THE DVD SHELF: From Kurosawa to Capra, Schlesinger to Pasolini, an End of the Year Grab Bag

By Steven Suskin
23 Dec 2012

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Not unlike "Brazil" — in it novel unworldliness, at least — is Pier Paolo Pasolini's Trilogy of Life, a collection of three films from the early 1970s. Pasolini takes us back through the centuries, recreating the Middle Ages in a colorful, earthy and lusty manner. "The Decameron" (1971) is altogether startling. Here are nine tales from Boccaccio, illustrating human nature at its most primitive. The opening tale tells of a fortune hunter who is robbed when he is maneuvered to plunge into a latrine. The most memorable tells of a young man who gets a job as a gardener in a convent by pretending to be a deaf mute — and how he comes to be especially popular with the nuns.

Pasolini sets his film in Naples and shoots mostly on location, with a cast that includes many amateurs. He seems to have cast for teeth; he uses dozens of beautiful peasant types, whose origins are revealed only when they open their mouths to reveal the worst teeth you've ever seen on the screen — immediately suggesting earlier times. They also unashamedly open their Middle Age garments with great frequency. ("The Decameron" was especially controversial in this, one of the first mainstream commercial films unapologetically laced with full nudity.)

Pasolini next moved to England for "The Canterbury Tales" (1972). Once again, he spun his film together from a bunch of unrelated tales; both films are somewhat haphazardly assembled, without clear beginnings and endings. "Canterbury" is crammed full of colorful locations, peasants, teeth and skin. There are a few recognizable actors mixed in as well, notably Hugh Griffith (from "Tom Jones" and an Oscar-winning turn in "Ben-Hur") as a lusty Lord and Josephine Chaplin — daughter of Charles — as his beautiful-and-bored wife May. Also on screen is Pasolini himself, as the author Chaucer; he also played an artist — a fresco painter identified merely as "Giotto's pupil" — in "The Decameron."

Pasolini traveled to Africa and Asia for the final part of his trilogy, "Arabian Nights" (1974). All three are fascinating, although "The Decameron" was surely the most startling of the three at the time (and might be the most watchable now). "The Trilogy of Life" is a remarkable triptych of films unlike few if any others. For Pasolini, that was more or less the end; he was violently murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1975, just before the release of his final film.

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