The Canterbury Tales / I racconti di Canterbury (1972)
Arabian Nights / Il fiore delle mille e una notte / A Thousand and One Nights (1974)
Coming quite late in the career of renowned Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, the TRILOGY OF LIFE is something of a standout. Each of the films, particularly the first two, exhibit a level of playfulness and a joy for life that is missing from other films in the director’s ouvre. Based on a collection of renowned short stories each film unfolds as a series of vignettes. Though each comprises a selection of brief narratives, there are recurring themes that arise throughout the individual films and the trilogy as a whole: attitudes towards loyalty and devotion, fidelity, death, materialism and greed, sexuality and sexual awakening all feature frequently. Many would argue that these are themes common to other, if not all the director’s films, but it is the execution that is refreshingly different: the trilogy is a celebration of life and it oozes a sense of optimism and romanticism. A far cry from the cynical and pessimistic world view seen in much of Pasolini’s other work. This thematic detour would be short lived however, with Pasolini completing just one other feature before his death in 1975. His last film would be SALO, a film so nihilistic it would at first appear to be the work of a completely different filmmaker.
Marking Pasolini’s first foray into the TRILOGY OF LIFE, and based on a collection of stories written by Giovanni Boccaccio during the medieval era, THE DECAMERON is a great starting point for anyone unfamiliar with the director’s work. The film is a visually-sumptuous treat, with Pasolini here aided by the formidable talents of production designer Dante Ferretti (Fellini’s art director of choice) and cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, renowned for his collaborations with Sergio Leone on the likes of THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Of the numerous stories Pasolini selected from the Boccaccio tome all are captivating and there’s never a point as a vignette unfolds that you’re willing it to finish for the next one to start. Of the stories in THE DECAMERON, the standouts include one in which a young man (sporting a hairstyle that would do David Hess proud) is swindled by a female aristocrat, literally landing himself in the shit, and the chilling tale of brothers who decide to defend the virtue of their younger sister.
The recently released Blu-ray from BFI looks great. The anamorphic transfer looks nice for the most part with a very stable image that is free of print damage and artefacting. Colours look a little muted but this is not a hindrance. There is some grain also present in darker scenes but again this does not distract. Sound on the Italian version is well served, and while the monaural track isn’t the type of mix to rock the world of audiophiles, it’s a perfect preservation of what Pasolini originally intended. The BFI has also added several features of merit: these include the director’s hour-long documentary NOTES FOR AN AFRICAN ORESTES (which documents an ill-fated production of ORESTES Pasolini had intended to make in Africa); the original trailer and an English language version of the film. The latter ‘extra’ is to be avoided, as the dubbing is simply horrendous. Its inclusion seems due to the BFI wanting to cater for the ignoramuses that can’t be bothered to read subtitles. That said, a lot of potential fun could be derived from watching the film dubbed in English whilst knocking back a few beers, so it shouldn’t be written off completely. Also included is an excellent booklet featuring a review and essay on the film.
It’s a tough call but THE CANTERBURY TALES is probably the best film in the trio. Once again, the writer/director collaborated with cinematographer Delli Colli and production designer Ferretti, and both films are fairly similar in look, albeit for the different locations that were used during filming. This time however, it is the writing of 15th Century author Geoffrey Chaucer that becomes the basis for another anthology of brisk tales, with the events unfolding in England. The reason why this film struck a particular chord with me is that with the exception of one—which seemed to homage the films of Charlie Chaplin–every other vignette is wonderful. Once again, there’s a great balance between the light-hearted and the sinister, and highlights from THE CANTERBURY TALES include a short that details the extraordinary lengths a young man will go to get a married woman into bed; another where the tables are turned on a miller who seeks to con a pair of horny students and a dark, creepy piece in which three young tearaways meet Death.
Like the film, the transfer for the BFI’s Blu-ray is also the pick of the bunch. Colours are far more vibrant than those seen in THE DECAMERON or ARABIAN NIGHTS and there’s also a level of detail in the image that also improves upon those of the other two. Again, there is some grain present in darker scenes but this is a very minor quibble. Like that of the BFI’s THE DECAMERON Blu-ray the sound is presented in Italian with excellent English subtitling. Moving onto the disc’s supplements, we’re once again given the alternative English language soundtrack, the original theatrical trailer and another extensive booklet. Best of all–and even I’m tiring of the praise I’m bestowing on this particular disc–this release features an all-new documentary that focuses on how, in making the TRILOGY OF LIFE, Pasolini inadvertently kick-started a quick succession of lurid imitations. The documentary, which was co-produced by the BFI and Severin, features interviews with Pasolini’s biographer, film historians and even some of those responsible for making the rip-off pictures, including Luciano Martino. The documentary runs for a little over 35 minutes but manages to encapsulate perfectly the era in which the films were made, the films they spawned and the negative effect the “sequels” had on Pasolini.
Pasolini would conclude the trilogy with ARABIAN NIGHTS, and once again he turned to a collection of renowned writings: this time seeking inspiration from One Thousand And One Nights. The film marked something of a departure from the proceeding films for a number of reasons. For a start, the film’s exotic locations—which include Ethiopia, Yemen and Iran, to name but a few—are completely different to those seen in THE DECAMERON and THE CANTERBURY TALES. Secondly, Giuseppe Ruzzolini–who had worked with Pasolini previously on a number of films including OEDIPUS REX and TEOREMA–replaced Tonino Delli Colli as cinematographer. Both of these elements conspire to create a completely different look, one that has a distinctly Eastern feel.
The structure of ARABIAN NIGHTS is different too. While the recurring story strands were common to both THE DECAMERON and THE CANTERBURY TALES there was more of an emphasis on the short stories between. In ARABIAN NIGHTS it is the vignettes that serve as interlude to a longer narrative: the plot concerns a young man on a quest to locate his abducted love. The “wrap-around” narrative is the heart of the film but this story segues into independent vignettes throughout. Pasolini lays out his structural intentions very early on in the film and there is even a quote that follows the credits that reflects his decision to choose a different approach: “Truth lies not in one dream, but in many dreams” – a passage taken directly from the original source material and one that alludes to the fact that each of the vignettes enhance the narrative of the longer story. Of the shorter stories in ARABIAN NIGHTS, the most memorable are one where a groom becomes infatuated with another woman on the day of his wedding and another that involves a man who battles a demon for the possession of a young girl’s soul.
The biggest difference however is that of the films tone. While ARABIAN NIGHTS is not without humour it’s almost completely bereft of the playfulness that was evident in the earlier films. The shift into darker terrain is all the more interesting when you look at where the film sits in the director’s filmography. Made immediately after THE CANTERBURY TALES and directly before SALO, it’s fair to say that the viewer can clearly see the transition Pasolini is making as a filmmaker. Though ARABIAN NIGHTS never delves into the depths of depravity seen in SALO, the material is a lot edgier than that seen in THE DECAMERON and THE CANTERBURY TALES.
The presentation on the BFI’s Blu-ray in on a par with that of THE DECAMERON; colour fidelity is fine but the image is never quite as detailed as that seen on the disc for THE CANTERBURY TALES. The Italian audio is perfectly acceptable and the subtitling excellent. Special features on the disc include the alternative English language version of the film, the trailer and a wealth of deleted scenes. Once again, there is also a lavish booklet included. It is apparent from watching the discs that the BFI has put a lot of effort into these releases and one really couldn’t wish for the films to have been given better treatment.
THE TRILOGY OF LIFE is essential viewing that works on many levels. A series of films that are of that rare breed of cinema: one that manages to work on an intellectual level without alienating those that enjoy having fun. The films have endured the years that have passed since release well and have become seminal pictures that can be credited for creating a whole new genre of film. Without the then censor-baiting THE DECAMERON, there would have never have been the imitations, and without them, it’s fair to say that the explosion in Italian sex comedies wouldn’t have happened either. Due to the rising popularity of the sex comedies in Italy and being disgusted by the general public’s reaction to them there, Pasolini would later disown the TRILOGY OF LIFE, devastated that his work had been misinterpreted. Considering the amount of passion and care that went into the films’ making, this is a shame, but Pasolini would channel his dissatisfaction and contempt for popular culture into his swan song, SALO. As mentioned earlier in this review, it’s interesting to see how this trilogy of films contrasts with SALO and it’s clear that ARABIAN NIGHTS was made after the director became disenchanted with what he had been doing. Pasolini was murdered shortly before the release of SALO in 1975. Before his death he had indicated that it was to have been the first in a series of new films to be known as his TRILOGY OF DEATH. Considering how the tone and themes of TRILOGY OF LIFE segue into those of SALO, it would have been fascinating to see how he would have continued the association. We’ll never know.