Saturday, March 10, 2007


Boccaccio wrote The Decameron, a collection of 100 short and mostly bawdy tales, in the 14th century; they are very much like the stories told by Chaucer's pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales. In the 1970's Pier Paolo Pasolini adapted both works as movies, clearly relishing the earthiness and vulgarity of the stories of both men. Here, he adapts only a handful of Boccaccio's hundred (I counted nine or ten, depending on whether the incidents befalling the first character (Ninetto Davoli) count as one or two stories) and a continuing tale involving Pasolini playing the artist Giotto working on a fresco. He also does away with the original frame narrative of a group of men and women telling each other the stories as they spend ten days in a country house escaping the plague which is spreading in Florence. As a result, the movie feels a bit like a vaudeville show of unrelated skits. In the first (and second?) bit, a woman tells a young man (Davoli) visiting from another town that she recognizes him as a long-lost relative and offers him a place to stay, but she has him robbed and dumped down a shithole; he climbs out, covered in filth, and is taken in by a group of scammers who are stealing riches from an archbishop's sarcophagus. He climbs in and hands out most of the booty, but they slam the stone lid on him, trapping him with the corpse (and at least one valuable ring). Understandably, Davoli freaks out, but soon another group of crooks happen by and pry the lid open. As they are daring each other to get in, Davoli hears one of them taunt another by saying, "Dead men don't bite," so that's just what Davoli does to the poor guy who climbs in looking for loot. The next tale, with its emphasis on sex and social customs, is more indicative of the rest: a young man posing as a deaf-mute goes to a convent and gets a job as a groundskeeper; two of the celibate nuns decide to take a walk on the wild side and force him to have sex with them (as though it were just another chore). They like it and wind up passing him around among the rest of the sisters, and the sex does indeed become a chore, and one he grows unhappy with until he finally speaks and the Mother Superior proclaims that a miracle has occurred. Other bawdy plotlines: a young woman sleeps out on the balcony of her family's house supposedly in order to see if she can catch a nightingale, but actually she's having a tryst with her boyfriend; a band of brothers plot to kill a man who has been sneaking in at night to have sex with their sister, but they don't realize the extent to which she wants to keep him around the house; a traveling priest takes advantage of a naive couple in order to seduce the wife. Most of the stories are amusing, and often have almost Twilight Zone-like ironic twists, though some feel unfinished. There is sex galore (though not terribly explicit) and quite a bit of male nudity, enough to get the movie an X rating upon initial release. There is also a fairly strong anti-organized religion tone, especially evident in a tale involving a man who dies--from having too much sex--and returns from beyond to tell his buddy that the church is wrong and sex doesn't count as a sin in the afterlife. Though not much happens in the Giotto story (he starts painting a religious fresco, gets frustrated, gets inspired, and finally allows the public in to see it, though it's still unfinished), the fact that director and writer Pasolini plays the artist gives these scenes some resonance, and his final line is almost haunting: "Why create a work of art when dreaming about it is so much sweeter?" [DVD]

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