"Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Italian director, has always been something of a puzzle for American critics, not simply because we have to reconcile his announced Marxism with what appears to be a kind of reformed Christianity (as reflected by the neo-realistic "The Gospel According to St. Matthew," as well as by the austerely allegorical "Teorema"), but because he forces us to keep shifting critical gears. No three Pasolinis are ever quite alike. At best, they come in pairs, like "Oedipus Rex" and "Medea," neither of which have yet been released here.
There is, however, a peculiar kind of romanticism throughout all of his films. It is a middle-class romanticism that idealizes the spiritual and emotional freedom that Pasolini sees in what we used to call The Common Man, who, in slightly more straightforward, class-conscious Europe, is still The Peasant. As if he were some medieval maiden locked in a tower, Pasolini seems to long for the freedom to do what the simple folk do, which, to Pasolini, evokes sexual liberation as much as anything else.
In none of his films has this been more apparent than in his marvelous new work, "The Decameron," which is as close to being uninhibited and joyful as anything he's ever done.
Taking 10 tales out of the 100 in Boccaccio's "Decameron," Pasolini has created one of the most beautiful, turbulent and uproarious panoramas of early Renaissance life ever put on film. It is also one of the most obscene, if obscene defines something that is offensive to ordinary concepts of chastity, delicacy and decency, although I'd hardly call the film offensive to morals.
Pasolini's "Decameron" is faithful to the original texts, but it is not Boccaccio's. This is not because Pasolini has dispensed with Boccaccio's frame, which has seven women and three men, refugees from the plague that settled on Florence in 1348, each tell one story a day for the 10 days they are marooned in country villa. Pasolini uses no frame except a single setting, Naples, where the stories grow one out of the other as do the scenes in a frieze.
Rather, the difference between the two works has to do with the difference between the two works has to the delicate euphemisms of Boccaccio's storytellers become the blunt unequivocal images of filmed reality. The difference also has to do with Pasolini's conscious recreation of a world that is as strange and bizarre as that of the pre-Christian "Fellini Satyricon," which Pasolini's film recalls by its pagan beauty, and by its concern with life as art, if not by its comic temperament.
In his "Satyricon," Fellini contented himself by playing God, the artist, off screen. Pasolini is not quite so modest. About halfway through "The Decameron" he himself shows up as Giotto, one of the founding fathers of the Renaissance. Thereafter we see him periodically, surrounded by his students, at work on a giant fresco, the holy faces of which are those of the thieves, whores, merchants, nuns, friars, rubes, deceived husband and not-so-virginal lovers, whose stories we've been watching.
When his work is finally completed, Giotto is spent, drained, empty of feeling. "Why produce a work of art," he says to himself, "when it's so nice to dream about it?"
Pasolini's dream is composed of the tales he tells us, takes as its theme a frenzied Giotto nightmare, in which the artist's religious visions are overwhelmed by the more attractive visions of a pagan orgy.
With the exception of Franco Citti, Ninetto Davoli and Silvana Mangano (who appears in an unbilled cameo), the cast is mostly composed of amateurs, for Pasolini, like Giotto, is fascinated by the truth of unprepared faces. They are all either extraordinarily beautiful or extraordinarily ugly, as if they were different classes of beings. There is, however, something about their awkwardness and self-consciousness that gives a special dimension of truth to the film itself.
I must say that, at the beginning of the movie, I feared we were in for another one of Franco Zefferelli's rather fruitily lush, medieval window displays. However, because Pasolini is a sterner poet than Zefferelli, "The Decameron" becomes an epic, instead of just another unruly and inverted fashion show.
The film, which was shown last night at the New York Film Festival at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, will be released commercially later in the year."
-Vincent Canby, 1971, The New York Times