Thursday, January 8, 2009
April 22, 1969
The Screen: A Parable by Pasolini: Teorema' in Premiere at the Coronet Terence Stamp in Role of a Visiting God
By VINCENT CANBY
Published: April 22, 1969
PIER PAOLO PASOLINI'S "Teorema," which opened yesterday at the Coronet, is the kind of movie that should be seen at least twice, but I'm afraid that a lot of people will have difficulty sitting through it even once. At least there were some who had that problem Friday night when the film was given an unannounced preview at the Coronet, supplementing the regular program, headed by "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie."
It was a disastrous combination. "Baby Love" is a straightforward, skin-deep narrative movie that elicits conventional responses to familiar stimuli. "Teorema" (theorem) is a parable, a movie of realistic images photographed and arranged with a mathematical precision that drains them of comforting emotional meaning. For the moviegoer whose sensibilities have been preset to receive "Baby Love"—or just about any other movie now in first run here—"Teorema" is likely to be a calamitous and ridiculous experience.
The laughter the other night didn't really bother me—although that sort of laughter always surprises me, the way I'm surprised by audiences who go to all the trouble of getting into a Museum of Modern Art screening of, say, "As You Desire Me," and then giggle at some perfectly respectable but archaic 1932 movie convention. "Teorema" is a cranky and difficult film made fascinating by the fact that Pasolini has quite consciously risked just the sort of response he was given by the Coronet patrons.
To the extent that it has a coherent narrative, "Teorema" is the story of an upper middle-class Milanese family that is suddenly visited by a beautiful young man (Terence Stamp) who systematically proceeds to make love to everyone in the family — father (Massimo Girotti), mother (Silvana Mangano), daughter (Anna Wiazemsky), son (Andres José Cruz Soublette) and even the maid (Laura Betti), in roughly the reverse of that order.
Having provided each member of the household with an apparently transcendental experience, the young man departs, leaving each to collapse in his own way. Because they are materialistic, rich bourgeoisie, their collapses are elegant and terrifying. The daughter withdraws into a catatonic state; the son withdraws into his painting, determined to set up his own rules of esthetics that are so mysterious he cannot be judged; the mother and father seek to repeat their experiences with counterfeits of the young man. However, the maid, the good, decent, believing peasant woman, becomes sanctified.
"Teorema" is not my favorite kind of film. It is open to too many whimsical interpretations grounded in Pasolini's acknowledged Marxism and atheism, which, like Bunuel's anticlericism, serve so well to affirm what he denies. Pasolini has stated that the young man is not meant to represent Jesus in a Second Coming. Rather, he says, the young man is god, any god, but the fact remains that he is God in a Roman Catholic land.
Unlike Tennessee Williams, who toyed with a variation on this theme in much more simplistic terms in "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore" ("Boom" went the movie), Pasolini doesn't load this film with little capsulated messages of purple prose. There is very little dialogue in the movie—923 words, say the ads (but I'm not sure whether this refers to the Italian dialogue or the English subtitles). Even though Pasolini is a talented novelist and poet, the film is almost completely visual. The actors don't act, but simply exist to be photographed. The movie itself is the message, a series of cool, beautiful, often enigmatic scenes that flow one into another with the rhythm of blank verse.
This rhythm—one of the legacies of the silent film, especially of silent film comedy—was impossible for the Coronet audience to accept. The seductions are ticked off one after the other with absolutely no thought of emotional continuity. So are the individual defeats, which are punctuated by recurring shots of a desolate, volcanic landscape swept by sulphurous mists.
There is also a kind of rhythm within the images. Someone seen in right profile is immediately repeated in left profile. An action that proceeds to the left across the screen may be switched 90 degrees, directly away from the camera, or into the camera. Early scenes are in black and white. Later scenes are so muted they almost look like the old Cinecolor process, only to go monochromatic again at the end.
"Teorema" is a highly personal, open-ended movie, and one that is much more interesting to me than Pasolini's earlier "Accatone" and "The Gospel According to St. Matthew." Not the least mysterious thing about it is why the Roman Catholic Church's film reviewing body, the Office Catholique International du Cinéma, originally saw fit to give it a prize, which it later regretted. "Teorema" is a religious film, but I think it would take a very hip Jesuit to convert it into a testament to contemporary Roman Catholic dogma.
TEOREMA, written and directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini; produced by Franco Rossellini and Manolo Bolognini; presented by the Walter Reade Organization. At the Coronet Theater, Third Avenue at 59th Street. Running time: 93 minutes.
Visitor . . . . . Terence Stamp
Wife . . . . . Silvano Mangano
Husband . . . . . Massimo Girotti
Daughter . . . . . Anne Wiazemsky
Maid . . . . . Laura Betti
Son . . . . . Andres Jose Cruz Soublette