Cinema Sanctuary: On Pasolini and "Teorema" with Professor Michael Syrimis
Questions, answers, and curiosities around New Orleans alt-film programming
Cinema Sanctuary is a weekly film series held at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans.
The following is a (mostly) unedited Q&A I conducted with Tulane Professor Michael Syrimis - who teaches a course around the works of filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini - ahead of a recent Cinema Sanctuary screening of Teorema (Theorem). Enjoy.
1) It appears that, in the film, the well-to-do family that Terrence Stamp’s character visits can afford to have “problems,” by which I mean they’re mostly self-absorbed and seeking anything that makes them interesting beyond their wealth. How do you feel about that, and how does Stamp’s arrival and stay ultimately upend this facade?
Michael Syrimis: We don’t get to know much about their lives before the visitor’s arrival, except the brief intro of each character in silent black and white (sepia), and the things they confess to him after he announces his departure. So, they are probably self-absorbed as you say, though I wouldn’t describe them as “seeking anything that makes them interesting” because both his attractiveness and the crisis they experience by having physical contact with him are things out of their control, and they all react to him in similar fashion even though they are defined (though minimally, in the brief intro) as different kinds of individuals (rational industrialist father; religious housewife; playful carefree son though somehow different than his buddies; daughter attached to father and family, into photography i.e. clings to “frozen” stable things).
The visitor’s presence is irresistible, they are drawn to him by some superior supernatural power, he can be taken, according to Pasolini, as God or Devil, or a mixture of those, and in any case, a mysterious/mystical invasive force. With him around, they lose any sense of stable identity, and the way they understood their previous lives, whatever those were, appears misguided and disingenuous to them now. He represents a forceful authenticity that cannot be defined and that unleashes their infinite internal worlds that they were never in touch with. The problem is: once he leaves, they cannot deal with this discovery, they don’t know how to handle it on their own because they don’t have the necessary mental, emotional, spiritual tools. That is because, for Pasolini, the bourgeoisie is so alienated, the body is so instrumentalized by the rationality of consumer capitalism, that, against the contact with the authentic (God? Devil? the unconscious?), instead of finding salvation, they resort to chaos and loss.
The only one who reacts productively to this power is Emilia, the maid, and the reason is, for Pasolini, that she is a poor peasant, so she becomes a saint. The peasantry, for Pasolini, is one of the places where authenticity, including the authenticity that the body carries within, still exists, as they are not yet contaminated by bourgeois capitalist values. If you have that “infrastructure” (like Emilia), you can benefit from this contact, becoming a saint and fertilizing the world with your tears (see the closing scene, when she’s partly buried while crying). But if you are fully determined by your bourgeois sensibility, you have lost your chance.
2) Much like La Ricotta, I feel that Teorema is at least part comedy, especially when I think of the father’s plight. Of course, this farce is muddied a bit with straight drama, turning things into tragedy. For me though, the tragic here comes back around to being a little funny. Is Teorema comedic for you, why, and what do you think of Pasolini’s sense of humor?
MS: Yes, I fully agree that there’s humor. Emilia, as a most diligent maid, becomes a caricature when she runs so urgently to dust off his cigarette ash that “happened” to fall on his crotch, minutes before she offers herself to him. Lucia is a religious housewife and is shown crossing herself, but we are looking at Silvana Mangano, a sexy diva who, 20 years earlier, had been launched as the Italian version of Rita Hayworth, here heavily made up and dressed in haute couture with trendy miniskirts as appropriate to her diva image. I think the contradiction between the two images she conveys can be humorous.
If you are referring to the father’s stripping naked in the middle of Milan’s Central Station – the other option being to follow a young man who’s luring him into the men’s bathroom – and then walking naked from there to Mount Etna in Sicily, yes, it’s funny. Of course, the unreality of the action doesn’t matter because the story is an allegory and many shots are metaphorical, such as the recurrent shots of the desert, which may stand for that authentic primal state that they face once they are in physical contact with the visitor, or else their inability to make something good out of that contact, remaining eternally in a “desert” state, which I think is what the ending represents with the father’s scream, which is kind of funny in itself. There is a lot of humor in Pasolini, from slapstick (La Ricotta and some other shorts) to irony, to dark humor.
His Trilogy of Life (Decameron, Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights) are comedies, while his most disturbing and for many unwatchable last film Salò may be seen as a masterpiece of dark humor. I think his humor, however, often comes with the tragic. I also work on Luigi Pirandello, famous for his theory of “humor”, which refers to a person’s disposition for simultaneous yet contradictory perceptions of the same phenomenon, and where the clash can provoke laughter and sadness at the same time. I’m not sure if Pasolini wrote on Pirandello, but to some extent I think Pirandello’s idea can be applied here. For instance, the characters lose track of their own identity. Lucia’s clash between two images (promiscuous vs. religious housewife) is both funny and sad, while what’s also Pirandellian is that she clings to one identity – religious housewife – while being entirely unaware of the other – active sexual being – that is repressed until it explodes with the visitor.
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3) An online comment that I recently read called Terrence Stamp a “thirst trap” in the movie, a literal one and a figurative one. Indeed, Pasolini focuses much on Stamp and his visage, specifically the crotch area in the more provocative framing - though, with Pasolini, it’s less provocation for him and the more daily grind. Is the director’s gaze in Teorema purely carnal, or does it function as both comedy against the family and drama for them too? Can this gaze have a moral and critical purpose as well? If so, what would it be?
MS: I would say it’s “both comedy against the family and drama for them too” because, yes, it also has a moral and critical purpose. Of course, we will never know if Pasolini’s personal gaze is purely carnal and all the rest is just excuses, but I would doubt that, given his vast amount of literary writing, films, and theoretical writings on cinema, all of which address sexuality and the body as primary loci of the authentic, the ideological, and the spiritual.
Teorema demonstrates the convergence of the three primary discourses that, according to critics, inform Pasolini’s work, namely: Freudian psychoanalysis (sexuality and instincts), Marxism (condemnation of the bourgeoisie and seeking truthfulness in the peasantry or “Other”); and Catholicism (contact with the mystical). He is so passionate about the idea of the body and sexual organs as a place where revolutionary potential is stored and ready to explode, and equally passionate on condemning consumerism’s transformation of the body into a money-making machine, that I would say the camera’s adoration of Terrence Stamp is more than just an excuse for Pasolini’s own sexual urges. The crotch shot becomes more common in his films following Teorema (see Medea, Decameron, Canterbury, Salò), but in his earlier films also the camera lingers on men’s faces or physical presence. Bodies and landscapes are sacred for Pasolini, and in accordance with some of his theory of the cinema as a “written language of reality”, the camera often lingers on the object as if it were trying to unleash some deeper hidden force from beneath the surface of the object.
After he made his first film, Accattone, some critics noted that he was inexperienced because the camera lingered too long on faces. Little did they know that this would become part of his auteur’s signature, and Antonioni would be doing something similar in the 1960s. Pasolini wrote somewhere that “nothing is more technically sacred than a slow pan.”
4) I love the shot from the ground perspective and up of the family’s home caretaker in the sky, above her village. Still, I couldn’t help but immediately mentally reference Superman in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, who is framed similarly but completely more glorifying. It’s interesting how modern pop culture infects the collective and the individual consciousness, huh? Does Pasolini have this Superman effect on cinephiles in general (he does on me)? On you?
MS: That’s a very interesting analogy between Emilia and the Superman character, and I find your question very interesting too, although I’m not sure I understand it fully. I assume you mean there is already an inherent continuity between Emilia and Pasolini. One could say that, like Emilia, whose tears fertilize the earth at the end, Pasolini sees his own work as one that offers the possibility of salvation to its viewer. In that sense, I assume you are asking if he may be seen as a kind of “superman”, perhaps from his own perspective, but also if he is seen as a “superman” by his fans. I would say it’s quite feasible that Pasolini may perceive his own work in this way. But I can say with more certainty that he is one of the main European auteurs of the modernist or “art cinema” era of the ‘60s and ‘70s and many cinephiles probably look at his cultural contributions with awe and admiration. Personally, after studying many of his works in some detail, although I do not agree with some of the ideas, I believe that my study has influenced my way of thinking to some extent.
5) After Stamp leaves the household, the family cracks in personally different but vaingloriously epic ways. While the home caretaker’s change was pure, the family succumb to a sort of force, placing them in roles they treat as melodramatic and righteous, but are perhaps more poetic justice than anything. Going back to comedy, this is where I find Pasolini's humor and criticism of status systems, specifically labor vs the rich. Where does Teorema stand for you in Pasolini’s catalog of work, why, and what other worker class vs wealthy class type films would you recommend?
MS: I think an answer to the first part of your question (“After…. than anything”) can be found in my response to your first one or two questions above. I hope I’m not misreading this part but let me know. As for comedy, I think I know what you mean, and I’d say yes. The family’s melodramatic reaction to the visitor’s departure brings out the contradictions that they’ve always carried within and repressed, and there is some comedy there, again in the Pirandellian sense that I tried to describe above, namely, in suddenly becoming aware of the falsity of the identity they always held as stable, while finding a new self that they are unable to manage and are led astray.
At the same time, you say the home caretaker’s change is “pure” – and I’d say it’s “productive” or “fruitful.” Yes, there is a sense of sad mockery of the bourgeois family here vis-à-vis Emilia who is able to undertake a noble mission. I have a difficult time categorizing his work because Pasolini’s style changes dramatically every few years, and Teorema belongs to what the critics have described as his cinema of “myth” (Oedipus, Teorema, Pigstay, Medea), with two ancient myths, and also two modern ones of his own conception, all of which are marked by the “aristocratic” modernist style that requires some familiarity with certain concepts for the work to be understood and appreciated.
I find Teorema to be one of his most impressive works, however, because it’s particularly original, creative, and has a clean stark quality in its mise-en-scene and in its mathematical and symmetrical narrative structure: here’s who each one is, here’s what each one does, and here’s how each one reacts. The question the journalist asks at the beginning, the “theorem” – Is it a mistake if the bourgeoisie, after a crisis, gives away its industry to the workers, because in this way it turns the proletariat into petit bourgeois? – is left unanswered, in my opinion, but we do know retrospectively that the answer is yes for Pasolini, because that is what his film Salò represents, the surrender of the “authentic” to the “inauthentic”.