A distinguished philosopher, linguist, novelist, playwright, filmmaker, newspaper columnist, actor, painter and political figure, Pier Paolo Pasolini started his career aged seven writing poetry influenced by Rimbaud. It ended abruptly 48 years later when he was murdered on the beach at Ostia near Rome – either by a disgruntled rent boy or political enemies, depending on who you believe – but in the intervening period he directed twelve full-length films, spanning documentary, drama, satire and at least one Marxist retelling of the life of Christ.
Theorem, from 1968, is the ultimate summation of Pasolini’s creative preoccupations. His first big-budget international production, it’s part dream and part documentary, part parable and part political attack, part satire and part sex farce. It also amasses an array of stylistic and intellectual contradictions that amaze with each viewing.
This new BFI DVD – featuring the usual extensive liner notes and an exclusive interview with Terence Stamp – only reinforces those contradictions. The plot is almost wordless: a mysterious guest – Stamp at the height of his 60s beauty, wearing some of the tightest trousers ever depicted on screen – suddenly appears at the home of a prosperous middle-class industrialist, Paolo. There is no indication of his reason for visiting or his name, but he immediately becomes part of the household. Stamp then seduces (in order) the maid, the son, the mother, the daughter and finally the father in a series of curiously sexless encounters. At one point Stamp even frolics in his underwear with the family dog, although Pasolini spares us any acts of interspecial congress. A cipher for the family to project their desires onto, when Stamp leaves they each cope with his absence by suffering a series of breakdowns and revelations. The daughter becomes a catatonic. The son abandons his dreams of becoming an artist. The mother picks up strangers and has sex with them in fields. Paolo hands over the running of his factory to the workers, exposes himself in a busy railway station and runs up Mount Etna naked. Oddest of all is the maid, who achieves sainthood, eats nettles and performs several miracles before being buried alive.
What all of this means remains deliberately unresolved. Is Pasolini’s theorem that sex has replaced religion as our main mode of spiritual connection? Is bourgeois society only held together by sexual repression? Does challenging that repression beautify the working class? Is the visitor God? The Devil? The International Catholic Film Office certainly thought so – saluting the movie’s engagement with spiritual issues with a special award at the 1969 Venice Film Festival before Vatican protests saw the award being swiftly withdrawn.
‘It’s not important to understand Theorem’, said Pasolini in an interview given in 1969. ‘I leave it to the spectator… is the visitor God or is he the Devil? He is not Christ. The important thing is that he is sacred, a supernatural being. He is something from beyond.’ Rewatching Theorem it’s hard not to think of Pasolini in the same way.