Review: The Decameron (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1971)

For a film from 1971 based on a collection of 14th-century Italian literature, The Decameron is a welcomingly upbeat and lively presentation of tales with an animated array of characters. It’s an atypical entry to the vast genre of historical-set movies; it breaks the general mould that a film’s energy should mirror the contextual period. Despite being set in the 1300s, an organic and blooming palette of colours enriches and enhances each peculiarity that The Decameron has to offer; and there are plenty of said peculiarities.

Films I refer to/potentially spoil in this article:

–     Barry Lyndon (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1975)

–     Mr. Turner (dir. Mike Leigh, 2014)

–     Salo (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1976)

–     Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000 – present)

Helmed by the notorious poet, philosopher and artist Pier Paolo Pasolini, the iconic filmmaker commands every scene with energetic pacing, many of which that star himself being noticeably self-referential. One motif as to how he aids this kinetic pacing is through a constant stream of new stories, which are connected without interruption. Rather than punctuating each new story with a chapter system, each of the short stories simply transitions into the next. It’s an interesting and impressive method that Pasolini accomplishes with ease, scarcely revealing the seams binding the mini-plots together. As The Decameron journeys through numerous households, gardens and places of worship, this seemingly aimless continuation of random events also reiterates its dream-like structure. Unconventional direction edited in an intentionally jarring manner starring inexperienced actors lays the foundations for the otherworldliness that Pasolini was supposedly aiming for, which was to create an authentic world in a time predating cameras, and it feels like exactly that: an organic capture of an unseen period.

Often, this dream-like nature feels feverish; hot summer days and nights heightening any feelings of seasonal euphoria, the extra hour of sunlight before dawn, warm temperature and prolonged sunsets convincing characters to stay outdoors, elating a sensation of luxury and recklessness, dismissive of responsibility. Pasolini’s casting choice, largely composed of amateur actors reinforces this aura of dreaminess; characters vacantly glare at one another and often look as though they aren’t overly aware of what they’re saying or doing. Somehow, this estranging disconnect between the characters and their tales complements the more immature, coming-of-age focused stories, many of which consisting of lovers, young and old, attempting to justify their premarital, adultery-fuelled acts of sin by merely not acknowledging their flaws at all and doing it anyway. This isn’t to say, however, that performances are bad. They’re noticeably strange but in a way that’s fittingly hypnotising, alluring and enticing. The curious exchanges between performers are also nearly all shot in close-up, squaring them imposingly head-on for their line delivery, amplifying the present bizarreness.

Darrell Hartman on Pier Paolo Pasolini's Trilogy of Life - Artforum  International

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Another strength influenced by the lack of separation between each story is its ability to unify each tale. The pieces forming the whole creates anthological importance that these tales, despite their differences in tone, purpose and portrayal, are to be viewed as a collective. Characters act on impulse and desire, unaffected by external influence or fear of judgement and opinion. Indecision and contemplative thinking are overruled by innate desires through simple execution, encouraged by assertive faith in their own doings. It’s a return to stripped back fable-like storytelling, where actions are rewarded by inverse reaction, and morals are rewarded in a karma-like fashion; although, the latter isn’t always the case. Devilish comedy is laced throughout The Decameron, surprisingly serving a handful of curveballs throughout. Take the grave-robbing thief from early on in the film who manages to evade his attackers and escape with a prized jewel, despite his grim, criminal actions. It is his cheek, flamboyancy and charm, however, that permit us to like him. This construct presents itself in a highly interpretable manner; you can decide to delve deeper into these short stories about human nature which are, at a surface-level, simple, but bear massively complex underlying themes regarding faith, sex, honour and loyalty. Whether you decide to watch them as the accessible (if often perverse), comedic tales that they are or instead take the historic contextual implications into account, there’s plenty on offer for either party. The journey is perhaps more rewarding if you choose to study the intrinsic traits of our species further, where moral compasses are blurred by lust, ambition and artistic fulfilment, demanding us to define where the line is drawn between right and wrong in a variety of strange situations.

Earlier, I touched on the films ability to twist the genre mould of historical-set films. Films like Barry Lyndon and Mr. Turner, both respectively magnificent in their aesthetics, conform to the source material of their subjects in aesthetics and pacing, framing scenes as though classical era paintings. The Decameron, however, evokes such life from its derivation, and an animated, believable life at that. Scenes shot in busy towns and markets are convincingly atmospheric and captured in a state of authentic upbeat energy, as opposed to presenting them in dismal states of pre-electricity, pre-modern luxury depression. A simple yet powerful tool perfectly utilised to enhance this vigour is the application of handheld cinematography. The camera, gently shuffling from side to side as though agitated by a bustling crowd is perfectly fitting alongside the unsound performances and deliberately unconventional pacing. In some backwards manner, these imperfections bounce triumphantly off one another and respectively flourish as a result of it, complimenting the experimental and dynamic nature of storytelling. It subverts expectations and doesn’t present the past as this grand, foundation-cementing era of awe-inducing civilisation, but depicting uninterrupted and genuine humanity, a lifestyle with a noticeable and powerful lack of superfluous possessions, opportunity and for some, ambition.

Each story is about class, honour, forgiveness, morals, and a whole plethora of abstract matters regarding dignity and face. Some stories viewed today will likely offend due to their perverse nature; take the old man who claims he can turn people into animals by sleeping with them, exploiting their naked bodies for personal pleasure. It’s likely that upon release in 1971 that this kind of humour was perceived as far more innocent and less painfully awkward, but hey, times have changed, and this is from the guy primarily known for Salo. Others are more light-hearted, such as the grave-robber who gets trapped inside a coffin whilst trying to rob a corpses jewellery (that’s right, light-hearted). Its slapstick, silly nature and coincidence-themed irony plays out like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, utilising wit and charm in largely unconventional and outrageous scenarios. At a surface level, each story is more or less about curiosity, religion vs. natural impulses, love, death and riches; it’s easy to follow and to relate and empathise with each character. As discussed earlier, the beauty of The Decameron is that each story can be interpreted as casually or introspectively as you desire and be equally as fulfilling either way.

In the second part of the film, an overseer of these fables enters the film in the role of “the painter”. Played by Pasolini himself, the reclusive, introverted artist is commissioned to paint a mural in a grand place of worship. When he isn’t painting, he observes the world around him, studying the interactions between its inhabitants. The Painter could be interpreted as a metaphor for ourselves as the audience. He, like ourselves, watches the characters from afar with seldom interaction, garnering and embracing the ambience and general attitude of the numerous social circles, so that he can create the most truthful depiction of the lives of others in his art. Rather than living, he depicts those living in his work. Time slows down in the few moments we spend outside with his character, but it’s enough of a gentle breather to fully appreciate the energy of the world Pasolini has created without chasing a character or plotline. 

The Painter closes the film upon completion of his artistic achievement with a fantastically thought-provoking and melancholy line. Whilst everybody else cheers and celebrates the reveal of the finished piece, he utters, “Why produce a work of art when it’s nice to just dream about it?” The poignant quote exclaims feelings that many of us experience upon completing a major project, and whether to reluctantly embrace or excitedly welcome its inevitable departure. Pasolini taps into the purest of creative ambition, which is the dream itself. He asks, what compels us to cultivate our ideas into actual physical productions? Does the mere ability to invent and ponder these abstract forms not suffice? It’s certainly a sombre look at the creative process, for without actually challenging ourselves to create the products of our imaginations, the world would be quite bare. Pasolini recognises this need and urgency to create, highlighting its importance. Sure, you could just allow these ideas to exist internally but there may always be that pressing voice inside, bringing attention to the ever-present void of missed opportunity, proud expressions that are desperate to be shared but may never reach others, and worse, the regret and constant justification of why you chose not to confront, pursue and nurture your vision. It’s one of the few direct quotes in the film that seems to probe further contemplation as opposed to the generally light-hearted and comedic rest of the film. To conclude on something more abstractly significant is a fantastic choice for an ending to such a dynamic and chaotic sequence of stories.

Fuelled by surprising energy and powerfully lively and entrancing ambient energy, The Decameron is a terrific exploration of humankind, depicting basic human urges in complex manners in entertaining and empathetic digestible segments. Compellingly immersive through a constant and steady flow of new environments, weathers and characters, Pasolini’s retelling of stories set in Italy in the 1300s is rewarding, dynamic and, at times, invitingly contemplative. The product as a whole is strange, perverse, alluring, charming, ethereal, and welcomingly personal, amplified by Pasolini’s symbolic presence as the artist, also overseeing the journey with us, his audience.


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