There is only one word for this collection, according to Judge Bill Gibron: Genius!
There was always more to this man than filth and feces.
When you think of the name Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of Italian cinema, you more than likely imagine his pungent political screen, Salo, Or the 120 Days of Sodom. A horrific responsorial to the Fascism that swept through his homeland during the Second World War, the controversial movie featured scenes of sickness and debauchery so depraved and base that some 38 years after its release (and rejection), it remains a lightning rod of critical and aesthetic assessment. Some, including yours truly, believe in its genius. Others, rightfully, dismiss it as shock value for the sake of a simplistic message (basically-"absolute power corrupts, absolutely"). But Pasolini was more than the craven and the cruel. He was a poet, journalist, philosopher, novelist, playwright, actor, painter and political pundit and his Mamma Roma remains one of the great works of later Neo-Realism.
But Salo changed everything…everything. Pasolini was murdered shortly after the film's release (the crime had nothing to do with the notorious movie…or did it) and, over the years, infamy replaced insight as a way of judging the man. Luckily, the Criterion Collection has gone out of its way to bring Pasolini's more complicated character back. First, they released a brilliant version of Mamma Roma. Then, they made Salo available, with proper added context. Now, they are offering perhaps the best example of what the filmmaker really was to his craft. The Trilogy of Life represents the three films Pasolini made before his final cinematic scandal—The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1974). Ripe with ribald humor and blatant sexual, they see the filmmaker as more mischievous and enigmatic. They also argue for his place among the artform's greats, earning an easy place alongside fellow Hall of Famers like Felinni, De Sica, and Antonioni.
Facts of the Case
Based on three classic works of literature, each film represents Pasolini's interpretation of said text. They are not meant to be literal adaptation, but instead, each book acts as inspiration for the director's own desire to pursue his own personal ideas. Summing up each briefly, here is what you can expect from the episodic narratives:
The Canterbury Tales
Let's face it: Pasolini did himself no service by making Salo. Sure, the politics scream of importance and a need to express his inner rage at his home country. It's a movie mired in contradictions, a gorgeous and careful depiction of vileness and chaos. Even after the closing credits roll, the message seems lost in a series of shock-value set pieces that, while making their point, also overstay their pure aesthetic welcome. The result is a masterpiece muddled by its own intentions, A Serbian Film for its age. In fact, it's safe to say that Pasolini probably inspired more filmmakers to use the gruesome and grotesque to make their psycho-sexual-social voices clear that anyone else. You can see it everywhere, from the Japanese splatter of the '80s and '90s to the equally bloody diatribes (read: Cannibal Holocaust and the like) in his native land.
As a filmmaker, however, Pasolini remains astonishing. Anyone who's seen the brilliant Mamma Roma or his pre-Salo standards like The Gospel According to St. Matthew can agree on such a statement. He is tactile and immersive, never letting anything—emotion or offal—elude the audience. You do more than witness his movies. You live them with the characters. Perhaps that's why Salo has become so scandalous. If there was a way to avoid having the degradation and debauchery cling to us, we'd welcome it. Instead, Pasolini promises much and then delivers a mountain more. Visualizing one's inner demons can be demanding, but so can picturing one's passions. When the filmmaker went through his self-described "happy" phase, the result was this trio of ribald offerings. Pasolini would later dismiss them as a passing fancy. Too bad all directors don't have larks as lasting.
With Pasolini being a film theorist and scholar, someone engrossed in the language and art of his craft as much as anything else, it is easy to see why The Trilogy of Life succeeds—and stumbles. Without resorting to utter depravity, Pasolini is capable of commenting on his world (circa the early '70s) while provoking the audience's own passive perversity. Like Mozart cutting a fart before settling into the masterful Marriage of Figaro, Pasolini is blowing a raspberry at the bourgeois patrons who his politics despise while giving them something sensual and silly. There is vulgarity and slapstick humor in abundance, creative additions that allow the filmmaker to mock his subjects as he celebrates them. Perhaps more importantly, the episodic nature of each movie masks an overall big picture. In essence, with these films, Pasolini is arguing against safety and security. He's asking his viewers to embrace everyday existence in all its gaudy, petty passions. For Pasolini, life is meant to be lived, not just noted and stored away.
Of the three, The Decameron is perhaps the most complex. It intertwines its tales in a much more successful way (though perhaps not how original author Boccaccio intended). By using the bookend device of the student/artist relationship, and with Pasolini himself playing the instructor, the purpose becomes clear. The filmmaker will be using the stories to teach us something, to show us a side of things we may not ever experience or even consider. The church—a constant target of criticism by Pasolini—plays a large part in the interconnected storylines. From thieves wanting to literally rob religion to nuns who can't get enough sex, The Decameron constantly condemns organized faith. It also tackles the more mundane issues of class and culture. There's adultery, carnality, and contemplations of the afterlife, all set within Pasolini's combination of pragmatism and the profound.
If The Decameron was an introduction to this newfound cinematic hedonism, The Canterbury Tales is the full blown flesh and fetish freak-out. There is a lot of Salo in this movie, much more than many might initially see. Reimagining a mere eight of the book's 24 tales, Pasolini goes full bore into pure burlesque mode. Granted, it may not seem as splashy as The Decameron, but the tone is more troubling, so to speak. Pasolini seems to be in his element, enlivening his interpretations of Chaucer with just the right amount of Italian spice. Even the English setting (sans much of the book's original pilgrimage underpinning) can't take away from the movie's inherent foreignness. Unlike the other two films, however, Arabian Nights is far more moderate. Yes, it still has some shocking violence and abundant sexuality, and it does have a flair and flamboyance besetting its source. Like the material, there is a lushness and an opulence to his approach. But because of the source, and Pasolini's falling favor with the artistic approach in general, it's the least abrasive or challenging of the three films. It has a more organic feel, even when the dated special effects let it down.
At this point in his career, Pasolini was using his talents to champion the heart over the head, and the Trilogy of Life is a perfect example of same. These are clever, complicated movies with a meaning buried deep inside their often outrageous demeanor. It's no mistake that the movies have the word "life" in their collective title. Pasolini was one who never rested, who wrote when he wasn't filming, painted when he wasn't writing, and agitated when he saw sedation and settling. He was a visionary, though how he chose to express same still troubles people today. He was also confused and conflicted, arguing for both his Catholic upbringing and the adopted Communism that it. All of this can be found in his work, and outside of a stint with Salo, The Trilogy of Life offers one of the best explanations of who he was ever committed to celluloid. These are more than masterworks. They're mementos of a man and who he really was…and a must for any true cinephile.
Visually, Criterion has outdone itself with this set. As a matter of fact, Pasolini himself might have balked at the polished and professional look these movies now have. He loved for his efforts to reflect the down and dirty nature of their intention, so a full blown 1080p pristine print would probably rattle him. Each title is offered in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and represents a radical difference from previous home video releases. The Decameron has an organic feel with excellent depth while The Canterbury Tales has equally impressive detail and clarity. Arabian Nights gets the biggest boast, its panoramic visual made brighter and more colorful thanks to Criterion's efforts. On the sound side of things, we are stuck with a significantly cleaned up LPCM 1.0 track for each movie. Only Canterbury offers anything different with a director-approved English "dub." Yes, you can still tell when the actors are dubbed (the sonic shifts are pretty obvious), but overall, these are some terrific transfers.
For many, though, the most important part of this set will be the bonus features, and as usual, Criterion does not disappoint. Each film has its own collection of added content and, together, they paint a vivid portrait of an artist struggling with, and occasionally finding, his identity. The Decameron starts us off with a 25 minute visual essay on the film, as well as a documentary on an infamous missing sequence from the movie. The disc finished off with a Q&A celebration of Pasolini, as well as a pair of trailers. For The Canterbury Tales, we are treated to interviews with Ennio Morricone (who handled the score), Dante Ferretti (who tackled the movie's production design), and Italian film scholar Sam Rohdie (who discusses Pasolini's import). There's also a documentary on the filmmaker and his challenging of Chaucer. Finally, Arabian Nights gives us a short film by Pasolini himself, a look at two scenes deleted from the film prior to its release, and a visual essay on this particular interpretation of the work. Add in trailers, a booklet, and the standard Criterion packaging and you have one of the best Blu-ray releases of the year.
It's telling that at the height of his infamy, Pasolini would die an equally controversial death. In constant battle with his own homosexuality, he was allegedly killed by a hustler who ran him over several times with the director's own car. Of course, three decades later, the male prostitute recanted, claiming it was a conspiracy among those who hated Communists—and thus, Pasolini. Some have even suggested an extortion plot revolving around stolen footage from Salo (the film would be released posthumously). To that extent, it was a fitting end. No one as abrasive and kinetic as Pasolini was going to simply slink into old age. Yet as you watch his films, you can see a man growing tired of his art—or better still, the limits inherent in same. Had he lived, it would have been interesting to see what Pasolini could have done with bigger budgets and more modern special effects. Similarly to Fellini, his vision was often marred by the era in which he was working. The Trilogy of Life may not be the best place for a Pasolini novice to start, but it is the first step before tackling the trying Salo. As the next to last act for a memorable moviemaker, these movies are nuggets of film knowledge just waiting to be experienced…and understood.
Not Guilty. A great and important cinematic collection.
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Scales of Justice, The Decameron
Perp Profile, The Decameron
Distinguishing Marks, The Decameron
• Video Essay
Scales of Justice, The Canterbury Tales
Perp Profile, The Canterbury Tales
Distinguishing Marks, The Canterbury Tales
Scales of Justice, Arabian Nights
Perp Profile, Arabian Nights
Distinguishing Marks, Arabian Nights
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