Saturday 19 February 2011

Theorem (1968)

Well now.  This is ramping things up a notch.  As much a statement of personal philosophy as it is a film, this was directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini during a particularly fertile period for European cinema.  I can't remember who said it but someone once remarked that in Hollywood, films are regarded as a commercial entity with marginal artistic potential, and that in Europe films are regarded as an artistic entity with marginal commercial potential.  THEOREM (or TEOREMA, to use the original Italian title) demonstrates the second part of that statement perfectly, being nothing less than an attack on capitalism and bourgeois values.

Perhaps it's best to briefly describe the plot, or more accurately the structure, since there is no 'story' as such being told here.  We see the members of a wealthy Milanese household: the father, a factory owner, the wife, the son, the daughter and the housekeeper.  A young man arrives to stay for a few days.  In turn, each member of the family finds the young man an overwhelming and inspiring simply by his presence.  As abruptly as he arrived, he leaves.  The family members are bereft and each fins their life irrevocably changed.

Pasolini was an uncompromising man in life and his films reflect that.  THEOREM makes absolutely no concession to accessibility or to spell out its message in simple terms.  As a result, its meaning - assuming there is one - has been speculated over endlessly.  Knowing a little about Pasolini's life and politics, and having read a little about the film, this is my take on it.  It's a crude interpretation, and cobbled together from various sources, but it's how I have made sense for myself out of a difficult film.

At the beginning of the film there is a quote from Exodus: "God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness."

Which is the wilderness?  This ...

... or this - the father's factory?
Subsequent to that we are introduced to the bourgeois family in a sepia sequence perhaps intended to emphasise how deeply rooted bourgeois values are.

I think Pasolini intends us to see bourgeois values, and adherence to capitalism, as 'the wilderness'.  Into this wilderness comes the stranger, played by Terence Stamp.

Stamp was, and still is, a very good looking guy and since the film is largely silent I assume he was cast for his looks and presence as muich as his acting ability.  An interview on the disc appears to cofirm that as Stamp relates a chance meeting with Silvana Mangano (who plays the mother) and Pasolini in Rome, with Mangano remarking that he would be perfect for the role.

The young man is a serene and calming presence, and seductive in a non-sexual way.  All of the family members fall deeply in love with him and, just before he leaves, they confess to him that he has changed them in ways they never though possible and that they will be distraught without him.  In other words they have each experienced a moment of epiphany.  Obviously it's tempting, therefore, to see Stamp's character as a Christ figure but because Pasolini was an atheist I think the character represents a non-specific spiritual presence.

I think that their awakening reveals to them the emptiness of their lives and the meaninglessness of their wealth and property.  They react in different ways to this new awareness.  The housekeeper immediately leaves Milan and returns to her family somewhere in rural Italy.  There she sits on a bench and refuses to move.  After some time it appears that she is able to perform miracles.

The mother seeks solace in random and sordid sexual encounters with young men, who presumably remind her of the visitor.

The son finds himself driven to express his love for the visitor through art, which becomes progressively more abstract as he struggles to find a way to communicate his adoration.

The daughter finds her grief impossible to bear and retreats into a catatonic state.  She is eventually taken to an asylum.

And the father gives his factory to the workers and literally divests himself of every trapping of materialism, by removing his clothes at a railway station and wandering off into the wilderness - the same mountainside seen at the beginning of the film.  That tends to support my view that Pasolini sees the factory, representing the source of the man's wealth through exploitation of the workers.  In reaching the mountain, the man has been reborn.

So is Pasolini arguing for a greater spirituality in Italian society?  I don't think so.  I think he is arguing the need for the rejection of the well-established order and for a mass re-awakening of the individual to benefit society as a whole.

There you go - as I said, a crude interpretation but it does serve to extract some meaning from a very good but difficult film.  I expect I will return to this one in future, so keep your eyes peeled for further posts.  In the meantime, there is a lengthy analysis of the film here.

A few cineaste points to note.  Laura Betti, who plays the housekeeper, featured in a couple of Mario Bava's films, as did Massimo Girotti, who plays the father, although I think his greatest role was the lover in Luchino Visconti's version of "The Postman Always Rings Twice", called OSSESSIONE (1943).  I think it's interesting that Italian actors seemed able to move from highbrow films such as THEOREM and genre films like Bava's.  It's not something that happens a lot in British film-making; it's hard to imagine, for instance, Dame Judi Dench appearing in some low budget, blood-soaked horror movie.  Anna Wiazemsky, who plays the daughter, was married to Jean-Luc Godard who was perhaps the French equivalent of Pasolini in his refusal to compromise in his films or philosophy.  Ennio Morricone, perhaps the greatest film composer of them all, provided the soundtrack.  A final word on Terence Stamp, whom I had the great fortune to meet at a film screening in Birmingham many years ago.  He may not have been the greatest actor in the world, but he was better than some credit him, and perhaps more importantly usually appeared in interesting films.

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