Pier Paolo Pasolini, poet, painter, writer, homosexual, Marxist, filmmaker and enfant terrible, was certainly a multi-faceted artist. His films similarly show great variety, from his late neo-realist gangster classic Accattone (1961) to Greek tragedy in Medea (1969), from intellectual allegory in Theorem (1968) to the popular pastoral bawdy romps that Pasolini called his ‘Trilogy of Life’. The Decameron makes up the first part of this trilogy; the other two films - The Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1974) - are similarly based on medieval folk tales and storytelling. However, from the opening shot, which shows the director’s regular collaborator Franco Citti (who starred as Accattone) bludgeoning an unseen victim, we are never in any doubt that this is a classic Pasolini film.
Choosing 10 stories from Boccaccio’s 100, and dispensing with the framing narrative - seven women and three men (with their servants) tell stories to while away the time spent in the country to avoid the Great Plague of 1348 - Pasolini’s film nevertheless perfectly captures the spirit of these tales. The film is divided into two parts, each composed of five stories, one framing the other four. All are faithful to Boccaccio’s originals but are also well suited to Pasolini’s world view: sinners are remembered as saints, evil doings go unpunished and religious hypocrisy is rife. Typically, Pasolini also juxtaposes contradictory tales to emphasise their political aspect. We go from aspirational parents who insist on marriage when they catch their daughter in flagrante with the son of a wealthy man, to the famous ‘Pot of Basil’ story, in which a girl is caught with a lower-class lover, with grisly results. The latter tale is kindly shortened, allowing the girl to keep her pot of basil and water it with her tears, in contrast to Boccaccio’s original tale or Keats’s great poem. Although Pasolini is interested in the political subtext of the tales, he hardly offers a Marxist reworking - the bawdy folk tales are told simply and the film never feels didactic.
Pasolini himself plays an artist dreaming of and painting frescoes of heaven and hell on a church wall. In Boccaccio’s epic, the artist is the Early Renaissance painter Giotto, although he is modestly recast here as a ‘student of the master’ (in The Canterbury Tales, Pasolini similarly plays Geoffrey Chaucer). The film has a painterly look with colours that seem to have been taken directly from Giotto’s palette, although the scenes are perhaps more reminiscent of Breughel or Bosch. Perhaps Giotto’s most important legacy was his introduction of the technique of life drawing; a similar impulse can be seen in Boccaccio’s embrace of popular folk tales and particularly in his decision to write in vernacular Italian rather than Latin. Similarly, Pasolini, it seems, is striving to create a vernacular cinema.
The depiction of the Middle Ages may not be quite as filthy as that in Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975), with its mud-encrusted peasants, but with carefully chosen locations and non-professional actors (framed in Pasolini’s long, still close-ups) clearly cast for their medieval dentistry, we get an essentially realist depiction akin to Rossellini’s Francesco Giullare di Dio (1950). Unfortunately, the clumsy post-synchronised sound seems to be the price we pay for those great locations.
The emphasis on simplicity means that the stories seem slight and at times underwhelming (even Ennio Morricone’s score is free of bombast and confined to folk ditties), and the humour (falling into cesspits, etc.) is not so far removed from a Carry On film. However, there is an honesty about sexual relations rarely found in 20th-century literature or film, as well as a determination to entertain the audience that was key to the storytelling tradition. These films were Pasolini’s biggest box-office successes. This led to a series of imitation bawdy romps to be released in Italy, which caused Pasolini to write a repudiation of his trilogy and to return to a rather less crowd-pleasing cinema with his next film - Salí³, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975).
The Decameron, like most of Pasolini’s work, never fully satisfies, lacking the epic sweep that such an adaptation deserves, but it is a serious and worthy attempt. The film ends with Giotto’s student (Pasolini) looking at the completed dream-inspired frescoes, asking a question that could be applied to any such adaptations or even to artistic creation itself, one that fully captures Pasolini’s self-doubts: ‘Why paint a picture when the dream is so much better?’
Also available from the BFI on DVD and Blu-ray: Arabian Nights and The Canterbury Tales.