“I have just seen something absolutely disgusting! Pasolini’s latest film, Teorema. The man is mad!”–Maria Callas, soon before accepting the lead role in Pasolini’s Medea
DIRECTED BY: Pier Paolo Pasolini
FEATURING: , Laura Betti, Massimo Girotti, Silvana Mangano, Andrés José Cruz Soublette, Anne Wiazemsky
PLOT: After an introduction in which a worker is interviewed about the factory his boss just gave him as a gift, we see a bourgeois family receive an invitation saying that a visitor will be coming soon. It turns out to be a handsome but unnamed young American man; every member of the family, and even the maid, fall in love with him, and he sleeps with each of them in turn. Another telegram arrives saying that the stranger has been called away, and after he departs the family falls apart.
- Pier Paolo Pasolini originally planned Teorema as a play, but changed it to a screenplay because he believed there was not enough dialogue for it to work on the stage.
- Despite Pasolini’s Marxism, the relatively liberal International Catholic Organization for Cinema awarded a jury prize to Teorema (as it had to his more conventional 1964 film The Gospel According to Matthew). Pope Paul VI personally criticized the award, and it was withdrawn by the organization.
- As happened with many of Pasolini’s films, Italian authorities challenged Teorema as obscene. As always, the Italian courts eventually cleared it for public screenings after a trial.
- Pasolini later adopted Teorema into a novel (which has not, to our knowledge, been translated into English).
- Composer Giorgio Battistelli adapted the movie into an opera in 1992.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The proletarian saint hovering over her village church. The father, naked on the slopes of Mt. Etna, screaming at the heavens, is a close runner-up. We reject the idea that a closeup of Terence Stamp’s crotch in tight white pants is the most important visual symbol in the film, although we can see how someone might come to that conclusion.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Manspreading Stamp; levitating saint; naked, screaming pop
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Simply stated but open to endless interpretation, Pasolini’s Teorema operates on a strange logic of its own, a kind of triangulated synthesis of Marx, Freud, and Jesus Christ. Any movie in which God appears as a bisexual pretty boy has something weird going for it.
British Blu-ray trailer for Teorema
COMMENTS: It’s a happy coincidence that Teorema—the most schematic, symmetrical, and mathematically precise of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films—is found almost exactly in the middle of his filmography as the sixth of twelve feature. In some ways the film represents a turning point for the director, proof that he had left realism far behind in his quest for artistic truth. Pasolini—noted intellectual, Marxist, scandal-monger, and not-so-secret homosexual—began his career as a poet and novelist (vocations he continued throughout his life) before developing an interest in the film medium when he was asked to assist on some screenplays, including ‘s Nights of Cabiria. His first two solo features, Accatone and Mamma Roma, were basically neorealist pictures set among Rome’s underclass of pimps and hustlers. After more daring short contributions to anthologies (including one where he cast as director of a passion play where the actor playing Christ actually dies), Pasolini shocked Italy by making The Gospel According to St. Matthew, a reverent and conscientious adaptation of the Gospel that gained the approval of the Catholic Church and scandalized his Communist brethren (who had already expelled him from their official ranks after an incident involving an underage male prostitute, the director’s recurring and perhaps fatal weakness). Next up, Pasolini went full Surrealist in The Hawks and the Sparrows, which cast popular clown Totò acting alongside a talking raven. While a defiantly weird film, Hawks was unfortunately burdened with too many allegorical references to personalities and events only relevant to the mid-Sixties Italian left, which makes its satire fairly incomprehensible to modern audiences. Pasolini’s next work, a low-dialogue adaptation of Oedipus Rex which flipped back and forth between the Italian post-war period and the mythic past, was only slightly less strange. Now, having left his neorealist beginnings behind him, Pasolini was ready for another experiment: Teorema, his “theorem,” and his first explicit attack on the bourgeoisie.
Teorema is schematic in structure: after the introductory passages, beginning with a fake documentary flash-forward followed by a long introduction to the members of his representative bourgeois family done in a silent film style, the plot settles down to a series of sexual encounters between dreamy-eyed visitor Stamp and the members of the household (mother, father, daughter, son, maid). The final section examines their individual breakdowns after the stranger abruptly leaves the family, called away on an unknown journey. Synopses frequently misreport that Stamp “seduces” the household, which is almost the opposite of Pasolini’s scheme here: each of the family members is attracted to the visitor on their own and seeks to seduce him. He initially rejects their advances, but quickly succumbs—he provides them sex as an act of charity, or grace. When Stamp leaves, with as little explanation as was given for his arrival, the family falls apart. The pastimes they cling to try to fill his absence—sex, respectability, money, art, even sanity—are empty and unsatisfactory. Only the housekeeper Elena, who retreats to her country village where she eats nettles and performs morose miracles, escapes their tragic fates.
What it all means is up for interpretation: despite delivering each plot point on time with mathematical regularity, Pasolini leaves out some essential step from his proof that would lead us to an irrefutable conclusion. The “correct” interpretation—the Marxist one—seems almost obvious, but it relies on your external knowledge of Pasolini’s thought; it’s not deducible from the film itself. And there is far more to chew on then the simple scenario suggests. It seems clear that what Pasolini is doing here is subjecting a number of test cases to his unstated “theorem” (which may be, as a speaker says in the faux-documentary prologue, that “a member of the bourgeois, whatever he does, is always wrong”), then observing the results. Terence Stamp’s character is the “theorem” personified; he gives each character what he or she needs, but did not know they needed, in life. When he is taken away from them, they are all changed. In the aftermath of the handsome stranger’s visit, the four wealthy family members fall into catatonia, despair, or empty licentiousness; but the maid, the sole representative of the proletariat, becomes a saint with miraculous powers. This outcome supports the “whatever the bourgeoisie does is wrong” theory, suggesting that, due to their absorption in wealth and status and their unconscious need to exploit others, the family is incapable of recognizing and being changed by an encounter with the divine. Weighted down by property and guilt, they are predestined to suffer; even when the father gives away his possessions, he still seems unable to pass through the needle’s eye. Meanwhile, the simple and humble maid is elevated into a holy and righteous being.
In many ways, Teorema reminds me of another angsty Sixties film, Blow-Up (1966). Both are experimental features shot by Italians featuring a handsome, young, sexualized English actor; both explore the meaning of meaninglessness in modernity, with short bursts of sex that scandalized contemporary norms. Pasolini’s film is more textured and mystical, but both films can be a bit of a chore to get through due to their slow pace and indifference to storytelling norms. But the main similarity I find is in effect rather than mood or style: neither of the films are “fun” to watch, but both of them linger in the mind afterwards because of their ambiguity. Their simple scenarios invite complex interpretations. Both movies are more rewarding after you’ve seen them then while you are experiencing them. Teorema starts from a Marxist perspective and uses the language of class struggle, but the thesis also relies heavily on Catholic imagery—suggesting a link between Christ and Marx’s exaltation of the poor—and on sexual psychology. What do we make of the subtle hints of desire between the daughter and the father, and the father and the son, contrasting to the sexual alienation of the husband and wife? Are these Oedipal cobweb threads the only thing holding the bourgeois family together? Does the stranger’s act of sexual liberation destroy the family unit? These, and other questions Pasolini’s theorem only indirectly addresses, draw the story back into our thoughts after the relatively modest fable has played itself out onscreen.‘s
Teorema‘s content is no longer shocking. In fact, it’s almost impossible today to put oneself in the mindset of an audience who would be shocked by it. A homosexual character might have been unusual in 1968, but a man who fornicates equally with men and women—and whose charms are irresistible to straight men—was far more threatening to sexual mores. It’s even more outrageous when it’s hinted that the pansexual visitor might be God. Pasolini’s next outing, Porcile (or Pigsty) was another strange and scandalous film involving cannibalism and dislocations in time. The auteur then retreated, a little, from his Surrealist flirtations to return to classical themes with an abstract adaptation of the Greek myth of Medea (starring opera singer Maria Callas, in her only film performance). This was followed by what are today his most popular and accessible works, the “Trilogy of Life,” three breezily erotic movies full of sex and nudity based on literary sources: The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales (which memorably included one bizarre scene of demons shitting friars), and The Arabian Nights. Naturally, they all got Pasolini in trouble with the censors and the Church; yet, rather than backing off that path, he finished his career by adapting De Sade’s sadomasochistic fantasia The 120 Days of Sodom, which remains to this day the most thoroughly pornographic and unsettlingly nihilistic work ever filmed by an arthouse stalwart. His provocative career was cut short in a fittingly ironic manner: his mangled body was discover, apparently murdered by a 17-year-old hustler he picked up in Ostia, although whispers of a wider conspiracy dogged the conviction for years afterwards. What Pasolini would have come up with next, had he lived, is anyone’s guess; the only thing we could confidently lay money on is that it would be unexpected. Pasolini’s career arc, from poet to pornographer by way of a diverse series of experiments, is one of the strangest in all of cinema. He is too iconic, too monumental, and too odd a figure not to be represented on a list of the weirdest movies ever made. Teorema, an enigma so influential that its basic premise was reworked in weird variations by Takashi Miike in Visitor Q and in Sitcom, is—theoretically, at least—the perfect Pasolini for our purposes.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“For the moviegoer whose sensibilities have been preset to receive ‘Baby Love’—or just about any other movie now in first run here—’Teorema’ is likely to be a calamitous and ridiculous experience… The movie itself is the message, a series of cool, beautiful, often enigmatic scenes that flow one into another with the rhythm of blank verse.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“I don’t feel ready to write about this mysterious film; perhaps, a week from now, I’ll decide it is very bad, a failure. But perhaps it is the most brilliant work yet by that strange director, Pier Paolo Pasolini… The sort of moviegoer who thinks all movies must make sense — obvious common sense, that is — should avoid ‘Teorema.’ Those who go anyway will be mystified, confused, perhaps indignant.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times (contemporaneous)
“…basically a film about Terence Stamp’s crotch. Admirers of Stamp who have long nursed a secret urge to kneel before Zod may rejoice in the film’s endless scrutiny of his family jewels; everyone else will be laughing at Pasolini’s pretentious, free-form, dream-like nonsense.”–Dan Callahan, Slant Magazine (DVD)
IMDB LINK: Teorema (1968)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
PIER PAOLO PASOLINI–THE ATHEIST WHO WAS OBSESSED WITH GOD – A surprisingly candid interview with Pasolini—who was usually coy and elliptical in discussing his own films—originally published in 1969 in the New York Times
TEOREMA (1968) – British Film Institute video of Terrence Stamp discussing his role in Teorema
Marxism and Sexuality in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ‘Teorema’ (1968) – Despite the title, Jerome Reuter’s article focuses on Stamp’s character as a Christ figure
LIST CANDIDATE: TEOREMA (1968) – This site’s original 2013 List Candidate review for Teorema
“Pasolini Requiem” -Barth David Schwartz’s 656-page tome is possibly the single most exhaustive biography of any director in print; Teorema has most of a chapter to itself
HOME VIDEO INFO: (See update below). Kino Lorber’s 2005 Region 1 DVD is out of print and seems to have almost disappeared from shelves, although used copies can be found at reasonable prices (buy used). It boasts a nearly hour-long supplementary documentary, Pasolini and Death: A Purely Intellectual Thriller, as its only significant extra. Kino’s apparent loss of rights may be a blessing in disguise, as it could clear the way for the Criterion Collection to snap them up to expand their own growing Pasolini collection (which currently includes Mamma Roma, the entire “Trilogy of Life,” and Salo).
Meanwhile, Europeans and those with universal players have things better with the British Film Institute’s 2013 DVD/Blu-ray combo set (buy). The BFI disc(s) have Criterion-level features: a restored print, an insightful commentary by film expert Robert Gordon, a thirty-minute interview with Terence Stamp, an English language dub track, the 2013 theatrical release trailer, and a booklet with critical essays on the film—both new and vintage—along with biographies of Pasolini and Stamp.
To our knowledge Teorema was not available for streaming at the time of this writing (at least, not in the U.S.A.; Brits can watch it online at the BFI site with a subscription).
UPDATE 2/21/2020: The Criterion Collection did indeed acquire Teorema and release it on DVD (buy) and Blu-ray (buy) in 2020. The release includes the English dub track, the Gordon commentary and Stamp interview from the BFI edition, a 1969 introduction from Pasolini, and a newly-commissioned interview with Pasolini scholar John David Rhodes. As always, there’s a booklet with another essay.
Teorema is also now available for rental on-demand (buy), (at the present time, at least).
(This movie was nominated for review by “lo-fi jr.,” who called it “the most psychotically Catholic flick I’ve ever seen.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)