Saturday, February 18, 2012

Teorema (1968)

Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Teorema" had me dumbfounded! It was one of those rare instances where I was initially unable to formulate a clear opinion of what I thought about it. For one, this minimalist picture from the controversial filmmaker has art-house written all over it. Yes, there is extreme minimalism, very little dialog (it seems the number of actual spoken words in the film is about 923!). This almost silent film is allegorical…rife with symbolism and religious connotations, and may not be a very interesting subject matter for those looking at mainstream cinema, that is for sure.

An arm-flapping herald (the idiomatic little birdie?) announces the arrival of a visitor. Terence Stamp is The Visitor, a mysterious stranger who once visits the mansion of a bourgeois family of four. The man of the house is Paolo, a rich businessman who owns a factory, and then there's his awkward son, a daughter, a beautiful wife who is sexually repressed and a scary-looking maid. In the next few days, this visitor has sexual encounters with each of the inhabitants of the house! In a way, he seduces them. And almost as suddenly as he appears, he soon takes leave of them, leaving them in a state like never before. All of these people he touched exhibit marked changes in their lives, of a different level altogether.

The consequences form the crux of this strange film and paves way for detailed discussion. What makes Pasolini's film so important is the daring concept that he presents to his viewers with a script set in the contemporary world. From what I understand, the visitor is supposed to be a God-send or an angel who influences the members of the house in one way or another. Why sexually, is a good question, but that depends on how you see it. Is it the touch of God, or the Devil's seduction? Perhaps it is symbolic of a 'close encounter with God'?

So what exactly does God do to these bourgeois individuals? Apparently he makes them see beyond their pretentious, cocooned lives. They all go through a self-realization phase, which they confess one by one to the visitor when it is time for him to leave. But he isn't there to see the changes. Are these changes always positive? Does being blessed always lead to happiness? Or is there another side to it? Pasolini, through his seemingly simple yet highly complex allegory poses these ambiguous questions, something which likely polarized his audiences, based on their religious beliefs. Being an atheist I wasn't particularly offended or overwhelmed with the subject, but I was definitely intrigued by how drastically different this film and its viewpoint is.

On the whole, "Teorema" appears to be a critique and a take-down of the bourgeoisie in the sense that this mysterious stranger exposes, or makes them see what's hidden beneath their affected existence. Apart from laying bare the son's homosexuality, there is at least one scene that hints that Paolo could be confused about his own sexuality as well. Popular theories suggest this is indicative of Pasolini's own struggle with homosexuality. Paolo's daughter confesses that she loved only her father and hasn't known other men or was afraid of them. She carries his photograph in her book in one earlier scene. Could there be a history of sexual abuse? Is the daughter conditioned to only love her father? This could directly be related to her mother's boredom stemming from a prolonged lack of healthy sex life.

Pasolini's atheism also comes into play here, as he challenges the conventional, accepted principles of religion and subverts the very idea of God, as not one that necessarily forgives or frees from sin. The visitor, in fact, liberates the individual, but the consequences of this liberation need not necessarily be uplifting. All of the family members, except the maid see the visitor's visit as some form of destruction; they talk about something in them being destroyed by his appearance and eventually his exit that leaves a void. Paolo says it most clearly in his final dialog with the visitor: "You certainly came here to destroy". 

And indeed, the result isn't positive for either of them. It is only the maid, a non-bourgeois, working class person who is able to achieve grace in a positive, otherworldly manner, while the others march towards a psychological or a moral deterioration, one way or another. Given that Pasolini was strongly critical of consumerism, the hint that Paolo eventually turns over his factory to the workers bolsters the theory that the visitor's influence ultimately benefits the proletariat and shatters the comfortable cocoon of the bourgeoisie, negatively impacting their existence. This connects directly to the opening scene of the journalist who seeks answers to the meaning of this move; asking strange, perhaps sarcastic questions as to whether this means an end to the class struggle, and whether all of humanity would eventually become part of the bourgeoisie! Could the visitor then, be a force sent to equalize things and obliterate the class divide?

Pasolini's technique of story-telling is poetic. It is almost like he deliberately chose the visual style as exists in the film to give it a meditative form. Long takes, solitude, mostly gentle atmosphere, intermittent random scenes of a vast empty desert, similarly recurring sounds of church bell gongs, the presence of a radiant light just before the visitor appears, all tactfully done! The visuals are also enchanting, the cinematography is beautiful, with the colours changing from sepia (in the beginning during the introduction of the characters, perhaps to show their ordinary lives?) to vividly colourful (a marked change with the introduction of the visitor?). It is then, mostly on the technical front and the handling of the film with its layered theme that makes "Teorema" most watchable.

Where it falters is mostly in the acting department. There is some very tepid acting from the actors playing the son and the daughter. I don't know if it was intentional but the daughter, Odetta (Anne Wiazemsky) who also appeared in Robert Bresson's "Au Hasard Balthazar" delivers what could be one of the most wooden acting performances I've seen. At one point it even becomes slightly apparent that she is reading her lines from cue cards! The son, Pietro, played by Andrés José Cruz Soublette also seems somewhat awkward, but maybe his acting reflects his character who behaves like that owing to being a closeted homosexual. Stamp, in an interview years later, said that Pasolini made his actors recite their lines in English, and that they did not know the script. The director later went on to dub the dialog in Italian! It is possible that the acting suffers because of this eccentric decision, the motivation behind which would only be known to Pasolini.

The finest acting then comes from Terence Stamp, even though he doesn't have much to do except give mysterious smiles once in a while and appear compassionate! A close second best actor in the film is the beautiful Silvana Magnano, the lady of the house. Her Lucia's perplexed state of mind is wonderfully portrayed by the actress. Also impressive is Laura Betti as Emilia, the maid. Laura looks and acts the weird Emilia quite earnestly.

So why is the film titled "Teorema" anyway?("Teorema" means "Theorem")  There are views that the structure of the film itself and the psychological transformation of all characters follow a single formulaic pattern. The film doesn't boast of great acting, neither is it an intimate character portrait. Despite the shortcomings, there is something about "Teorema" that is strangely effective. The mystifying subject matter, its quirky treatment and a whole lot of ambiguity that stems from keeping the mystery intact is what makes "Teorema" extremely interesting. While the visuals and the characters haunt your memory long after the film is over, the happenings in the narrative will give you something to ponder about for days on end and trigger endless debates. It is the kind of film that one may love or hate or just mildly appreciate, but certainly cannot ignore.

Score: 9/10.

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