By the 1970s, Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini felt free to explore the realms of love and sex that most films up to that time had never dared to investigate. His Trilogy of Life which brought together a succession of spiritual, comic, and erotic tales from Italian, English, and Arabic cultures make for a one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. The films all have their flaws, and they certainly aren’t for those who have an aversion to nudity or sexual expressiveness. Still, the joie de vivre of one of humankind’s most basic pleasures is captured distinctly and uniquely in these three films by one of the world’s most controversial filmmakers.
Trilogy of Life (Blu-ray)
The Decameron/The Canterbury Tales/Arabian Nights
Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Running Time: 111/111/130 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 Italian
MSRP: $ 79.95
Release Date: November 13, 2012
Review Date: November 11, 2012
The Decameron – 3.5/5
Ten stories from Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century morality tract are strung together in two loosely-framed sections. The first and better half of the film portrays a series of tales illustrating man’s rather dubious history of taking advantage of his fellow man. Thief and serial fornicator Ciappelletto (Franco Citti) takes part in three sections in the first half before dying and then rather naively being elevated to sainthood. The best of the first half segments involves the handsome Andreuccio (Ninetto Davoli) who is conned by a beautiful woman and robbed of his clothes and money only to be duped again by two grave robbers who assign him the dirty work of robbing the tomb of a cardinal with its expensive trappings and then locking him up inside. The second half takes a more earnest look at sexual morality (though there are sexually-themed tales in the first half, too) and the church’s hypocritical views on lust and love. Two tales involving spirits of the dead who return to their loved ones to help give them peace are especially haunting.
Though a Catholic and a Marxist, Pasolini’s acerbic views on the restrictions of the church in matters of love and lust are given free reign here with the church coming off looking particularly hypocritical and impotent. The tale involving nuns in a convent abandoning their vows of chastity for daily doses of their gardener’s affections has a light comic spirit but an underlying and undeniable sense of disgust. One of the final tales where a priest’s sexual needs get satisfied through a con job of his own devising is likewise bitterly comic. Pasolini’s cinematic style while sometimes ravishing (frescoes being painted by an artist which Pasolini himself plays in a succession of scenes which frame the movie’s second half) can also be a bit pedestrian with its strings of long shots and then extreme close-ups of faces which he obviously finds fascinating but can be rather repugnant with their missing or rotten teeth. Resetting the action of the tales in Naples allows the director to shoot a love letter to the city aided by often dazzling color cinematography. And the director is not shy about parading nude flesh in front of the camera with full frontal nudity for both sexes and erections from some of the men shown in close-up.
The Canterbury Tales – 4/5
A group of pilgrims traveling on the long journey to Canterbury entertain one another by telling tales to one another. The stories, some lewd and lascivious and others parables on man’s tendency toward wickedness, run the gamut. Poet Geoffrey Chaucer (Pier Paolo Pasolini) writes down the tales as they’re being told.
Pasolini has chosen eight of the twenty-four tales in Chaucer’s Middle English masterpiece to bring to the screen. Though there was originally bridging material between the tales that allowed the audience to get to know the tellers of the stories, almost all of that has been eliminated apart from a prologue as the pilgrims gather and some occasional cutaways to Chaucer as he writes down or chuckles at the yarns. Though Pasolini has chosen the bawdiest stories (“The Miller’s Tale” with its hot poker finale, “The Reeve’s Tale” with a mother and daughter ravished by students, “The Merchant’s Tale” with a cuckold husband twice being duped by a resourceful wife, and the climactic “The Summoner’s Tale” as a vision of hell for greedy friars) and made sure there is plenty of nudity throughout, a couple of the more serious tales (“The Friar’s Tale” which warns of priests who angle for profit and “The Pardoner’s Tale” as the thirst for wealth poisons the relationship of three friends) plus the delightfully Chaplinesque take on “The Cook’s Tale” featuring his soon-to-be ex-lover Ninetto Davoli as the constantly hungry scoundrel make the most unforgettable impressions. The film overall is more cinematic than The Decameron and while the church gets some nose tweaks, the overall mood of the piece is rather joyous and full of frivolity and much less satirical.
Arabian Nights – 4/5
Around a framing story regarding the abduction of slave girl Zumurrud (Ines Pellegrini) from her master Nur ed Din (Franco Merli) and her subsequent adventures where she’s yet again abducted by another and through ironic chance rises to become a King, gains revenge on her enemies, and is ultimately reunited with her true love come a series of other tales sometimes spun by characters inside another story but all of which deal with youthful passions that are sometimes earnest, sometimes overpowering, sometimes selfish, and sometimes lethal.
The most mystical and erotic of the Trilogy of Life films and the least humorous by far (the murders, decapitations, and castrations seem all too real), Arabian Nights presents many of the stories it’s telling as offshoots of other stories giving it a decidedly different texture and flavor from The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales and a film that requires more strict attention as it plays than the other more episodic entries. Aside from the framing story which begins and ends the film and periodically appears in the midst of other stories, the longest of the stories here involves the sad search for love of the young and foolish Aziz (Ninetto Davoli) who abandons his cousin Aziza (Tessa Bouché) on their wedding day and takes up with another woman while heartlessly going back to Aziza time and again for romantic advice in wooing his new love. With their love affair over in real life, it’s no surprise that director Pasolini chose Davoli for the role of a callous lothario and no surprise at his ultimate end. Even more so than in The Canterbury Tales, Pasolini really tries for an epic feel for his movie with the wide desert expanses and lush costumes and sets that dot much of the movie. At its best, it reaches some of the magical mysticism of The Thief of Bagdad though with far more graphic sex and violence, of course (a story involving a young prince and his futile attempts to beat a magical premonition is the most haunting tale in the film and the shortest). There are no potshots at religion this time out (Islam doesn’t seem a part of the movie despite its setting), and the sex (and there is a lot of it) seems more innocent and pure most of the time than in the other two films.
The Decameron – 4/5
All of the films are presented in their theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and are offered in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. Color here is often ravishing with deeply rich colors and flesh tones which ring with naturalness. Sharpness is usually very good but there is some softness occasionally in certain shots. Black levels aren’t the deepest they could be, but this, too, varies. Subtitles have been printed in white and are always easy to read. The film has been divided into 13 chapters.
The Canterbury Tales – 4/5
At its best, the picture is simply scrumptious with excellent sharpness, luscious color with especially bright and deeply hued reds, and accurate and appealing flesh tones. But there are some shots that are noticeably soft for no reason (fewer than in The Decameron), and there are colored scratches that crop up occasionally especially during the film’s second half. Black levels aren’t much better than in The Decameron. The subtitles are in white and are easy to read. The movie has been divided into 10 chapters.
Arabian Nights – 3.5/5
Picture quality here is the most erratic of the three films. The opening scenes and periodic others are soft and indistinct with color that looks dated and unappealing. Elsewhere, though, the lushness of the costumes and sets comes through with blazing brilliance making the more problematic shots somewhat frustrating. Flesh tones look consistently realistic throughout, however. Black levels are no better than in the other two films. Subtitles are in white and are easy to read. The film has been divided into 20 chapters.
All films – 3.5/5
The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix for each movie is exactly what one would expect from films from this period. The mono track on each movie mixes the dialogue, music, and sound effects together, but since everything has been post-synched, the track has that sometimes arid, vapid quality such post-dubbed soundtracks often have. The Canterbury Tales offers an English language track in Dolby Digital 1.0 (it was filmed in England with many English actors), but the default track is the PCM Italian track, so that’s the one I listened to for the majority of the movie. The main titles for Arabian Nights contain some low level hiss, but it disappears once the film proper begins.
“On The Decameron” is a 24 ¾-minute video analysis of the film by film expert Patrick Rumble offering astute observations on the film’s composition and themes. It’s in 1080p.
The Lost Body of Alibech is a discussion of a segment from the movie’s second half which Pasolini cut two weeks before its premiere at the Venice Film Festival (where it won the Grand Jury Prize). The film pieces are all now missing, but this documentary by filmmaker Roberto Chiesi sets about to reconstruct the segment using film stills and the script pages. It runs 44 ½ minutes in 1080i.
“Via Pasolini” is a 2005 television documentary in which archival interview footage of Pasolini is strung together offering some of his views on language, society, and his movement from literature into filmmaking and ending with the news reports on his murder. It runs 26 ¾ minutes in 1080p.
There are two theatrical trailers which run 1 ½ minutes (in 1080i) and 2 ½ minutes (in 1080p).
The Canterbury Tales
Film expert Sam Rohdie offers his views on the movie in a 13 ½-minute video essay. He analyzes the film’s structure and themes, points out highlights, and compares Pasolini’s visual style to that of Sergei Eisenstein. It’s in 1080p.
“Pasolini and the Secret Humiliation of Chaucer” is a 47 ½-minute documentary by Roberto Chiesi documenting the twenty cut scenes from the film before and after its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival (where it won the Golden Bear) and that are now lost. There is also discussion of the film’s original structure and the shuffling of sequences even after the premiere. It’s in 1080i.
One minute of English language video inserts is shown in 1080p.
Composer Ennio Morricone discusses his work for Pasolini in six films and his tremendous regard for a man who he felt truly respected his profession as a composer. It runs 9 minutes in 1080p.
Art director Dante Ferretti who worked on eight films with Pasolini discusses in particular his work on the Trilogy of Life films with clips from each one shown as examples of his best work. It runs 18 minutes in 1080p.
Three theatrical trailers are offered. The two English-language trailers each run 2 ¾ minutes in 1080i. The Italian trailer runs 4 ¾ minutes in 1080p.
An introduction to Arabian Nights is provided by its director making some comments about the movie at the press conference for its premiere at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival (where it won a Special Jury Prize). It runs 2 ¾ minutes in 1080p.
“On Arabian Nights” is a 25 ½-minute think piece on the movie by critic Tony Rayns offering not only an analysis of the movie but a brief biography of Pasolini from 1949 onward as he segued from published author to filmmaker. The format of the film, his filmic techniques, and the reflections of his own life found in the film are given notable attention. It’s in 1080p.
There are two deleted sequences which were cut after the Cannes Film Festival showing, and they’re presented here running 21 ¼ minutes in 1080p.
“Pasolini and the Form of the City” is a 17-minute documentary filmed by Pasolini as the filmmaker regrets the passage of time with man’s modern architectural structures eroding the natural splendors of the cities of Orte and Sabaudia. It’s in 1080i.
There are three trailers: the English-language trailer runs 2 ½ minutes in 1080i while the two others in 1080p are presented in the original Italian with English subtitles and run 3 ¼ and 2 ¾ minutes respectively.
The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc and the title of the chapter you’re now in. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
An enclosed 65-page booklet contains cast and crew lists for all three films, a number of color stills from the movies, critical essays on each of the films by film professor Colin MacCabe, Pasolini’s 1975 rejection of his trilogy, a transcript of the Q&A session for The Canterbury Tales at the Berlin Film Festival, and film critic Gideon Bachmann’s essay on the shooting of Arabian Nights in Persia.
4/5 (not an average)
Full of sexual dalliance amid scores of tales being told from three decidedly different international cultures of centuries past, the Trilogy of Life is a unique cinematic triptych. It won’t be for all tastes, but for those who are game, it’s worth experiencing, and the bonus material on each disc in this three disc Blu-ray set helps explain and expand on the filmmaker’s intentions and accomplishments. Recommended!