‘Teorema’ is Pasolini’s most enigmatic film

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Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini
Written by Pier Paolo Pasolini
1968, Italy

A work that is chronologically and aesthetically his mid-period film, Teorema is Pier Paolo Pasolini at his finest hour. It is not Neo Realist cousin like Accatone (1961) Mamma Roma (1962), nor is it the debaucherous snarl of Salò (1975); it has a larger portion of the religious parable than The Hawks and the Sparrows (1966), and is as interested in sex as The Decameron (1971).

Teorema is a work of quiet suddenness. It moves quickly from documentary-style social film to its enigmatic plot, and Pasolini seems intent on doing away with any contrivances of a traditional narrative set-up. Within minutes of the opening credits the upper-class family at the center of the story receives a brief telegram: “Arriving tomorrow.” Immediately thereafter, the Visitor (or the Angel, as he’s sometimes called) is in their midst, disrupting and confusing husband, wife, son, daughter, and maid alike.

The tagline for the film is silly and reminiscent of that of another Italian film, this one from 1977, Dario Argento’s Suspiria, which read, “The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92!” Teorema’s tagline – “There are only 923 words spoken in “Teorema” – but it says everything!” – also precludes even any barebones plot information, but ultimately speaks to the real strength of the film.

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Indeed, Teorema at times plays out like a silent film, its characters communicating in awkward stares, tears, sighs of longing, and, in the case of the Terence Stamp’s the Visitor, a complacent, knowing half-smile. It’s this silence as much as Pasolini’s introductory biblical quote and his frequent cutaways to dust blowing across a barren desert that steer Teorema towards allegory, transcendence, or perhaps ludicrousness.

Stamp spends much of the film with his legs suggestively apart, and Pasolini doesn’t shy away from frequent close-ups of his crotch. In one particular shot, the Visitor walks towards camera from a wide-shot and lands directly in front of the lens with the frame starting at Stamp’s waist, and ending at his upper thighs. It’s so clearly a pre-planned mark for the actor to hit that it’s nearly comedic. Given the fact that the Visitor does a lot of sleeping around with the various family members, which in turn shakes their views of complacency and wealthy life (this last view is perhaps why the film was condoned by the Catholic church), perhaps it is his sexual ability that deserves the close-ups.

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Similar to another famous director making his mark in the 1960s, Jean-Luc Godard, Pasolini litters Teorema with cultural references. Rimbaud, Bacon, and Tolstoy are just a few on display throughout. Unlike Godard, when Pasolini’s characters expound on said references, they don’t couch their quotes amidst other dialogue, hiding the reference. Pasolini is content to wear his influences and heroes on his sleeve, yet all of this – the decadence of Rimbaud, the violence of Bacon, the realism of Tolstoy – don’t provide any answers to the mystery of Teorema beyond echoing (or presupposing) the range of modes and emotions that the film ultimately covers.

There’s a moment, mid-film, when the Visitor is called elsewhere. He says his goodbyes to each family member and each, in turn, expounds on the profound impact he has had on them and the emptiness they’ll feel in his absence. He talks to the daughter and she cries in front of him. He looks up and above her, off somewhere, almost at us. Pasolini then cuts to the sand blowing across the desert, as though this is what the Visitor is seeing. Is the Visitor God? Or a god? The film’s third act pushes that interpretation further.

 

 

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