By Nathanael Griffis
A cover for the book. See, it's all medieval and stuff.
In my research through easily available anthology films I came across Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Decameron, which is an adaption of nine shorts from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron. Quick literature lesson, students: The Decameron is a 14th Century text with 100 thematically tied-together stories. There’s a frame story involving the black plague and a group of people fleeing to live in the country and tell stories to each other. As far as the book goes there’s a lot of interesting analysis to be done. It’s a great way to find out about 14th century Italian values, but we’re talking movies. Listen, what you need to know is it’s a bunch of medieval tales taking place in Italy.
It’s a natural book to adapt into an anthology film and, I am told, an important anthology film. Pier Paolo Pasolini is a name that had passed between my ears before, I’m sure. I knew he was Italian. I knew he made movies before my time. I knew that film people watched his films. I knew he liked nudity for some reason too. I knew all these things, so I was clearly prepared to watch The Decameron. Then I started reading up on it, and as the words “lewd,” “provocative,” and “shocking” came up, I became intrigued. It seems to have made quite a stir in its time.
What I was rewarded with was an accurate adaptation of The Decameron that is not nearly as interesting as the rumors about it are. Yes, there are a lot of full-frontal nudity shots, and perhaps this is Pasolini’s point, but they’re shot so naturally and become so ubiquitous that they become boring. It’s an interesting effect to be bored by a completely nude man or women, but when a nude woman is played up for laughs and I’m bored, it’s a failure on some level. There are nine stories, most being humorous and revolving around sex and poop jokes, which is an accurate adaptation of The Decameron. Turns out people have always had dirty minds.
I suppose I should give you a rundown of the nine segments, huh? That’s the critical thing to do, and of course that’s why you read a review of The Decameron. So here’s what I’ve got: a summary and moral for each segment follows.
Here's exactly what it looked like when ten people got together and talked in the 14th century.
#1 – A rich young horse merchant, sporting an afro, by the way, gets robbed of his money by falling into a toilet and is then tricked into falling into a coffin, which is full of jewels.
-Moral: As long as you have a period-inappropriate hairdo, it doesn’t matter how much shit you get into, it’ll all be okay. (P.S. This segment’s not that bad–it’s probably the funniest.)
#2 – A handsome young gardener pretends to be a deaf-mute so he can carouse with a bunch of sex-deprived nuns.
-Moral: I’ve got 99 problems, but a nun ain’t one.
#3 – An adulterous wife hides her lover in a big jar, tricks husband into thinking she’s selling the lover the jar. Husband cleans jar, which is very big, and wife and lover get it on while he’s cleaning it.
-Moral: Jars are big and dirty, and brushing one’s teeth is a good thing.
#4 – The world’s most despicable man, who dies during an Italian drinking song, lies during his last rites and is giving a sainthood.
-Moral: You can murder, cheat, steal, lie, rape, and anything else, but if you so much as miss a note, well then… it doesn’t matter ’cause you can just lie some more.
#5 – Allievo di Giotto tries to find inspiration for a mural. Oh yeah, and there’s a couple of gay priests holding hands. (This segment is interspersed throughout the remaining four segments.) In the end, though, everyone’s happy, but Giotto prefers dreaming about his painting to its completion.
-Moral: Artists are lazy.
#6 – A boy sneaks onto the roof to make love with a girl. Parents see them and “trick” the boy into marrying beneath his stature.
-Moral: Don’t have sex or you might wind up with a pretty wife.
#7 – Three brothers protect their sister from the shame of intercourse with a servant by killing the servant. Sister then chops off dead lover’s head and puts it in a flower pot.
-Moral: Family is complicated.
#8 – Priest tells a man who has a beautiful wife that he can turn a woman into a horse. Man asks priest to show him. Priest shows man how to do this. You do this by playing a precursor to pin the tail on the donkey.
#9 – Two friends, one a sex fiend and the other a virtuous religious man, make a pact to come back from the afterlife, whichever of them dies first, of course, and tell the other what the afterlife is like. The sex fiend dies and tells the virtuous man they don’t care about sex. Virtuous guy runs in elation to the woman he’s been pining for, on the way punting a cat, to engage in relations.
-Moral: Sex is fun, but you’d better hope they don’t care about animal cruelty, too.
There, for all you undergrads writing papers and looking for a quick summary, you’re welcome. I understand if you skip the rest. Now, back to my honest review.
I don't know, really -- um, this guy on the horse was mad he wasn't invited, I suppose, so he loosed a naked woman on the party, then charged in and killed them all?
I knew the acting was going to be crappy, so that wasn’t a detractor. It’s just the jokes fell flat for the most part, and because each story leads up to a punchline, or a supposed dramatic climax, flat jokes ruin too many of the segments. It could also be a sign of a different time. We just have different tastes today. We like our jokes rapid fire, but Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks had that style for years, so what’s the deal, Pasolini? His film relies on slow scenery shots to build some semblance of symbolism that isn’t obvious to me at least. They also were probably funnier in the 14th century, because a man pretending to be perfect on his death bed and earning sainthood probably slayed at The Globe, but falls flat on Netflix.
Pasolini was clearly trying to push boundaries with how much male and female nudity he could show, but that in and of itself isn’t a film. It’s also not porn. I want to be clear, what he’s doing is artful in some ways, that’s not the issue. The issue for me is, it’s boring. We can see the lecherous priest seducing the farmer’s wife a mile away and the punchline falls flat, because there’s a long awkward strip scene that Pasolini seems more concerned with. He himself seems to be conflicted with the end product as he quotes the painter Allievo di Giotto (whom Pasolini also plays), “Why create a work of art, when dreaming about it is so much sweeter?” Kind of a challenging question, right? One that could keep you up at night if you think about it. It also challenges the entire film, because it falls short of any ideal it’s trying to achieve.
The work of art placed before us is not nearly as good as an idea. It would be an amazing thing to make an accurate depiction of The Decameron, to really challenge convention, to show male and female nudity in such a way that they became a natural thing–yeah, that would be amazing. I guess the genius of it is that he acknowledges this in his final statement, but just because you know you burnt the food doesn’t mean I have to eat it.
I was going to watch the other two anthology films Pasolini made in his pretentiously titled Trilogy of Life, but The Decameron simply wasn’t good enough to warrant it. So, how about an anthology film were each short is based on an aria?Alright, yeah, that sounds… bizarre. Next up, Aria.