Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Canterbury Tales (1972) & The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

Two more Pasolini movies before I try and make a stab at the feces-encrusted elephant in the room, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom.

Anybody who ever snuck a look at what Cinemax used to show late at night (do they still?) will be familiar with the style of Pasolini's The Canterbury Tales, which, alongside his The Decameron and Arabian Nights were pioneers of the softcore European skin-flick, tales of ribaldry with assorted glimpses of nudity justified by 'literary' content. Take some clueless husbands, mix one part randy wife with one part clever suitor and toss in a dash of Euro-humping. Of course, becoming a business rival to the Emmanuelle series was hardly what a gay Marxist like Pasolini had in mind when he was making these three films - after successfully annoying and frustrating audiences with difficult films like Teorema, his new goal was to make popular, sex-positive films reflecting the progressive mood of the times. And in addition, Pasolini works in some serious undercurrents to his sex romps. His version of Chaucer's Friar's Tale includes a lengthy addition in which a rich man and a poor man are both spied on in the act of sodomy and then threatened with legal exposure - the rich man bribes his way free, the poor man gets put on trial and burned alive before a crowd who munch on concession snacks. The end of the film, Chaucer's Summoner's Tale, concludes with a not-in-Chaucer episode set in Hell in which Pasolini stages a Bosch-esque panoply of demons and tortures, including the devil himself bending over and literally pooping out friars.

In spite of wonderful moments such as these, the film itself is a mixed bag, as most episodic movies are, and suffers from a rambling lack of structure. I definitely did not need to see Ninetto Davoli (one of Pasolini's favorites) doing a bizarrely anachronistic Charlie Chaplin impersonation in one episode. Also, Tom Baker is in this, and I never needed to see the naked body of '70s Dr. Who, ever.

I liked Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew more, as a pared-down, neo-realist story of the life of Jesus, and as an obvious inspiration for multiple Scorsese movies, plus of course a certain Mel Gibson film from a few years ago. But where Gibson emphasized the bloody death of Christ, Pasolini emphasizes his teachings, his sermons and revolutionary attitudes that made him the enemy of the Jewish and Roman power structures of the time, in true 20th-century Marxist manner. This isn't to say that Pasolini's version of Jesus is an unbearable hippie ideologue, but rather that he's a fierce opponent of the status quo, including the wealthy and the powerful. Jesus's trial, scourging, and crucifixion are depicted from afar, as if captured by a contemporary documentary camera.

In spite of its strengths, Pasolini's movie suffers from the same problem that I have with just about all Christ movies: Jesus never really is allowed to be an actual character in his own story, but rather just goes through the cinematic stations of the cross: Virgin Birth, check; meet John the Baptist, check; Sermon on the Mount, check; trial and crucifixion, check; resurrection, and we're out. Even though Pasolini was an atheist, he still doesn't really change the fundamental bearings of the supernatural/mythical narrative. I appreciate the gritty, down-to-earth, '60s rebelliousness that Pasolini brings to a genre which had been afflicted by Hollywood glossiness and shallow pieities for more than a decade. I wanted to like this more - I was hoping it would be the ultimate Jesus movie - but Pasolini still doesn't reinvent the Bible-movie wheel, as much as he just alters its tone and inflections, and Jesus wouldn't be an actual narrative character until Scorsese finally made his movie version (which has its own flaws) more than twenty years later.

The Canterbury Tales: 6/10
The Gospel According to St. Matthew: 7/10

1 comment:

Sam Juliano said...

I definitely agree with you that THE CANTERBURY TALES is uneven, but THE GOSPEL OF ST. MATTHEW is a cinema verite masterpiece, perhaps the most inately spiritual film ever made.

Nice work as always.