Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema enters the Criterion Collection stable this month, the second of the director’s works to earn the honor after his more infamous Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Both deal with themes of class, among other concerns, and it’s fair to say that Teorema is the more digestible of the two.
A staid bourgeois family in Milan, Italy, is visited by a mysterious divine presence played by a hot, young Terence Stamp. He seduces the mother, the father, the daughter, the son and the maid, in the process shattering their self-perceptions before leaving them to sift through the wreckage.
The title, translated as Theorem, implies a mathematical certitude from the family meeting Stamp’s inhuman perspective that reveals a final truth. What that final truth is, however, is open to interpretation. There are plenty of academic dissections of Teorema. Is it a Marxist critique on class conflict? A dissection of the shallow, material bourgeoisie? Does it explicitly comment on divinity or faith? Is the relationship between the son and Stamp in part an exploration of Pasolini’s own sexuality?
Pasolini was a communist and a homosexual (identities that conflicted in his time), as well as a renowned artist, poet and polymath. He often denied interpretations of Teorema that leaned heavily on his publicly known persona.
Pasolini’s stylistic variety only increases the possible interpretations of the film and his artistic intentions therein. Documentary footage leads into sepia-toned drama before bursting into full color when Stamp appears. Pasolini blends styles in the same way he blends sacred and profane imagery. He depicts fucking as passion unbridled. Teorema was banned by the Catholic Church in Italy for some time, although it hardly feels pornographic by today’s standards — which, incidentally, made the sexual content feel more profane to my modern eyes. It feels raw, unorchestrated, private.
There are only 923 words in Teorema – but it says everything!
Advertising the lack of spoken dialogue in an Italian art film was a ballsy way to bring Teorema to American audiences in 1968, although it seems like the approach feels as valid in 2020. The unspoken nature of Pasolini’s allegorical fable brings a discomforting, dream-like aesthetic to the otherwise gritty story. This isn’t a story where the wealthy sees the error of their ways in the face of God. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Catatonia, night-cruising and eventual spiritual desolation are among the fates that befell the family.
Teorema feels like an appropriate release stateside in the year 2020, given that the current presidential election — and cultural movements surrounding it — seem to be reflective of a comfortable class staring into the eyes of a world that stares back at them with a mirror that strips away the vanity of their cultural certainties. Some rip off their noses to spite their face while others want to throw it all to someone else and disappear into the desert. Many people have felt significant for the first time, for good or ill, and won’t dare part with that feeling ever again. It’s a culturally raucous time, and it isn’t getting quieter.
A hot-take headline might be “Feeling the Bern? Watch this wealthy family realize their privilege after a visit by Terence Stamp, Marxist Fuck-Angel!” Maybe that’s what I wanted to see, though.
Teorema says everything! Teorema can say anything. What does Teorema say to you?
The Criterion Collection release comes with a newly restored 4K digital transfer with newly translated English subtitles, an alternate English soundtrack featuring Stamp’s voice, audio commentary from Robert S.C. Gordon (author of Pasolini: Forms of Subjectivity), an introduction by Pasolini from 1969, a 2007 interview with Stamp, a new interview with John David Rhodes (author of Stupendous, Miserable City: Pasolini’s Rome), and an essay from film scholar James Quandt.