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The Magnificent Stranger: Pasolini’s Teorema and its Tradition (Criterion Collection)

Teorema 01

By Christopher Sharrett.

Many years ago I moved into a small house not far from the university where I took my first tenure-track position. It was a cozy little place on a pleasant street where ancient trees formed a protective, shady bower. It was a lower-middle-class neighborhood that seemed friendly. People at first waved to me and offered kind grins. I soon felt settled. Then things changed. The grins became less friendly, and the waves appeared to be forced, then vanished. Then the neighborhood kids yelled things like “nerd” and “faggot.” Were they afraid of gay people? I took a girlfriend to the house, in small part to dissuade the neighbors (with some contempt on my part) that I was not the sexual Other, although I certainly qualified in the “queer” category non-existent at the time, certainly to them. But I wore longish hair and an old sport jacket that didn’t really fit the mise en scène of the neighborhood – I could hardly see changing my wardrobe or habits for the neighbors’ obscure reasons. I thought they suspected I was an intellectual, always a despised class. What was really going on? My landlord suggested it was “bored teenagers,” but I said the “bad vibes” came from adults as well. On one Halloween Eve I came home to find all my windows soaped, with words like “nerd,” “fag,” and “doofus” inscribed in the dried suds.

At the time I had an old friend named Ramiro, a Cuban exile: he was a somewhat infelicitous combination of Marxist, Catholic, Latino, gay, and a practitioner of Santería. He was also one of the most brilliant scholars I have known, with a masterful and somewhat irreverent command of what became known as “theory.” I told him of the situation at my new house, which I was now almost afraid to approach. He had some insights, telling me that I represented to the locals all the things they love, at least unconsciously, but now hate. I was free of children, had no mortgage to pay in this rented house, was unburdened by their heavy bills (they assumed), had a free sex life that was perhaps bi-sexual – even allowing for orgies? I was an intellectual, making me a real threat since I could interrogate all the ideas and institutions that imprisoned them. I was, in short, a challenge and an interloper.

I told Ramiro that this seemed bizarre, since I tried my best to be a good citizen, taking care to be seen mowing the backyard and the like. He said it mattered little, since the problem was largely one of their projection; I was the receiver of all their frustrations and daydreams. I was, in short, a kind of negative messiah.

This had already occurred to me, but I didn’t put it in my friend’s penetrating language, which made the situation seem intractable – but not really, since I would be moving to a new home and a new university in short order, and a more congenial social climate where, as a married heterosexual, I would “fit in” even with longish hair. The problems at the old house came into focus for me when I was still there mainly as images in my head from films like The Fugitive Kind, Picnic, Shane, and above all, Pasolini’s masterpiece (aren’t all his films?) Teorema. At the occasion of Criterion’s release of Teorema on pristine Blu-ray, I can’t help but reflect on my earlier days, and the extraordinary myth taken to pieces by one of the great masters of the European cinema.

TeoremaThe myth of the interloper is foundational (Jesus fits it, as do Orpheus and Dionysius – at least in later Western readings); in Teorema, Pasolini relocates the myth in modern, suburban Milan (home of, among other things, Leonardo’s The Last Supper (1495-1498), another great subversion built upon by Pasolini). An upper-bourgeois family, presided over by the patriarch Paolo (Massimo Giroti) has what might be called its own last supper, as the master of the house receives a message: “arriving tomorrow.” A clownish postman – a young loon flapping his arms (Ninetto Davoli) – brings the note, and he might be read later as John the Baptist, or, as his name Angelino suggests, a messenger from heaven.

In a subsequent scene, we see a beautiful young man (Terence Stamp), referred to variously as The Guest or The Visitor, lounging about with the family and their friends. His arrival is odd: we never see it happen. He doesn’t descend from heaven, nor does he come in from the horizon line on a horse or motorcycle. He is simply there, making what takes place seem less a matter of the Guest’s powers than the projections and unstable psychic situation of each member of the family, including the maid Emilia (Laura Betti). Pasolini meant us to see the stranger as either “angel or devil”; clearly, he is a disrupter of the order of things as he sits in poses recalling the quattrocento masters. He has sex with each member of the family, forcing each to make a kind of confession, or at least express what has been for so long repressed: The father gives away his factory (an issue dealt with at the opening, with newspeople wondering what this would do to traditional ideas of class struggle) and ends up running naked over the rolling, smoking slopes of Mt. Etna, also a site (suggesting the wasteland of western civilization?) for Porcile. The wife, Lucia (the extraordinary Silvana Mangano), picks young hustlers up off the highway, one of whom resembles the Guest. The daughter Odetta (Anne Wiazemsky) becomes catatonic; her brother Pietro (Andres Jose Cruz Soubiette) tries to capture the Guest’s visage as he turns to abstract art – and laughs at himself, pissing on the canvas. (This is in part showing Pasolini’s contempt for abstract and Pop Art, all the rage in the 60s.) The maid Emilia returns to her peasant roots, where she appears to levitate, and is worshipped by the locals as a saint.

Teorema, or Theorem, is a fable about the destruction of the bourgeoisie seen by Pasolini as so fragile that it will shatter with the slightest provocation. By the time of this film – 1968, a year of mammoth resistance activity around the world – Pasolini had little faith, if he ever did, in a revolt by the proletariat. Even May ’68 in France was less about revolution than barricading streets, purposeless as students destroyed hope for a possible worker-student coalition. In Teorema, Pasolini posits a bourgeoisie destroyed by its own fantasies, in this instance the myth of a messiah who foreshadows the apocalypse, and the arrival of a utopia, a New Jerusalem, where the bourgeois mind finds ultimate consolation. The Guest of Teorema is a destructive messiah, since he answers to fantasies that seem fulfilling, but finally point to a moral and intellectual bankruptcy beyond redemption. The Guest is a dramatic device; his removal by the viewer may give a clearer sense of Pasolini’s intent. The father has nothing, his factory revealed in an early shot to be desolate, of no endemic value, nothing but rows of metal, concrete, and wood recalling the alienation of Antonioni, the end product of modernity. His homosexual needs are answered in a gesture that is too little too late. The wife’s cruising for hustlers is perhaps too obvious; like most women under patriarchal capitalism, she is a well-groomed breed sow, whose sexual needs are of no concern to the male order; she questions nothing so long as she is satisfied with the right appurtenances.

The children are empty vessels filled gradually, like all children, with their parents’ neuroses and expectations.

The children are empty vessels filled gradually, like all children, with their parents’ neuroses and expectations.

The children are empty vessels filled gradually, like all children, with their parents’ neuroses and expectations. The Guest brings the son a little sexual experimentation, the daughter mainly the satisfactions brought by her gaze on an object she is afraid to approach, although her photographs of him suggest an awareness, as his poses reveal a Mars or David by Donatello or Botticelli. Emilia, the peasant maid, is often seen as the greatest beneficiary of the Guest as she is transformed into a superbeing. But is her peasant society all that different from the bourgeoisie? Is the Guest the “true” messiah, rather than a product of fantasy, because he is viewed by a spiritually “privileged” social class? This is a dominant view of the Emilia scenes, especially validated, according to some, when, after her self-burial, her tears seems to fertilize the earth. The Earth Mother view seems embraced by Pasolini, lessening his profound satire. The film ends with the father, running naked across the slopes of Etna, his screams bringing and exceeding the end title “Fini.” If Emilia, the peasant, gives hope for a dead world, there is little indication that it will indeed come back to life.

In his interesting book of forty years ago, Sexual Alienation in the Cinema (1972), Raymond Durgnat associates Teorema with George Stevens’ Shane, although with little explication. Shane is the messiah fulfilling what filmmaker Rick Alverson has recently called the American utopian aspiration. The green terrain and majestic Grand Tetons have an empathetic relationship with the hero (opening titles) has he descends from the heavens on his steed. He sets things right for the little family, sacrifices himself for the purpose, and returns to heaven. There is a sexual temptation as he revitalizes the wife as well as husband, but the urge is easily avoided by the blonde, Aryan knight errant. The counterpoint to Shane is A Fistful of Dollars (its working title was The Magnificent Stranger), made a little over a decade later in Spain, where, after the cacophonous, savage opening titles, we see the hero from behind, in approximately the same POV as the start of Shane, but the poncho-clad hero rides a mule (in one of many mockeries of the Christian messiah), chewing a small cigar, entering an arid, sandy landscape. He sees a little family in trouble, but does nothing. Later on he will act – for vague reasons – only after he has figured how he will profit from the village’s internal conflicts. This visitor is a demon, destroying almost everyone in sight, enacting the apocalypse, the great wish-dream of the 1960s. This important film by Sergio Leone is the work of an artist who understands that America’s utopian fantasies are no longer possible. The ability to project produces nothing now but grotesqueries.

Pasolini’s theorem may have been reformulated by Bruno Dumont in Hors Satan, where a young man listed only as “The Guy” (the very compelling David Dewaele, one of Dumont’s non-actors who died far too soon) appear in a village on the French Opal Coast. The film’s title, Outside Satan, was almost a toss of a coin, since Dumont thought it might be titled Outside God – although the working title was for a time The Empire. (In an interview, Dumont told me of the title: “One has to choose.”) The Guy is both God and the devil, although “outside” both, a figure beyond good and evil, who can murder with fast deliberation as well as provide rejuvenating sex, causing the locals actually to genuflect to him. The Guy seems real, not merely the projection of the gazes of the spiritually vacant. He seems to have something in common with Tennessee Williams’ Val Xavier in The Fugitive Kind/Orpheus Descending, in that he is “real,” existing in the natural world rather than a fantasy object; he is able to leave since the locals have no control over him. Of all these figures, he is most closely associated with Nature, pausing and even kneeling down to look at Nature. He is a Transcendentalist figure, uniting the real and the spiritual. But Dumont’s Guy has something very much in common with Pasolini’s Guest: the urge to dream of the Perfect Human (man or woman, although in this particular figure necessarily male given its heritage), the subject of our constant search, the person who will set things right, personally and universally.

Teorema 03Pasolini’s Guest is the most sublime of all these figures, the most beautiful and ineffable, his purpose clearly tied to the disappearance of a social order. Pasolini’s camera renders the world of industrial Milan in sepia-toned black and white, a desert, before shifting to a superbly articulated color that discerns the modernist Milanese household, its visitors moving here and there, making Pasolini a kinsman of Resnais as well as Antonioni. The new Criterion edition of Teorema returns the film to us in a perfect aspect we haven’t seen since it was released. By way of complaint, the new Blu-ray contains a bit too much of the 2010 BFI edition, with the same monotone commentary track by Robert S.C. Gordon imported, although the Criterion has new interviews, and a nice introduction by Pasolini.

I have watched Teorema countless times since it was first shown in my home city, Philadelphia. I opened this piece with a long personal aside less to recount my own life than to introduce a topic so universal – the transformation of people by others’ desires – handled so masterfully by one of the supreme geniuses of cinema whose like we will not see again.

Christopher Sharrett has taught film for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International.

Read also:

Bruno Dumont and the Revival of the Human, Part 1

Homage to Humanity: La vie de Jesus and L’Humanite (Criterion Collection)

Son of Saul: Versions of the Irrational

Revenge is Sweet: The Bitterness of Audition

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