There are a number of directors associated with the often brash task of dismantling the bourgeoisie through the use of allegory, metaphor and the sheer brutality of the cinematic form. Out of all of these, the likes of which include Luis Buñuel and Michael Haneke, Pier Paolo Pasolini stands tall above them in his consistent despising of the class and its social patriarchy. The late 1960s saw most of Pasolini’s films turn on to this topic, whether through classical themed dramas such as Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969) to the sheer, raw attacks of Pigsty (1969) and then eventually Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975).
Out of all of the films from this period, his 1968 film Theorem, is perhaps the most effective as it acts as a defining litmus test for what Pasolini believes to be the true flaws of the class. It can therefore be constantly referred back to when contextualisation is needed for the films around it. The film literally presents the “theorem” of Pasolini’s dismay and any action taken in contrast to it through the other films can be easily contextualised with this decoder.
Theorem is a film split into two segments; chiefly cause and effect. Terence Stamp plays an almost divine creature who comes to stay within the household of a petit bourgeois family only to seduce them all individually before having to leave them, open wounded and unable to carry on living the hollows that they call life. The segment on the cause and the seduction of each individual character is surprisingly weaker than the effect segment. Terence Stamp is marvellous as the, almost wordless, creature who appears to ignite all of the family’s inner repressions, yet it is within the effect half of the film that Pasolini’s true visual flair is allowed to flourish fully.
Throughout all of the film, the barren volcanic wasteland that has since become a byword in Pasolini’s cinematic language for the realisation of despair and pessimism, makes an appearance with each character’s realisation that Stamp’s character allows them to see. It’s a powerful visual and sums up the director and film better than even the most elaborate of set ups. Pasolini’s correlations between class and sex (or repression of the most obviously Freudian/Oedipal variety) are often discussed though more often in a thematic sense rather than through a visual linkage. Yet Theorem sums up these correlations through a wonderfully visual set of scenarios such as the symmetrical set up of the dinner table or the implied sharing by the presence of two deck chairs, two beds, two seats of the car.
Much is made out of the seduction of the family’s maid (Laura Betti). This could be for a number of reasons. She is the first to fall for Stamp’s almost divine intervention, presented by constant framing of his crotch as she can’t stand to let his cigarette ash fall onto his lap. It is rare to find a tagline for the film that doesn’t in some way include “even the maid gets seduced.” The irony of this advertising was no doubt deliberate of Pasolini, inflicting the hypocrisies of his characters onto the film business and the distribution itself. The maid’s journey to the religious epiphany shares some similarities with the priests from Hawks and Sparrows (1966) though the shot of her suspended in the air above a building is perhaps one of the most unsettling images in Italian film.
While the Mother (Silvana Mangano) becomes an incessant explorer of infidelity, the son (Andrés José Cruz Soublette) a painter who stops caring and the daughter (Anne Wiazemsky) becomes emotionally comatose by the harsh mirror left reflecting upon them by the stranger’s departure, the father’s (Massimo Girotti) breakdown is the most interesting of the effects. His factory is what opens the film when in sepia and his relationship with the stranger makes him give up quite literally everything. His own repression manifesting into a complete public breakdown, he undresses in a train station before the making the journey to the barren, pessimistic landscape. He is the only character to finally make it this far into the other world, which all of the characters momentarily witness at some point. He staggers around, naked and broken with his primal scream that the realisation has brought him to coldly and disturbingly ending the film.
The new BFI release has several interesting new features. The first is an in depth commentary by Robert Gordon who finds constant points of interest to note. The main feature of the release comes in the form of a half an hour interview with Terence Stamp which begins to form the picture of how Pasolini was as a filmmaker and a person. The story of him saying nothing to Stamp after the initial casting interview is entirely believable and his relationship with the film and its story is shocking while also being entirely appropriate. Also included is the new trailer which was shown the theatrical release this year. It does however show the worst example of a dynamically clichéd advert, even down to the typical string crescendo that infects almost every modern trailer today.
Pasolini may perhaps be becoming too well-known as the Marxist Rottweiler, attacking the upper classes with every opportunity. Yet all of his films, often dealing with the complex nature of his own personality just as much as his film’s narratives and thematic content, are always a visceral, questioning experience granting that they are at times constant in their barrage. Theorem is another strong example of this even if its main theme is a questioning through absence; a polar opposite of any of Pasolini’s general mentalities which have often thrived on brutal excess.