The first film of director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Trilogy of Life,” The Decameron, an adaptation of several of the stories in Boccaccio’s book, sets the mold for the series. (The others are The Canterbury Tales and The Arabian Nights. Click here for a list of the dramatized stories.) It presents a free-wheeling vision of a time when sex and other sensual pleasures were simply accepted as part of life by people free of modern hangups about our bodies and what to do with them.
Which raises the question of whether such an approach serves the subject, or if Pasolini is using Boccaccio for his own ends? The fact that the other two films take a similar approach strongly suggests the Naturalistic detail is more Pasolini’s doing. What he does with the stories may be implicit in the originals, but it is questionable if making their content explicit is warranted, and whether doing so achieves an accurate evocation of Boccacio’s era. Were people in the Middle Ages really so free of guilt? Would Boccaccio recognize the world Pasolini depicts as his?
If it is impossible to answer that question, it is equally impossible for the director to insist treating the past as a throbbing present, drenched in seamy, everyday details achieves a truth greater than traditional period films. For example, in one story, the protagonist falls into a vat of sewage. Did anyone doubt medieval Italy lacked modern plumbing? In another, the penis of a gardener “servicing” a group of nuns is shown fully erect. Is his endowment unique to the Middle Ages? This is the past as dirty spectacle (in both senses of the word), in which the usual antiquarian impulse of a period film is diverted to the least appetizing and appealing details, intentionally or otherwise making muck strangely exotic.
The results are unquestionably different, even persuasive, but after a while, also monotonous. If the stories are not burdened with the fussy care usually lavished on historical subjects, the relentlessly graphic detail imposes its own weight. Pasolini keeps things moving quickly, but being repeatedly reminded that people in the past screwed, farted, belched, lied, cheated, stole, and murdered between happy peasant dances and “Hail Marys” does not provide a particularly winsome alternative to lacquered perfection, just its inversion.
Despite this explicit approach, The Decameron is not pornography, but it suffers from a similar inability to keep our interest beyond visceral sensation. After three viewings, I am still unable to remember much of it. Occasional, striking moments register all too forcefully, but the stories and characters are vaporous. I remembered that dip into the vat of excrement, for example, but not why or even how the character got there. Somewhere, Boccaccio got lost. The film is memorable in bits, dynamic, and vivid, but too fragmented to transcend the baseness it depicts, too self-conscious to conceal its daring in the absolving modesty of understatement.