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