huge supply.
It give Pasolini a blank canvas to paint many and varied pictures and demonstrate his stylistic virtuosity without the constraints of hewing to any single story line. And he delivers in spades a panoramic view of life as it was lived in Europe of the time. It was
rough, course and brutish. There is a Hieronymus Bosch grotesqueness of many of these characters as they run amok in drunkenness and debauchery. Everything is being done to heedless excess. It is a rich canvas but not a pretty picture of English society and the church of the period.
Medea takes place in 431 BC in Corinth and tells a tale written by Euripides. It stars the ravishing Maria Callas as Medea, a powerful barbarian woman and the fiercely loyal wife of Jason, who helps him steal the Golden Fleece, which supposedly possessed enormous power. In doing so, Medea kills her two brothers, one who is offered up in a barbaric sacrifice where his body and blood are given to the people.
When Jason repays all that Medea has done on his behalf by revealing his plans to marry the daughter of the king of Corinth.......”hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” takes on a new meaning. Her all-consuming love and loyalty for Jason is now turned in equal measure into a single-minded need for maximum revenge on all who would take from her that which she has loved.
She implores piteously for just one more day before being sent into exile away from her children and husband. And that is long enough for her to devise the cunning plan to wreak havoc on all those who have wronged her. She manages to poison the king’s daughter. And the king dies trying to save her. But she is not yet pacified until she kills her two sons by Jason and takes their bodies as she escapes to Athens leaving Jason with nothing.
Watching Callas in this role is completely riveting. Even as she is committing the most horrendous acts of brutality it is impossible to find her a monster. What she conveys so powerfully is her all-consuming love which allows her to do unspeakable things in its name. She is all raw passion, irrational and unbounded.
According to Pasolini “Medea is the confrontation between the archaic, hieratic, clerical universe and the world of Jason, a world that is rational and pragmatic”. It is definitely a clash of dramatic and tragic proportions driven by primitive practices and primal urges on a very grand scale.
- Belle McIntyre