By James Barraford
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s mystifying “Teorema” will no doubt confound and perturb audiences. Criterion Collection’s Blu-Ray restoration, released Feb. 18, offers new audiences a pristine look of the 1968 film.
The film at its core is about a Milanese family whose lives are changed by a Visitor (played by Terrance Stamp). This guest, whose nature is either angelic or demonic, goes on to seduce the entire household, including the maid.
The Visitor with each seduction causes an awakening and spiritual crisis which threatens the order of the household.
It is difficult to review a film like “Teorema.” It is a riddle that defies all conventions and contradicts itself.
Pasolini was a Marxist-Atheist-Freudian-Homosexual who directed what is to be considered one of the best films about the crucifixion, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.” As a polemicist author and director, he never shied away from being iconoclastic.
After a factory employee is interviewed surrounded by a throng of photographers, we see the smoldering ashes of Mount Etna. A voice describes the Israelites being delivered by God from the Egyptians and sent into the wilderness.
With this grand allusion, we see the ordinary family – played in part by European Cinema greats Silvana Mangano, Massimo Girotti, and Anne Wiazemsky – going about their lives. They seem happy and live in an almost palatial home.
Yet, their liberation at the hands of the mysterious Visitor violates the laws set forth in Leviticus. The Visitor, if he is supposed to be the God of the Old Testament, violates the law against adultery and same-sex relations.
The characters seem more like Greek theater masks conveying ideas as opposed to developed individuals. The idea of the sacred Visitor and his impact on the nuclear family is more crucial to the film.
Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack is used to great effect with the titular theme. The haunting sighs and brooding violins juxtaposes seamlessly with the deceptively happy family.
Other pieces, especially when the soundtrack takes on a jazzier feel, take away from the tension on the screen.
I saw “Teorema” in high school and remember being moved by the film as the ending title “Fin” came across the screen. It had been almost 10 years since I last saw it. For this review, I watched the film twice just to begin writing.
I thought it was a pretentious period piece and worried that it was the kind of film that should have been left to my teenage memories.
I watched it again the following night and began to feel a connection with the images and themes. I was able to overlook some issues that are characteristic of Pasolini.
Pasolini was always a little too didactic. The scene where the maid helps the Visitor with his luggage – he initially refuses – on the condition that both awkwardly carry the bulky suitcase together was so absurdly obvious I rolled my eyes.
The Visitor is so angelic he is willing to share his labor in the factory owner’s home. That scene could have been more powerful without the clumsily blunt metaphor.
Yet, what I appreciated the most was the idea of content people living inauthentic lives.
The mother and daughter both crash and burn when confronted with their freedom. The mother discovers her compulsive sexual pursuits are soul deadening and the daughter becomes catatonic.
This sort of provocation offers no answers and sticks like a thorn under your fingernail. It promotes and undermines all the ideologies that have primarily influenced him. The more you try to grapple with its meaning, the less it makes sense.
The film gives no easy answer – its conclusion provides no peace. I suspect that, like Pasolini’s contradictory nature, this film is both profound and pretentious. Neither would be an incorrect assessment.
A maddening and provocative period-piece.