Openly gay, atheist and communist in a society that found each of these unacceptable. No wonder I find Pier Paolo Pasolini one of my favorite directors. The thing is, his movies are not my favorites. They are fine and interesting, but not something I’ll go back and watch again and again.
Except Theorem. For some reason this is a movie I will go back to. It even made my top 100 movies list last year ranked at 90. This essay is an examination of that movie and is partly for me. I want to understand why this particular movie in Pasolini’s filmography is of special interest to me.
To start with, we should probably look at Pasolini’s career as a director as a whole first.
He started in the early 60s as a neorealist. He was a little late to the game, but his first two movies – Accattone and Mamma Roma – were about the lives of common people trying to get by. They were considered scandalous for various reasons, but mostly for normalization of sex work, which is a theme he returns to in his later work.
While his next two movies – The Gospel According to St. Matthew and The Hawks and the Sparrows – still have neorealist influences, they deal more with religion. Pasolini wanted to explore Christianity even if he wasn’t himself a Christian. Especially The Hawks and the Sparrows does feel like in the end, despite an honest attempt, he couldn’t bring himself to take religious ideas seriously.
After this he moved into what is known as his mythical cycle. The first and last, Oedipus Rex and Medea, of this informal series of four films are very much from Greek mythology following Sophocles’ play and the story of Medea from Jason and the Argonauts. The second and third are very different. I will focus on Theorem soon, but the third movie is Pigsty, a movie with two parallel stories, one of which is about how there wasn’t much of a difference between the people in power in Germany during the Third Reich or that of the day, and the other is about falling into cannibalism.
The next three films are to blame for me in my youth thinking Pasolini was just making softcore. These form the Trilogy of Life. There is a lot of nudity in these. They are all based on well-known collections of stories: The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales and A Thousand and One Nights respectively.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who made the mistake of thinking that Pasolini only made softcore, as he felt the need to fight back against this reputation with a Trilogy of Death. However, he only managed to make one of them before his gruesome murder: Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. It’s easily his most notorious movie and for a good reason. He had never really been one to hold back, but his disdain for the various institutions, which ruled Italy at the time, was on full display here. None of that open-minded exploration of religion here: This is just full condemnation of the Catholic church, as well as the nobility, the political machine and the judicial system.
Soon after he died. While the 17-year-old prostitute he was with at the time was convicted of the crime, the actual perpetrators have remained a mystery for the past 46 years. Reportedly the murderers shouted “Communist” at him.
Looking back at his films, as a director, he was competent. Nothing special. He knew the technical side well enough or had access to people who did this for him. He is more memorable as an author. He wrote his own movies and thus maintained control over his vision, which he might have lost otherwise.
But maybe I should finally get to the actual subject.
Theorem or Teorema is a 1968 film both written and directed by Pasolini. Unlike his earlier films, Pasolini decided to use professional actors in this one, but he still maintained that he hired them as people rather than as professionals.
The movie opens with a flash-forward of news footage from a factory, which has just been gifted by the former owner to the employees. The scene is chaotic and there seems to be uncertainty about the situation, but mostly from the journalist conducting interviews, who is a representative of the establishment in this particular situation.
The rest of the movie can be divided into two parts, which I shall call the Visit and the Aftermath.
The Visit begins with a weird messenger bringing the news that a visitor is coming to visit a rich family. There is no other explanation. This seems to be enough for everyone involved. There are no strong reactions to this news.
When the Visitor arrives (and this is the only name ever given to him), the world suddenly becomes more clear and colorful. The actual color in the film changes from a brown tint to realistic colors. Otherwise the Visitor just slides into family life.
Then the Visitor either seduces or let’s the various members of the family seduce him. This starts with the extremely religious maid, moves to the son, then the mother, then the daughter and finally the father. Each of these scenes is more about the Visitor making himself available to the others than aggressively pursuing anyone.
But then the weird messenger reappears bringing the news of the Visitor having to move on. Each member of the household reacts very differently. The maid returns to her village as a holy person performing miracles to the benefit of her own people. The son leaves the family to pursue a life of art. The mother enjoys her newly found sexuality by picking up young men. The daughter falls into a catatonic state. Finally, the father gives away his factory to the workers, strips down publicly and wanders into the wilderness. The movie ends with him screaming alone and naked in a desert.
Pasolini himself made it clear that The Visitor is not Jesus Christ, but he also stated that he wasn’t himself sure whether it was God or Satan. In this sense, Terence Stamp is an excellent choice to play this character. He is very handsome and cool, but there is also a reason why he played General Zod. There is an edge to him, even though in this movie he is nothing, but gentle with everyone.
On the other hand, isn’t this the way Satan would approach things? That is a much easier way to persuade anyone to do anything than using force. Actually, probably much more fun anyway, depending on the version of Satan.
Each seduction is actually very touching. The family members are hesitant or even fearful, but The Visitor is very disarming. He is able to let these people let their guard down. The family members are quite clumsy in their attempts, the maid’s “move” is just to lie down and pull her skirt up, for example.but the Visitor approaches these situations with love and compassion. He’s there for everyone equally.
It is weird that the answer to the problems of each family member is sex, but sex is also a sort of passage to a new stage in their lives. While sex is often a component of magical traditions in our world, sex is truly magical in this world. And like magic traditions warn in our world, it can have negative repercussions.
In fact, it would seem that while the Visitor does have an effect on the family members, only the maid, who was already selfless, is capable of fully realizing this gift. She also seems to have a deeper understanding of the situation. There is a feel of penance to her actions after she leaves the family and ultimately she sacrifices herself for the benefit of her people. This is done on a construction site, where she has an older woman cover her with mud as she sheds tears to form a spring. I’m not sure how I feel about this. Is Pasolini telling us that her sacrifice is going to be bulldozed over in the name of progress?
The father of the family is named Paolo. Was Pasolini examining himself? Is the idea here that Pasolini is looking at what he himself would do if put into such a position of being a prominent capitalist and a family man? Is he projecting the hope that he himself would have nerve and determination to do that? Is the scream in the wilderness by a naked middle-aged man his own fear about a weakness in his own character in this regard?
I do like how breaking this taboo is the answer. Pasolini depicts the family as if living in a gilded cage. They are victims of their own prosperity. They have the material means to acquire anything they need, but they lack the emotional means to really take advantage of that. Their lives are comfortable, but ultimately hollow.
Pasolini is great, because he isn’t preaching. We know he has his own agenda, but he isn’t telling us what to think. Instead he is making the movie equivalent of a hypothetical question. He is looking to examine his own worldviews by presenting these absurd situations.
He seems to have been better at this with questions about religion. While he occasionally succumbed to preaching about or judging the weirder and more dangerous sides of Christianity, he would often explore Christian ideas quite open-mindedly or at least make an honest attempt to. Sure, this would lead him into strange places, like in Theorem, but as an atheist with interest in religion myself, this is the interesting part of his work.
So, why is Theorem my favorite movie of his? I’m not much closer to any kind of meaningful answer than I was when I began to write this. It does feel more coherent than many of his other movies. Still, it leaves a lot open to interpretation. He didn’t even claim to have a full understanding of what’s going on himself. And while I’m not against this in movies, he doesn’t need to resort to showing depravity as he did in so many of his other movies. The family is what we would expect, not a caricature of an upper class family. It doesn’t need to be.
Finally, a very serious and official ranking of Pasolini’s movies (with YouTube links for those I could fine, I did not check them for quality or CC – I was not able to find Salo, but I would expect that to be removed from the servers quite fast):
- The Gospel According to Matthew
- Salo, or the 120 days of Sodom
- Mamma Roma
- Canterbury Tales
- The Decameron
- Arabian Nights
- The Hawks and the Sparrows
- Oedipus Rex
Weirdly, the movies around Theorem are my least favorite of his.