Teorema: Just a Boy

In what was no doubt an appeal to subtitle-averse audiences, advertisements for the U.S. release of Teorema (1968) trumpeted, “There are only 923 words spoken in Teorema—but it says everything!” A meager few of those utterances are expended in an early exchange in which the teenage Odetta is asked falteringly by another young woman, “Who is that boy?” The object of her curiosity, a mysterious figure clad mostly in white, has just sauntered into the next room and positioned himself in front of a bookcase, a significant first symbolic association with literature in this book-besotted film. Odetta, also dressed in white, as if to suggest some affinity with the seraphic stranger, shrugs and responds simply, “A boy,” but immediately belies her indifference by swiveling to stare intently at him, a scrutiny then repeated by her middle-aged mother, Lucia, who also turns to peruse the newly arrived guest, with smiling avidity. That Silvana Mangano, who plays Lucia, has the masklike features of a Faiyûm mummy only amplifies the intensity of her gaze, which director Pier Paolo Pasolini emphasizes by according her a subjective shot of the alluring visitor.

Embodied by azure-eyed Terence Stamp, with the dark, tousled looks of one of Caravaggio’s more refined ragazzi, the unnamed alien is decidedly not just “a boy.” His sudden arrival at the palatial home of a Milanese industrialist is foretold in a mock-biblical annunciation, as a messenger, played by Pasolini’s mop-headed muse Ninetto Davoli and tellingly named Angelino, delivers a telegram tersely informing the wealthy family that he is arriving tomorrow. (The Gabriel reference would be laughably obvious even without Davoli’s flapping his arms like a demented cherub.) As in a parable, the reasons for the stranger’s incursion never are revealed or even seem to be pondered. He simply appears, like a force of nature. The annunciation sequence has led many critics to posit the intruder as a Christ figure, an interpretation that Pasolini resolutely rejected. In a characteristically confusing statement, Pasolini wrote: “The ‘visitor’ is not to be identified with Christ but, if at all, with God, God the Father, or a messenger who represents God the Father. He is, in short, the biblical visitor of the Old Testament, not the visitor of the New Testament.” And in another account, he wrote: “The film . . . speaks of a religious experience. It deals with the arrival of a divine visitor in a bourgeois family.” Contrarily, others have cited the visitor’s ability to seduce and destroy each member of the industrialist’s household in defining the Stamp character as, if not the devil himself, verifiably diabolical. A Canadian church newsletter, criticizing the award bestowed on Teorema at the Venice Film Festival by a jury of Catholic critics, stated that the film could be “regarded as a Black Mass, with the celebrant assisted by Marx and Freud as deacon and subdeacon.”

“As is so often the case with Pasolini’s cinema, Teorema resists systematic interpretation, despite the logical approach promised by its title.”

As is so often the case with Pasolini’s cinema, Teorema resists systematic interpretation, despite the logical approach promised by its title. Though the film’s structure appears as methodical as the proof of a mathematical theorem—initially introducing in order the five characters whom “the guest,” as he is identified in the screenplay, will enthrall and then abandon, with its second half illustrating, again in sequential fashion, the effects of that desertion—Teorema remains equivocal in its meanings. Despite Pasolini’s contention that “that guest has come to destroy” and that his is a “love that destroys,” one wonders if the stranger’s serial seductions liberate rather than devastate the maid, son, daughter, mother, father—archetypes all—and just who is seducing whom, given that each member of the household appears more pursuer than pursued, active, willing, or eager in his or her own enticement.

Pasolini also stated: “My passing to a bourgeois setting is purely nominal. In fact, the film is not a social comment about the bourgeoisie, and I ‘see’ my bourgeois characters in that particular way I define as ‘sacred,’ as I also see all human beings.” Nevertheless, many have understandably asserted that Teorema reiterates in extremis the director’s abhorrence of the bourgeoisie, a class he once denounced as incarnating “horrible conventions, horrible principles, horrible duties, horrible democratism, horrible fascism, horrible objectivity, horrible smiles,” adding that “a member of the bourgeoisie, whatever he does, is always wrong.” Perhaps the director’s actual disposition toward his bourgeois “victims” here is something subtler and more ambiguous: he confers tender affection on them in the form of the guest but then withdraws it, making them terribly aware of the inauthenticity and emptiness of their previous existences. This allows them to free themselves from the strictures of class propriety and pursue various routes of refusal or release that are cathartic, if also arguably self-abnegating or self-destructive. Odetta becomes catatonic. Pietro, the son, takes up aleatoric art-making. Lucia becomes zealous in her sexual pursuits. Paolo, the father, reverts to a feral state, a “poor, bare, forked animal” trudging across volcanic wilderness. Pasolini confirms his propensity to romanticize the peasant and proletarian classes by turning Emilia, the maid, into an agrarian saint capable, after imbibing a broth made with nettles, of healing disease and of levitation. (Pasolini wrote, “The subproletariat . . . works its way into this bourgeois environment and slowly becomes the only positive element in the film—even if it is seen from a critical point of view as though it were an ancient peasant religion which had survived into the present.”) To quote the persistent journalist who interviews Paolo’s employees in the documentary-style precredit prologue, which is later revealed to have been a flash-forward: “What are the answers to these questions?”

The answers never come easily with Pasolini. His polymathic career as filmmaker, novelist, linguist, critic, playwright, painter, journalist, and poet frustrates critical scrutiny with its sheer multiplicity, its welter of conflicting ideologies, inconsistent styles, and incompatible influences and allusions. So it is in Teorema, which marks the midway point of Pasolini’s filmmaking career and evinces his seemingly irreconcilable allegiances to Marx, Freud, and Jesus Christ. (Here, Carl Jung and Herbert Marcuse further complicate the tangle of philosophical sources.) The director was expelled from Italy’s Communist Party for being a homosexual and vilified by the right for being both a Communist and a homosexual, yet some critics have found Teorema to exemplify the director’s self-loathing over his homosexuality—he once said he viewed it as something that had “nothing to do with me . . . my enemy”—in its portrayal of Pietro’s descent into creative psychosis and Paolo’s frenzied divestiture of factory, family, clothing, and self to wander in the desert, after each man’s carnal encounters with the guest, whose seemingly divine crotch is repeatedly examined in rapt close-ups. (Since Pasolini considered the Stamp character a kind of son to the family, incest complicates the sexual equation, which certainly would not have daunted the director who had made Oedipus Rex the year before.) It depends on whether one views Pietro’s aesthetic experiments as crazed and impotent or innovative and prescient—the tone of the art-making sequences is both mocking and exuberant, and his urinating on a canvas oddly anticipates Andy Warhol’s celebrated “piss paintings” by a decade—and whether Pasolini intends Paolo’s radical acts, after cruising a handsome young man in the Milan train station, as unhinged self-annihilation or liberating atonement for a lifetime of industrial exploitation of workers and the environment.

“Pasolini characterized his use of pastiche with a typically provocative statement: ‘I work under the sign of contamination.’ ”

Pasolini compared making Teorema to painting a “large fresco,” which invokes the director’s admiration for the late Gothic or Renaissance paintings of Giotto, Duccio, Masaccio, Pontormo, and Mantegna, reflected here in the religious icons that surround Emilia’s mirror and bed, and in the film’s sometimes hieratic close-ups. Teorema is bracketed by images of gray desolation, that of Paolo’s Milanese factory and that of Mount Etna’s Sicilian slopes, contrasted in Pasolini’s typical equation of the North with urban alienation and the South with innate authenticity—the volcano was a favorite symbol of the latter for the director, one that he had also employed in The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) and would again in Porcile (1969). Throughout Teorema, Etna’s sifting ashes form a mysterious visual motif—frequently associated with the guest’s seductions, as when he makes love to Emilia or keeps Pietro awake with desire—that can be variously interpreted as suggesting the spiritual wasteland to which the characters, save the saintly Emilia, are all destined; as an entropic landscape that mocks the false stability of the bourgeois household, manifested in the monumentality of their Milanese palazzo; or as merely a marker of mortality. Pasolini complicated these readings when he wrote, startlingly, that the desert gives Paolo “a deep sense of peace: as if he had returned, no, not to the womb of the mother but to the womb of the father” (his emphasis). The filmmaker originally conceived Teorema as the seventh in a series of “verse tragedies,” and several months before the movie’s release published a novel version, partially in poetry, that helps us (or not) to understand the final cry of the patriarch on Etna—cathartic primal scream or shriek of existential despair?

No one can say what kind of scream
is mine: it’s true it’s terrible—
so terrible it twists my features
making them like the jaws of an animal—
yet there’s a kind of joy in it,
a joy that makes me helpless, a child again.
It’s a scream that comes to call someone
or to ask for his help; but also, maybe, to damn him.
It’s a scream that wants you to know,
in this desert place, that I exist,
or better, not only do I exist,
I do know. It’s a scream
that, from anxiety’s depth,
reveals some vile accent of hope;
or a scream of certainty, absolutely absurd,
in which echoes, undefiled, desperation.
In any case, this is certain: whatever
my scream might mean,
it’s destined to outlast all possible endings.

Less extreme in her reaction to the guest’s abandonment, Lucia attempts to fill the void he leaves by cruising in her car for youths to have sex with, men who remind her of him and, in one case, whose clothes she lovingly inspects as she did his, as if they were holy vestments. Lucia desultorily crosses herself early in the film but commits a blasphemous act in her last rendezvous, during which she has sex with a teen in a trench beside a Palladian building in the countryside that is later revealed to be a church, and in which she will immure herself. Pasolini’s work was embraced by feminists who recognized his profound understanding of the oppression of women, though his hostility toward abortion—he once launched a long polemic bluntly titled “I Am Against Abortion,” calling its proposed legalization a validation of homicide—and gender equality aligned, if somewhat uneasily, with conservative orthodoxy, so one wonders what Lucia’s erotic adventures are meant to signify: “the mother abandon[ing] her destiny of motherhood/wifehood and return[ing] to a world of genital but nongenerative sexuality,” as one moralistic critic wrote a decade later, or Lucia’s liberation from that very fate, which, as she admits in the “confessions” sequence, left her feeling that her life was empty? (Admittedly, her scowl of disgust as she initiates her sexual quest, reminiscent of Caravaggio’s Medusa, suggests self-censure and loathing.)

The unfixed nature of Teorema’s meanings is compounded by the daring combination of disparate influences and allusions in its form. The director described himself as a pasticheur who, rejecting the rationality and artificial organicism that he associated with bourgeois culture, selected “items, objects, and even styles from here and there” to reproduce the richness and clamor of the world. Pasolini characterized his use of pastiche with a typically provocative statement: “I work under the sign of contamination.” The artist, he suggested, “contaminates” his work by appropriating styles, icons, and ideologies from other periods and works of art, producing not a “random mixture . . . [but] an amalgam with a stylistic unity.” Though less “contaminated” than many of Pasolini’s other films, Teorema does mix its modes, quickly moving at its outset from a documentary style to silent comedy shot in sepia to full, jewel-toned color and sound in a party sequence that recalls the precredit fete in Luchino Visconti’s Sandra. The music score segues from the anxious modernism of Ennio Morricone, with its stinging strings, eerie chorus, and occasional electric guitar, to frequent passages from Mozart’s death-haunted Requiem, in a rather lugubrious performance by a Soviet choir and orchestra. The many literary texts cited range from a volume titled Elements of Civil Construction and Arthur Rimbaud’s collected works to Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and, inevitably, the Bible (Jeremiah 20:7, in one instance). And Pasolini’s penchant for quoting and invoking paintings, from the early Renaissance through contemporary times, asserts itself in the lingering shots of Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion and Two Figures in the Grass, whose imagery of two men making love abets Pietro’s seduction, and in the pop art (Roy Lichtenstein?) and two baroque tableaux glimpsed in the boy’s bedroom. As for filmic influences, the appearance of Anne Wiazemsky—who was encouraged by her husband at the time, Jean-Luc Godard, to take the role of Odetta after the two encountered Pasolini when they went to the Venice Film Festival with La Chinoise—conjures Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar, made two years before, which might also explain Teorema’s unusually synecdochic fixation on extremities: Paolo’s hairy paw resting on a window ledge, and his bare feet after he strips in the Milan railroad station; the guest’s hands eagerly undoing Odetta’s dress; the doctor’s hand that strokes her face; the flailing shoe of the boy who makes love to Lucia in a ditch; the praying hands of the old peasant woman in adoration of Emilia; and, especially, Odetta’s clenched, trembling fists as she turns catatonic on her bierlike bed—“Please open your fist, Miss Odetta,” cries the maid as she tries to force the fingers free, but Odetta’s divine transformation forbids it.

Denounced by the pope, banned for a time and charged with obscenity by the Italian state, Teorema proved another emblem of Pasolini’s artistic martyrdom. Our times, perhaps even more than Pasolini’s own, cry out for the voice of the heretic and prophet who declared, “The first duty of an artist is not to fear unpopularity.”