Monday, October 30, 2006

Teorema (Pasolini, 1968)

The plot summary for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema listed on the Internet Movie Database reads as follows: A strange visitor in a wealthy family. He seduces the maid, the son, the mother, the daughter and finally the father before leaving a few days after. After he's gone, none of them can continue living as they did. What this summary accurately captures is the utter simplicity of Pasolini’s film. With very few words of actual dialogue spoken, this is indeed basically all that happens over the course of 90-plus minutes. However, it is in the fuzzy details of this summary where the captivating mystery of Teorema is revealed. For example, I take issue with the word ‘seduce’. It is a word that calls to mind John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons. However, the charismatic stranger played by Terrence Stamp is far more passive. In each of his interactions with the members of the household, it is the other person who is the initiator. Each one of them looks to this stranger to fulfill some kind of spiritual need. Each one of them feels somehow incomplete. Once they have opened themselves up to the stranger and exposed their aching souls, he invariably responds with love, kindness and friendship. In his review, Ebert goes so far as to say he ‘makes love’ with each of them. While it is certainly possible to make this interpretation, I think that it involves making somewhat of a leap considering what Pasolini presents us with on screen. In truth, the conclusions of these various encounters are left mostly open-ended.

Halfway through the film, the stranger announces that he must leave. Before he goes, he meets with each member of the household individually and they tell him how he has impacted their lives and how his leaving will affect them in the future. The stranger does not offer words of wisdom or much in the way of overt encouragement. He offers kind looks, open ears, perhaps a gentle touch and not much more. The second half of the film shows us how these individuals seek to achieve fulfillment in the absence of their unusual houseguest. Their tactics involve art, sex, passivity and at least one supernatural phenomenon. However, Pasolini saves his greatest bit of cinematic magic for the end. Throughout the film, we have seen the narrative events interrupted with seemingly incongruous shots of a barren desert. With his film’s closing moments, narrative reality and metaphorical reality collide in a haunting scene of raw anguish.

How we interpret Teorema will likely depend on the identity or value that we place upon the stranger. Clad in white and often bathed in bright light, many viewers (and Joan Osborne fans) will no doubt conclude that he must be Christ or God himself. However, Pasolini’s film is never so blatant as to limit the stranger’s identity to one possibility. He could even be seen as the embodiment of an abstract idea – which, I suppose, would not make him all that different from Jesus after all. There can be no doubt about at least one thing in regards to Pasolini’s film: it is masterful. Easily digestible, but endlessly haunting, Teorema is a testament to Pasolini’s gift for visual composition, thematic exploration and potent minimalism.



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