Showcased in new 35mm prints, Pasolini’s Trilogia Della Vita (Trilogy of Life) presents today’s viewers with a double time warp: three works of medieval literature adapted to the newfound erotic freedoms of early-’70s cinema. But while these adults-only reworkings of The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights are enjoyably lighthearted and skin-filled, they’re far more substantial than the flimsy Euro giggle-ticklers of the period. Behind Pasolini’s ribald collection of ripe teenage backsides, golden-skinned ephebes, and naughty nuns lies a melancholy philosophy, in which the ephemeral joys of sex and love are inextricable from social power-brokering and street-level flimflam.
The finest of the three, and one of Pasolini’s most popular films, The Decameron (1970) draws on painting for its sensual images: airy light and storybook colors courtesy of Giotto; a nonstop parade of curly-haired, dewy-eyed youths culled from Caravaggio. In this world of wildly gesticulating Neapolitans, physical beauty functions as bait and leverage: Andreuccio (Pasolini favorite Ninetto Davoli, who appears in all three) falls for a mysterious noblewoman and winds up, literally, in deep shit; an adolescent couple discovered in flagrante by the girl’s parents are pressed into marriage; a young man with substantial codpiece poses as deaf-mute to get inside a sex-starved convent. Decameron‘s funniest bits rank on the Catholic Church as a system of fortuitous theological loopholes. “Haven’t we pledged our virginity to God?” gasps one nun at the prospect of banging their faux-retarded gardener. “We make many promises to God that we can’t keep,” her partner replies.
Arabian Nights (1974) presents an Orientalist epic shot in locales of exotic architecture in Yemen, India, Nepal, Ethiopia, and Iran. Pasolini retains the nested matryoshka-doll narrative of the original tales, each sub-story becoming increasingly fantastic. Though the film remains wary of beauty’s lure, its framing romance allows for an ideal of true love (albeit between a man and his female slave), set within a sandy porntopia worthy of Bowles and Burroughs.
Structurally confusing and downright grotesque, The Canterbury Tales (1971) could easily be accused of anti-English racism. This deathtrip of horrifying physiognomy and barnyard table manners paints Blighty as an anti-erotic nightmare of grunting noblemen, piggish women, executed sodomites, and weapon-grade farts, somewhat relieved by delicate Flemish painting-inspired cinematography. It’s almost worth it for the brilliant set-piece finale: a Boschean Hell in which an enormous Devil’s rectum spews machine-gun bursts of damned souls.