Sexuality was a key element in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s body of work. While certainly not the first to explore the subject, the director chose to utilize it in a variety of ways. In his first feature, Accattone (1961), prostitution plays a major role in depicting the struggles of day-to-day life in the Italian slums. His highly praised trilogy of life, which consisted of Il Decameron (The Decameron, 1971), I racconti di Canterbury (The Canterbury Tales, 1972) and Il fiore delle Mille e una Notte (A Thousand and One Nights, 1974) showcased eroticism of a whimsical nature that brought great literary works of the past to life. In his most well-known and controversial film, Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom,1975) sexuality is stripped bare of its titillating nature. In keeping faithful to the source material written by The Marquis de Sade, it becomes a device for depicting subjugation of the masses and the hypocrisy of those in power.
The sixth title of his filmography, Teorema (Theorem, 1968), is just as enigmatic as the director himself. Years after his tragic murder, we still find ourselves attempting to fully comprehend the man. Marxist, poet, philosopher, revolutionary, he was certainly all of these things and much more. An artist who was smarter than his enemies and a lightning rod for controversy, he attracted both admiration and disdain from all sides. Outspoken against the rise of consumerism, television, and what he often described as “conventional culture,” his creative output had a deeper meaning that was sometimes misunderstood.
One observation that can be made about Teorema is that it reflects events occurring in Italy at the time. 1968 saw the birth of a movement referred to as Sessantotto, in which many students occupied universities to protest the rise of industry in Italy and its traditional capitalist and patriarchal values. It was a near perfect example of economic growth creating a culture deeply routed in consumerism. Other films from the time period, such as Elio Petri’s La proprietà non è più un furto (Property Is No Longer a theft, 1974) examined this resentment as well as the wide gap of the countries social classes.
The beginning of the film depicts this change with a group of reporters standing outside a factory talking with its workers. The discussion, which appears to be mirroring Pasolini’s early Marist beliefs, concerns the factory being turned over to them (I.e.—Karl Marx’s theory about workers controlling the means of production). Teorema continually depicts industry as a wasteland. The factories are shown as lifeless and hollow, and not the hustling establishments of labor that one would assume. Scenes of an actual desert are interspersed throughout the film, allowing Pasolini to illustrate his point of how lifeless a consumerist society is, and the desolation that it breeds.
While Marxism certainly plays a role in the film, it’s not the primary focus. At its very core, Teorema is a strong indictment of the bourgeoisie, depicting their isolation and complacency with being sheltered from the rest of the world. While Pasolini’s talents as a writer graced many of his films, early on he opts for imagery to establish a solid introduction to his characters. Displayed in a drab sepia tone, the direction closely resembles the pantomime of a silent film, and conveys their shyness, monotony, and weak ties to Catholicism, displayed by the mother (Silvana Mangano) giving a very uninterested sign of the cross. As the son (Andrés José Cruz Soublette) and daughter (Anne Wiazemsky) of the family deal with the social awkwardness of adolescence, the father (Massimo Girotti) rides away from his factory in a car, completely encapsulated within his status as a symbol of industry.
Their home life and stability soon become shaken to their very foundations upon the arrival of a mysterious stranger (Terence Stamp). Much of the enigma of Teorema is found in Stamp’s mysterious character. With absolutely no background, explanation, or even a name, one wonders just who or what he is. Speculation has always loomed. Is he God? The Devil? Could he be a spiritual manifestation of some sort? While there have been several interpretations, I choose to believe that the figure closely resembles Christ. Pasolini had previously merged Marxism with Catholicism in Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1962). Much like his biblical epic, classical music, in this case, selected portions from Mozart’s funeral requiem anchor the film.
The first encounter of the film is between the stranger and the family’s devoutly religious maid (Laura Betti). It’s here where we see the first parallel to the stranger being a Christ-like figure. As he lounges in the front yard of the estate, his face hangs slightly downward, mimicking several icons and images of Jesus looking down from the cross. While Stamp’s dialogue in the film is minimal, his ability to command a strong on-screen presence is undeniable. In my opinion, he can say more with a single facial expression than other actors could in a lengthy monologue. Although the encounter is of a sexual nature, it’s hardly a predatory act. If anything, the stranger‘s actions are that of comfort and good intention towards her. Preventing her from committing suicide, he looks down upon her with tenderness and reassurance.
One by one, each family member holds court with the stranger, beginning with the son. The meeting between the two establishes the motif of undressing, which becomes central to the films depiction of liberation from the confines of social standing. As the two undress and crawl into their beds, curiosity overtakes him, and he pulls back the covers of the stranger’s bed. The scene illustrates both sexual repression and someone coming to terms with closeted homosexuality. As the stranger awakes, the son immediately cries and runs back to his bed, apologizing for his intrusion. He’s comforted moments later as if he’s reassured that sexuality is nothing to be ashamed of.
While the encounters with the family are sexual in nature, they aren’t depicted in an explicit nature. They come to represent the family literally stripping away layers and discovering what lies underneath the world they have built for themselves. In the case of the mother, she finds herself completely liberated from being a simple bourgeoisie housewife. As her husband attempts to initiate sex, she refuses his advances. This gives way to him taking ill, and the film once again emphasizing its Christ like symbolism. As he lies in bed, the stranger emerges from a door into the bedroom to tend to him (a subtle reference to a passage in Revelations that reads “Come and see who’s behind the door”). In another moment of tenderness, he holds the father’s feet close, subsequently healing him, possibly an allegory for Christ washing the feet of his disciples.
Teorema divides itself into two parts, almost like the Old and New Testaments. The departure of the stranger, which splits the film, is just as mysterious and sudden as his arrival. Both are told in the form of a telegram, delivered by a messenger (Ninetto Davoli). Davoli, who was featured in several of Pasolini’s films, always manages to light up a scene with his spontaneous energy. Here, he runs around and waves his arms erratically, mimicking a carrier pigeon. This performance from Davoli is somewhat reminiscent of Uccellacci e uccellini (The Hawks and the Sparrows, 1966), which included a pantomime and conversation with a group of birds about God.
The news of the departure sends shockwaves through the members of the household. Each one is completely inconsolable, and left with uncertainty and emptiness. It almost comes across as someone experiencing the absence of God. One of the more powerful moments from his departure involves the simple act of carrying luggage to a car. As the maid attempts to carry the stranger’s suitcase for him, he tells her they’ll carry it together. It’s a defining moment for the maid. After the stranger leaves, she returns to her old village embracing one of Pasolini’s expressions: “poverty not misery.”
As the maid returns to her village, she becomes a messianic figure. In his writing, and especially in films such as Mama Roma (1962), Pasolini celebrated the mother. For him, it was something sacred. She becomes an elevated maternal figure, even going so far as to cure a child’s leprosy (a la Christ). The family, on the other hand, is deeply affected in a variety of different ways. The daughter becomes completely withdrawn from reality. In a moment that shows her state of isolation, she walks to the gate of the family estate. Unable to face the outside world, she descends into a deep abyss, completely catatonic, and unable to grow past the sheltered state in which she once lived in. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the son embraces the life of an artist, finding contentment within creation. Personally, I find his character arc to be an interesting reflection of Pasolini himself. Through him we see someone coming to terms with sexuality and creating art in the process.
The transition that the mother goes through is reflective of the sexual revolution that occurred throughout the decade. Free from the restraints of simply being a repressed housewife, she takes part in a sexual encounter with someone she meets in the street. Pasolini illustrates a sort of role reversal with showing her would-be lover undressing in a hotel room, as opposed to her undressing earlier in the film. After leaving the hotel she lets out a scream, and immediately returns to repeat the encounter with two new strangers. This time, the actions taker place outside of a church, seeming to suggest that she has built a prison for herself with her newfound discovery of sexual freedom and the feelings of catholic guilt. While she’s confined, her former maid continues to elevate herself. In completing her transition to a messianic figure, she embraces a form of martyrdom. She buries herself alive amidst the earth surrounded by the construction of the new consumerist society that’s emerging. As she looks up from her immolation, the camera depicts a setting sun. The old values of the commoner fade, as the rise of a new Italy begins.
For a film thick with symbolism and allegorical imagery, the final moments are as enigmatic and thought-provoking as everything else that occurs throughout its entirety. The undressing motif comes full circle with the father, as he disrobes in a train station after handing over his factory to its workers. Naked in the desolate wasteland that was shown throughout the film, he lets out a terrifying scream, and Teorema comes to its conclusion. As complex as it is, Pasolini’s feature is merely a precursor. The wastelands, the folly of consumerism, and the upper class would be explored further to Porcile (1969), released the following year. Anna Wiazemsky would return for this title, as would the director’s use of complex storytelling.