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At the MoviesMichael Wood
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Vol. 42 No. 7 · 2 April 2020
At the Movies

Pasolini’s ‘Teorema’

Michael Wood

1449 words

In​ Aeschylus’ Oresteia, and in the myth he was staging, the Furies that drove vengeance and justice are appeased, and converted into the so-called Kindly Ones. Pier Paolo Pasolini accepted this story as still current in Italy in the 1960s, but with an important variant. The transformation did not mean the Furies were any the less ‘irrational and archaic’, only that instead of haunting our dreams, ‘they reign over works of poetry, of affective imagination.’ Over some works of poetry, that is, and over some movies, like Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), which has just been reissued in a new digital version by the Criterion Collection.

One of the scarier qualities of the Furies in their new location is that they really can be kind (and not just pacified or polite) and still cause the old havoc. The passion or disturbance is in other people; it needs only to be woken up. There is just one Fury in Teorema, and he is gentle and helpful, could be mistaken for an angel (if he weren’t Terence Stamp, fresh from playing Troy in John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd). He understands everyone, leads them to discover their secret selves. He saves one character from suicide, turns another into an artist, and inspires another, a very rich man, to give his factory to his workers. It’s true that the character he saves, the maid in the rich man’s household, becomes a saint, which looks as if it might be worse than being dead; the artist creates his work only at the price of despising himself as a human being; and the donation of the factory is interpreted, in an interview with the workers, as an attempt to make socialism impossible, to ‘turn all humanity into the bourgeoisie’. But then all bets have to be off when an ancient force – or, as Pasolini put it, ‘a mysterious character who is divine love’ – comes to stay with a family for a while.

The arrival of the visitor is a great movie moment. We see the father, Paolo (Massimo Girotti), leaving his factory in his Mercedes, his son and daughter, Pietro and Odetta (Andrés José Cruz Soublette and Anne Wiazemsky), leaving their schools and joking with their friends in the street; the mother, Lucia (Silvana Mangano), at home looking just as bored and lonely as a bourgeois lady is supposed to, and the maid, Emilia (Laura Betti), taking care of a few chores. All this in black and white, as if to remind us what Neorealism used to look like before Fellini got hold of it. A postman fluttering his arms like an angel’s wings – just for fun, no symbolism intended, even if his name is Angelino – delivers a telegram to the maid, who in turn takes it to the family as they sit at supper. We see the telegram – it says ‘I arrive tomorrow’ – and suddenly the screen shifts to bright colour, and in the flicker of a moment we arrive at a later evening in the same house: a party where the author of the telegram is a guest, and people are wondering where he has come from. ‘Who is that boy?’ one woman asks in English. Another answers, also in English: ‘A boy.’

Each member of the household is attracted by the visitor but reacts in different ways. Well, not that different, since they all have to do with sex, and the visitor’s crotch is an object of special attention for the camera. He sleeps with all five of them, so that sexuality seems to be the theorem to be tested. The basic questions might be: ‘Where has it been, and why have they all been pretending it didn’t exist?’ This seems rather reductive, though, and I think Pasolini is more interested in sex as an emblem for any kind of major trouble that feels like some sort of truth. Or perhaps he thinks sex is what the bourgeoisie has to pretend to dislike, at least in its anarchic forms, and sex would then stand for something they like to think about even less: the extravagant privileges of their class. In any case, the real difficulty is in dealing with what the troubling truth leads to.

The theorem has corollaries – Pasolini’s name for what happens when the visitor leaves, as he does halfway through the movie, never to be seen again. The five cases are parallel but do not form a coherent picture. Paolo, as we have seen, gives his factory away; Pietro is the self-hating painter we have looked at; Odetta becomes catatonic and is carted away to hospital; Lucia starts picking up and sleeping with young men who look a little like the visitor; and, most interestingly, Emilia returns to her native village and speaks to no one. She seems to feel this is the only right reaction to her horror at the thought that she might have a sexual life. She sits on a bench near her old home, refuses to eat anything except boiled nettles, and at one point levitates above the buildings and hangs in the sky for a while. She also performs a miracle. A boy with a face covered in pustules is brought to her. She blesses him, and the marks are all gone. Finally, she asks an old lady to help her bury herself on a deserted building site, covering her body until only her eyes are visible. Her tears are the message she wishes to leave. It’s hard to know what to make of this Catholic fable, especially in the vaguely Marxist air of the rest of the film. Maybe it’s telling us that peasants really know about self-punishment, and that it can be theologically rewarded.

Before the film was released Pasolini published a novel with the same title, ‘painting’ the two works, he said, with different hands. The metaphor is unusually helpful, since the difference in methods of painting – with words, with film – is the whole difference between the two works. The plot and characters are the same. The novel is tentative, leaving a great deal to the imagination in ways that film, at least as long as it is photographing actual places and people, rarely does. ‘This scene … the reader must read only as providing hints.’ It’s not impossible to hint on film, but it is hard. The most important common ground that looks different in the two works is the desert, a set of images of drifting sands and shadows. These shots punctuate the movie, and we interpret them in any way we like. In the novel, by contrast, the presence of the desert receives a full-blown metaphysical justification. A group of biblical Jews are walking there. Their experience is that ‘at each mile the horizon was a mile further off,’ and they take this condition as the source of a special realisation. They think not of endlessness but of ‘Oneness’. ‘The Oneness of the desert was like a dream that allows no sleep and from which one cannot awaken.’ And there is a point at which the two works, having diligently pursued their different modes, really do meet up. That is to say, the novel helps us to understand the film. The difficult item is the scream that closes the movie.

Paolo gives away his factory but still has to deal with his newly discovered homosexual impulses. He trawls the railway station for a while, almost approaches an attractive young man, then makes a final decision, an act of seeming madness that has a curious authority. Standing there in the station he takes all his clothes off, and we see his bare legs walk away, among other, covered legs, and we follow the legs until they are in the desert. Then we see Paolo as a full, tiny figure walking through the dunes and the wind. After quite a few different takes, we get closer to him, and he begins to scream. He keeps screaming until the image goes dark and we see the word ‘Fine’ (‘The End’). In the novel Paolo speaks through a poem describing his scream as ‘terrible … but … also somehow joyous’, and goes on to list its other contradictory qualities: asking for help, cursing the helper; expressing both fear and hope, certainty and despair. These are the book’s last words:

Whatever
This scream of mine tries to say
It is fated to last beyond any possible end.

We don’t have to hear the film’s scream in this way, but it isn’t a bad start for an understanding of what it means to find your hidden self and lose everything else.

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