Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Canterbury Tales (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1972)

The last scene of Pasolini’s wondrous Canterbury Tales emphasizes the narrative as an end in itself – “here end the Canterbury tales, told only for the pleasure of telling them” – and this reflects the film’s sense of joyous tumble, one narrative often almost subliminally moving into another. But there’s also something relentless about it, a feeling of people lacking in any real agency over themselves, as puppets of their own desires, as tools of those whose desires are stronger than their own, of the corrupt authorities, of the angels and devils which the film occasionally depicts as walking among the living. There’s carnal overdrive and naturalistic nudity galore, and of course the film carries an erotic charge, but one that leads time and again to humiliation, misery, betrayal, pain, or death, and ultimately even beyond that, to one of the most tangible visions of hell ever put on film. The film is a triumph not so much of casting in the usual sense, but of human placement – an astonishing canvas of flesh and faces, suggesting people torn directly from the Medieval earth (the matchless English-language soundtrack, if you choose that option, adds considerably to this sense, when not evoking Monty Python, not that I’m saying that’s a bad thing); and whether or not the various settings are historically accurate, they likewise feel discovered rather than created. At the same time, there’s no doubt we’re watching a work of extreme stylization, and not just in the episode that happily channels Charlie Chaplin; characters generally seem to be addressing the camera, or the void beyond it, more than each other. Which leads back to the movie’s sense of desperation, that few of its possessed characters expects more from their compulsive screwing than the most fleeting of releases. The classification of the film as part of a “trilogy of life” seems, to say the least, ironic.

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