Infamous for his controversial and disturbing examination of sadism and brutality in 'Salo: Or the 120 Days of Sodom,' Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini isn't exactly known for lighthearted fare. And yet, in many respects that's exactly what his 'Trilogy of Life' is. A three-film series adapted from classic literary anthologies, the collection is comprised of the director's unique takes on 'The Decameron,' 'The Canterbury Tales,' and 'Arabian Nights.' Focused on a bawdy mixture of eroticism and comedy, the films are filled with crass humor, copious nudity, and lustful allegory that all aim to celebrate sexual freedom and criticize contemporary hypocrisies. Often flirting between high art and lowbrow vulgarity, Pasolini employs an intentionally unrefined and often crude style throughout his narrative and form, offering sporadic bursts of painterly precision in between ungainly pastiche. It's a decidedly unique and refreshing approach that can be fairly entertaining and thought provoking, but the end results are disappointingly uneven and never quite form a truly enlightening whole.
Based on Giovanni Boccaccio's literary work of the same name, 'The Decameron' presents a series of mostly humorous morality tales dealing with greed, lust, and love in the 14th century. Throughout the separate chapters, viewers are treated to numerous reversals of fortune, ironic twists, sensual couplings, and lowbrow gags as Pasolini weaves a lewd tapestry of farcical parables focused on grave robbers, painters, cuckolds, and randy nuns.
As I mentioned in the introduction, Pasolini generally eschews established cinematic conventions in favor of a more raw and purposely unsophisticated approach. Traditional coverage is abandoned for a loose aesthetic that avoids the use of master shots. Frequent close-ups emphasize the characters' expressions and eccentricities, and performances are unrefined and often exaggerated, with the director commonly lingering on the actors' silly grins.
This "deliberately naïve" approach to filmmaking can take some time to warm up to, but the comparatively crude form works well to reinforce the satirical content's focus on lower class life and unromanticized sexuality. With all that said, the film does still feature occasionally striking and genuinely beautiful compositions, costumes, and production design, with Pasolini using classic paintings from the period as a reference, creating an odd but welcome blend of visual simplicity and elegance, all rife with religious and artistic symbolism.
The narrative itself also walks a fine line between juvenile silliness and allegorical merit. Pasolini infuses the work with goofy physical humor and gross-out gags (an early segment features a character falling into a pile of excrement), and while these immature bits can be entertaining, they don't always add up to much. Still, the director does layer some deeper themes beneath the comedy, frequently examining social issues, sexual freedom, the nature of sin and pleasure, and even the artistic process itself throughout the various stories, using the past to comment on contemporary society.
Unfortunately, these concepts aren't as fleshed out or as potent as they could be, and like similar episodic films of this type, not all segments are as successful as others. In fact, most of the vignettes don't really add up to much beyond a few anticlimactic punch lines and undercooked insights.
Nudity is common throughout the runtime, but the movie's sexual content is actually a lot tamer than I expected (though the rest of the trilogy becomes more explicit). Despite the director's notorious penchant for provocative material, there really isn't anything here that's terribly offensive. Hell, several scenes actually cut away before the characters even have sex. There is a slight edge to some of the underlying satire and political/social commentary, but by and large this really is a predominantly jocular effort that's home to a playful sense of humor.
'The Decameron' is an amusing but fairly thin examination of sexuality, religion, and society. Some segments prove to be more entertaining and enlightening than others, resulting in an uneven experience. Though the film doesn't quite work for me, Pasolini's artistic intentions are certainly worthwhile. (Movie Rating: 3/5)
'The Canterbury Tales'
Adapted from Geoffrey Chaucer's medieval compilation of stories, 'The Canterbury Tales' offers more episodic parables from Pasolini that once again tackle sex and religion. While the film starts off setting up a framing device similar to the source material (with a group of pilgrims embarking on a storytelling contest during a journey), this structure is essentially abandoned as the movie goes on. This leads to a free flowing series of vignettes usually focused on various horny peasants as they engage in numerous comical escapades full of silly eroticism and farcical perversity. Slapstick humor, immature gags, blunt sexuality and lots of cuckolding pervade the runtime, all leading to a bizarrely imaginative climax where we are treated to Pasolini's own unique vision of hell.
An expansion of the style used in 'The Decameron,' the film features a very similar visual and narrative approach -- but this time Pasolini takes the juvenile humor and sexual content even further. Unfortunately, this excess fails to leave much of an impression. Despite the director's lofty goals, the movie plays out as little more than a series of 14th century dick and fart jokes. Sure, there are some laughs to be had, and there certainly are undercurrents of deeper themes dealing with class, religious hypocrisy, and sexual expression, but by and large the majority of the film is just sort of dumb.
On that same note, the filmmaking style and performances are even more crude and unrefined (though once again, costumes and production design are strong). At its worst, whether in Italian or the director approved English dub, some episodes are almost cringe-worthy due to the poor acting and dialogue, and some segments don't really make a whole lot of sense. While I warmed up to this intentionally crass style in 'The Decameron,' here it just feels messy and stupid -- and rarely in a good way.
The vulgar comedy can be funny, but the individual narratives are muddled and half-baked -- even more so than 'The Decameron.' The abandoned framing device really doesn't help matters much either, and the included special features detail several excised interludes that would have cut back to the pilgrims telling their tales. Pasolini apparently decided that this framing device didn't fit, but I can't help but feel like these missing sequences might have worked well to connect the disjointed stories and further flesh out their themes. As it stands, the film is somewhat hard to follow, which is odd considering how simplistic it is. Many segments end with rather ho-hum conclusions that might leave some wondering, "Really? That's it?"
Harsh criticism aside, there is still a decent, albeit very juvenile amount of fun to be had here. Pasolini presents a refreshingly unapologetic look at peasant society and their sexual misadventures. While not exactly scandalous, the movie's depiction of sex is more explicit than 'The Decameron,' and there is more on-screen nudity and eroticism. It's certainly not pornographic, but those easily offended by erect penises should probably sit this one out.
Beyond the abundant nudity and sexually themed stories, the anthology is home to a few non-sexual escapades as well. One vignette even features a Charlie Chaplin-esque excursion into slapstick humor, and the director's climactic vision of hell is so outrageous and hilariously obscene that it's probably worth the price of admission alone. While the majority of the runtime is rather silly, there is a slightly dark and cynical undercurrent in some chapters -- most notably an early story that features a homosexual man being burned alive because he couldn't pay off his captors.
Pier Paolo Pasolini's interpretation of Chaucer's 'The Canterbury Tales' emphasizes humorous eroticism and crude comedy, but the disjointed structure and muddled writing leave a lot to be desired. The excessively crass gags are sporadically entertaining, and there are some deeper themes at play, but the underdeveloped parables fail to really engage. To be honest, despite my understanding of the director's deeper intentions, I kind of found the whole thing to be pretty stupid. (Movie Rating: 2.5/5)
The last film in the trilogy, 'Arabian Nights,' takes its inspiration from the Arabic anthology of stories "One Thousand and One Nights." Yet again, Pasolini primarily focuses on sexual tales, though there are broader excursions into myth and magic as well. Featuring a much more refined framing structure than the previous entries in the trilogy (though one very different from the source material's), the main plot focuses on the young and naïve Nur Ed Din (Franco Merli) and his quest to reunite with his slave/lover Zumurrud (Ines Pellegrini). As they become separated, the movie follows their individual adventures. This split narrative then leads to several characters telling stories within the larger plot, segueing into different vignettes.
While the various trademarks of the trilogy's previous installments remain, the director's style here is actually a bit more polished, and the scripting is more cohesive and fully realized. Performances are also notably improved. On the other hand, the film is home to some very poor visual effects (including laughable miniatures), and there are still a few muddled stories and several shots of characters grinning like idiots, but the overall tone is less crude. Instead, Pasolini's approach is more emotional and, dare I say it, even sensitive. With that said, there is a scene where a man shoots a dildo arrow at a woman's nether regions -- so it's not exactly a Nicholas Sparks adaptation.
The clear framing device helps to ground the movie and give it structure, and Nur Ed Din and Zumurrud's overarching story actually proves to be fairly engaging and affecting. There is also a genuine celebration of storytelling on display, and just as in the source material, many of the vignettes actually lead to stories within stories within stories. Though this tactic could have potentially become confusing and overbearing, these layers of narratives are juggled well and actually enrich the experience. Some of the early episodes are a bit undercooked, vague, and seemingly pointless, but the film's later stories are given more time to breathe and develop (more so than the episodes in 'The Decameron' and 'The Canterbury Tales') leading to more fleshed out allegories, characterizations, and plots.
Themes dealing with destiny, prophesy, and desire join the usual erotic content, and Pasolini imbues the picture with a dreamy, mythic atmosphere, complete with magic and demons. Several of the tales are also quite tragic in nature, and I was actually surprised by how affecting some of the stories prove to be. That's not to say there isn't an abundance of silly comedy as well (one chapter includes a man getting turned into a monkey) but the prevailing mood is more mature.
Perhaps the most explicit but also innocent and affectionate of the three films, 'Arabian Nights' features the most overt eroticism of the trio, which might alienate some audiences. Homosexuality is also addressed openly in an early segment, but again, this sexual material really isn't pornographic in nature. There's also some brief but fairly graphic violence as well (a woman gets her hands, feet, and head chopped off). Those easily offended by on-screen sexuality and gore should steer clear, but viewers open to humorous, tragic, and thoughtful tales of eroticism should find a fair amount to admire here. It's still not a wholly successful film, but the movie offers the most even and satisfying collection of stories in Pasolini's intriguing yet ultimately flawed 'Trilogy of Life.' (Movie Rating: 3.5/5)
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion presents 'Trilogy of Life' in a three disc set packaged in a cardboard box with spine number 631. Within the boxset, 'The Decameron,' 'The Canterbury Tales,' and 'Arabian Nights' are all presented on separate BD-50 Region A discs housed in individual foldout cases with spine numbers 632, 633, and 634 respectively. A booklet featuring essays by critic Colin MacCabe, excerpts from Pasolini's press conference from the Berlin Film Festival, reports from the set of 'Arabian Nights' written by Gideon Bachmann, and the director's 1975 statement "Trilogy of Life Rejected" is also included.
All three films are provided with 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfers in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. While the movies have very similar visual styles, there are some minor differences in quality between them.
Though the earliest of the films included here, 'The Decameron' actually features the strongest transfer. Outside of the main title sequence (which shows some visible wear) the print is in very good shape with only a few minor specks. A moderate to heavy layer of grain is present throughout, giving the image a natural, filmic appearance. Detail is very strong, with impressive clarity and a solid sense of dimension. Intricate textures and patterns are visible in the period piece costumes and sets, and Pasolini's frequent close-ups reveal distinct facial features and tiny wrinkles. The earthy color palette emphasizes browns, greens, yellows, and reds, and all of the rustic tones come through with pleasing saturation and even some impressive pop. Black levels look just a tad elevated, and in some isolated instances tinged slightly blue, but overall contrast is steady and nicely balanced. (Video Rating: 4/5)
'The Canterbury Tales'
The print is in mostly good shape but there are some notable issues in the latter half of the picture. An unsightly, colorful vertical line shows up around the 01:07:45 mark and runs straight down the screen. Similar lines periodically linger in and out throughout a few more scenes as well. Thankfully, the vast majority of the presentation is unaffected by such anomalies, but they're a little distracting when they do appear. A moderate to heavy layer of fairly coarse grain is visible, and while natural in appearance, it does give the image a decidedly rough and sometimes fuzzy quality. Detail is good, but not as impressive as 'The Decameron,' and the picture has a comparatively flat appearance. Once again, Pasolini adheres to a rustic color palette evoking the medieval time period. With that said, the film also features some bold costumes that absolutely pop from the screen with extremely vivid hues (especially reds and purples). White levels are even without blooming, and while blacks are just a hair light, they remain consistent throughout. (Video Rating: 3.5/5)
The source is in good shape and, with the exception of some rough effects shots, damage is very minimal. Unfortunately, a few composite shots that contain visual effects (like a scene where one character meets a lion in the desert) feature a sizable drop in quality with visible degradation. With that said, most of this wear is seemingly inherent to the optical compositing process used at the time. Moderate to heavy grain (especially in low lit scenes) is apparent throughout, and like 'The Canterbury Tales' the picture looks a little fuzzy at times. Clarity is good but uneven, with some scenes offering impressive fine detail and depth within the various exotic locations and sets (one can make out every individual brick in the various structures), and others looking soft, flat, and drab. Colors once again stick to an earthy palette, but there are some striking splashes of vibrant color in specific wardrobe choices. Blacks appear a tad murky in a few shots, but overall contrast is pleasing. (Video Rating: 3.5/5)
Each film is presented with an Italian LPCM mono track with optional English subtitles. 'The Canterbury Tales' also features a Pasolini approved English dub track in Dolby Digital 1.0. 'The Decameron' and 'Arabian Nights' both sound quite nice, but 'The Canterbury Tales' proves to be slightly problematic.
Speech is very clean and full-bodied throughout. However, like many Italian films of this era, all dialogue and effects appear to have been added after the fact, and the characters' pristine studio recorded voices present a slightly odd disconnect from the rest of the mix. Likewise, dialogue is sometimes mixed a little high compared to effects work. Still, background atmospherics sound quite good. Bustling crowds and nature effects add a solid sense of ambiance, and while the mix features only one channel of audio, the mono presentation is faithful and carries decent range. Thankfully, I did not detect any pops, crackles, or hissing. (Audio Rating: 4/5)
'The Canterbury Tales'
Though the movie defaults to the Italian track, it appears that most of the cast spoke their lines in English on set, and thus the director approved English dub actually syncs better with the actors' performances. Unfortunately, whether one goes with the lossless Italian mix or the lossy English dub, 'The Canterbury Tales' is still the weakest sounding film in the set. Speech and music are fairly thin and strained, and effects have a pretty hollow and flat quality to them. There is also some slight hiss audible in isolated instances. Though the English dub is not lossless, it actually sounds a little cleaner than the Italian track. Despite these issues, both mixes are still very adequate, they just aren't on par with the other two films in the trilogy. (Audio Rating: 3/5)
Much more in line with 'The Decameron,' 'Arabian Nights' sounds very good on Blu-ray. Dialogue is clear and full throughout and there is less of a jarring disconnect between speech and the rest of the mix. Again, the single channel of audio does what it can, delivering a respectable sense of ambiance. Subtle nature effects come through with solid fidelity and crowded streets and celebrations demonstrate pleasing range that's free of the muddled frequencies found in some other mono tracks. Unlike the previous two films, Ennio Morricone actually contributes a true original score, and his beautiful melodies sound great. (Audio Rating: 4/5)
Criterion has put together a very strong collection of supplements, including deleted scenes, video essays, and documentaries about the films' productions. Each movie includes its own set of supplements, though the entire trilogy is often discussed throughout the discs. All of the special features are presented in 1080p with Dolby Digital 1.0 audio and English subtitles for the Italian portions (unless noted otherwise).
'The Canterbury Tales'
While there are occasionally dark undertones, Pier Paolo Pasolini's 'Trilogy of Life' is a surprisingly lighthearted trio of films from the controversial director. Aimed at celebrating the human body and sexual freedom, the trilogy offers a crude and humorous examination of eroticism, religion, and peasant society, leading to an intriguing but disappointingly uneven series of parables and morality tales. The sexual content isn't quite scandalous, but the copious amounts of nudity certainly won't be for everyone. With the exception of a few age-related issues here and there (particularly with 'The Canterbury Tales'), the video transfers and audio mixes are good. Supplements are plentiful and enlightening, offering interesting details on deleted material, and the director's artistic sensibilities. While I admire certain aspects of Pasolini's atypical approach to filmmaking, after watching these films I can't profess to be being a big fan of his style. With that said, though flawed, if you're open to its potentially provocative content, 'Trilogy of Life' is still worth checking out.