The Decameron: The Past Is Present

On Film / Essays — Nov 13, 2012

When Pier Paolo Pasolini set himself the task of adapting Boccaccio’s The Decameron, he had clearly already reached the end of a number of political and ideological roads. Two of his three previous films, Teorema (1968) and Porcile (1969), had sketched a bourgeois class beyond any kind of spiritual or ideological redemption. But if in that he shared a widespread analysis of a political left increasingly convinced of the imminence of global revolution, Pasolini saw no hope in a student movement that he found just as ineradicably bourgeois. Famously, he was to say that if he had to choose between the middle-class students and the working-class police battling in the streets, his sympathies were with the policemen from poor families rather than the pampered rich kids.

This complete exhaustion with both the established order and the student revolutionaries finds its clearest expression in Porcile, where Jean-Pierre Léaud plays the troubled son of a rich German family and Anne Wiazemsky his militant student girlfriend. In casting Léaud and Wiazemsky, Pasolini was explicitly remaking Godard’s La Chinoise, a film with both actors that had heralded the hope that the Maoist Cultural Revolution was beginning to represent for many on the student left. Pasolini’s film, however, holds out no hope at all. Both the bourgeoisie and its opponents have reached a dead end, symbolized in the fate of Léaud—being devoured by pigs.

It was not long after this that Pasolini abandoned his densely wrought investigations of modern life in favor of three adaptations of medieval texts. In doing so, he might have seemed to be completing a turn to the right. For both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the Middle Ages had been an embarrassing gap, the space between classical antiquity, with its glories of Greece and Rome, and the modern world of European political dominance of the globe and the triumph of reason over superstition. From the advent of industrialization on, however, the medieval world came to represent for some—one notable example would be T. S. Eliot—a time, before capitalism, in which human relations with nature had not yet been poisoned by money and in which an accepted system of belief was the cement for a harmonious social order. It must be said that Pasolini’s vision has little in common with this reactionary fantasy. The Decameron (1971) does present us with the vomiting, farting, fucking body shorn of all the civilizing processes of the Renaissance. But this is as much the realm of the Roman borgate, or shantytowns, where Pasolini found both sexual life and his ultimate death, as any “accurate” representation of the Middle Ages. Pasolini’s engagement with these earlier times, which would take him through his Trilogy of LifeThe Decameron, The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1974)—was not any simple return to the past. His obsession was with finding a world outside of all the commodifications of capitalism, including, prominently, the bodily. By grafting the marginal modern (the Italian lumpen poor, the third world) onto medieval texts, Pasolini hoped to fashion an alternative to a present that he found ever more repellent.

His first source text was The Decameron, in which ten young aristocrats flee plague-ridden Florence for the countryside. To pass the time, they tell ten stories each day for ten days—a hundred stories in all. The book, written in the 1350s, in the then still despised vulgar tongue of Italian rather than the culturally approved Latin, is one of the founding texts of modern Europe. Pasolini makes very short shrift of it. First, he completely abandons the framing device, placing us instead in a fluid world in which one story runs into another, sometimes interrupted by set pieces, sometimes continuously. The film nevertheless divides formally into two. We start with the opening tale of The Decameron, the account of a wicked man, Ciappelletto, who on his deathbed convinces a priest that he is a saint. This story is not, as in the Boccaccio, a discrete unit but has woven into it other stories from the book, two of which are exceptionally explicit: that of Masetto and the nuns, wherein a man pretends to be a deaf-mute in order to gain entrance to a convent, and the story of Peronella, who persuades her husband to get into a huge jar so that she can continue the lovemaking that his early return home has interrupted.

After the death of Ciappelletto, the film shifts to Pasolini, who appears as a painter, “Giotto’s best pupil,” traveling south to undertake a commission at a monastery. It is the painting of this fresco that becomes the intermittent commentary on the final stories, making up the second part of the film. The elaborate technical challenges of the fresco, in terms of both scaffolding and paint, and the team that the artist assembles produce within the medieval world of the film a clear analogy with a movie set. Pasolini’s identification with Giotto locates the film’s “medievalism” at the level of form as well as content. Giotto painted just before perspective was mathematized, and for him perspective was one option among others. Pasolini is attempting to use a technology dominated by perspective (the cinema) to produce a montage of different views and perspectives. The film we are watching is a fresco.

Pasolini’s liberties with The Decameron do not, however, stop with the elimination of the framing device or the reduction of the stories from one hundred to ten. He also changed the location, from Florence to Naples. One important aspect of this transformation is that the Tuscan dialect of Florence that Boccaccio helped make the national standard is replaced with a Neapolitan dialect that has received no cultural blessing whatsoever. Pasolini’s first poems were written in the Friulian dialect, and the way in which one version of the Italian language had dominated others was a constant theme of all his artistic production. So, too, was his belief that the north of the country had dominated and enslaved the south. If Florence would have represented the ruling bourgeoisie that he hated from the depth of his being, Naples stood for that uncivilized underclass in which he found hope and life.

In line with the change to Naples, Boccaccio’s stories are given a continuous class spin. None of The Decameron’s tales that deal with the world of kings and nobles are included. Even the charming story of Riccardo and Caterina, where the surprised lovers are forced into marriage, is transformed. Caterina’s father is not, as in the Boccaccio, a knight but a merchant. Similarly, in the tale often known as “The Pot of Basil,” Isabella’s lover, who is killed by her brothers, is changed from a Northern Italian to a Sicilian.

These threads demonstrate how complex is the palette that Pasolini is using, but the film’s charm and life do not depend on such knowledge. It would be wrong to discount the extent to which this film, and the rest of the trilogy, attempts to achieve not a representation but a re-creation of medieval life. Central to this is a depiction of the body that is consciously premodern. One could pick out two details in The Decameron: teeth and sex. The faces that we watch on the screen, always shot a little too frontally for us to ignore the fact that we are watching, come from a time before orthodontists and braces. Broken and gaping teeth take us into a world we have left. Equally, sex is presented not with romanticism or sophistication but with an explicitness and innocence then unknown in the cinema. The nuns in the garden with designs on their deaf-mute gardener want to discover the pleasures of the flesh with a simplicity that is touching in its directness.

The Decameron is the first of Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life films. It summons forth a world in which bourgeois hypocrisy and capitalist exploitation have no place. It is, as Pasolini, in the role of Giotto’s pupil, muses in the last shot of the film, an attempt to render a dream.