The Decameron

No I haven't read the book (r u mad, it's like a billion pages long). But I watched Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1971 film version last night, on a shiny BFI dual-format DVD complete with informational booklet. This was the first in his 'Trilogy of Life' adaptations of medieval literature depicting a lost pre-capitalist paradise. Just off the bat, strange for me to find a communist denouncing the evils of industrialisation harking back to the Middle Ages, since Marx and most of his followers considered feudalism to be infinitely worse. Pasolini seems to be lamenting a kind of moral and cultural decay spreading alongside economic development, effacing more grounded, more 'real', pre-modern ways of living.

No sympathy with that theory I'm afraid, and what's worse, the film itself turned out to be a drag. It's a textbook study in the risks you run when you choose to work with non-professional actors and pick people because of their interesting faces. Pasolini is content to just shoot close-ups of these life-filled, 'authentic' personalities staring blankly into the camera, which inadvertently makes them look all the more inauthentic. There's a weird realism-idealism divide when you stage these stylized shots (almost like paintings) and then get this fourth-wall breaking behaviour from the people in them. The booklet considers this a strength – real people stepping out of their allegories – but this also demolishes audience engagement with the story.

What's frustrating is that I'm not sure exactly what the uncorrupted culture being celebrated here is about, or if it's particularly desirable. A devious merchant fools an ignorant peasant into sex with his wife. A teenager seduces a girl on a balcony and is discovered by her parents – but he's rich, so instead of being put to death he is promptly married with his dick still wet. Three brothers murder the lover of their sister because he is a servant, even though at least one of them is sleeping with a servant-girl as well. Double-standards everywhere you look.

The stronger stories deal with the hypocrisy of religion: a nunnery succumbing to the pleasures of the flesh, a sinner being honoured as a saint because of the lies he spins to his confessor on his death bed. My favourite is the cuckolded husband coming home early to sell a massive jar to his friend, not knowing that his wife has hidden her lover there. The jar being a very obv symbol for her you-know-what, some very enjoyable innuendo ensues. I like it because it's one of the few times the sexual double-standard is flipped in the woman's favour. Nonetheless, The Decameron still depicts a world governed by patriarchy and superstition, and a class society as deep-rooted as the one ushered in by the industrial revolution. In the end, Pasolini seems to be celebrating the live-and-fuck-while-you-can attitude of his characters when faced with these abuses – an individualism at odds with whatever kind of communitarian political ideal he (I assume) supports.

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