Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Screenplay: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Producers: Manolo Bolognini, Franco Rossellini
Starring: Terence Stamp, Laura Betti, Silvana Mangano, Massimo Girotti
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 98 min
My previous encounters with the work of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini left me completely unsure of what to expect when I popped in the BFI’s DVD reissue of his 1968 film Theorem. I had previously seen Pasolini’s infamous Salo (1975), a horrifying account of the sexual torture and humiliation of eighteen kidnapped teenagers, which is a hard watch even for its numerous admirers (among whom I do not count myself). By contrast, I found Pasolini’s 1964 account of the life of Christ, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, to be one of the greatest films I have ever seen and far more apt in its modestly roughhewn style than the opulent Hollywood Biblical epics.
A glance at Theorem’s plot outline, however, lead me to expect something more akin to Salo than The Gospel According to St. Matthew. A nameless stranger (Terence Stamp) appears one day in the lives of bourgeois family and proceeds to seduces all four members and the maid. Having done so, he disappears from their lives just as suddenly, leaving each one to cope with the effect he has had on them in a different way. The first half of this synopsis makes Theorem sound almost like a sex farce; Robin Askwith in Confessions of a Marxist, Atheist Neorealist perhaps! In point of fact, the seduction scenes play out with a grimly systematic inevitability and, aside from a small amount of semi-clothed wriggling, there is very little sexual content to justify the outcry that greeted the film (granted, it was 1968 and the banning on obscenity charges that Theorem was subjected to was most likely provoked equally by its political subversiveness and allusions to homosexuality).
It is in its second half that Theorem becomes more interesting, after Stamp vanishes and the family are left, after unsuccessfully begging him to stay, to reflect on their lives. A wordless, sepia coloured prologue after the film’s desolate opening credits seems to suggest that Stamp’s arrival literally brings colour into the lives of the characters. Tellingly, the film doesn’t return to sepia in Stamp’s absence, reflecting the change he has made and the family’s inability to cope with the vivid world to which they have had their eyes collectively opened. The artist son in particular reacts to the colours in his life and work, sobbing that blue ‘reminds me of him’. To say more about the plot details would be to rob Theorem of its impact. What keeps you watching is the fascination with how these five different people will react to the same intense deprivation (the maid’s story is particularly compelling and audacious). And this curiosity, along with Pasolini’s sumptuous use of colour, make Theorem worth at least one watch.
The problem I had with Theorem was the way it seems to reflect its mathematical title in a dull exactitude of its storytelling. The plot synopsis above splits neatly into two sections, as does the film. The seduction scenes come first and watching each family member succumb, as if in a trance, to Stamp’s seemingly unaggressive, louche charm quickly becomes dully predictable and repetitive. There’s little to relish in these 40 or so minutes of film, although it is worth noting that Pasolini’s actors do a strong enough job to ensure there’s no need to prolong the process. Stamp, in an almost completely silent role, is suitably ethereal and the family members, in particular the mesmerising Silvana Mangano with her eerie, mask-like face, mostly convince in their instantaneous transformations from oblivious bourgeoisie to rapt, confused human beings.
The film’s second half, in which the consequences of Stamp’s effect on the family take hold, is more varied in its events but again there is a cold, clinical feeling in even the most fantastical of episodes. Ultimately, the viewer may feel, like I did, that Pasolini has laid out a simple observation about the Italian bourgeoisie and then not really elaborated enough to make it worthy of much subsequent debate. The one major tug-of-war that regularly occurs over Theorem seems to be whether Stamp’s character represents God or the Devil (if either). His arrival and disappearance are heralded by a delivery boy whose flapping arms would seem to suggest an angel, but then his impish mischief could also point the other way. Stamp is more likely an amalgam of influences that represent a more broad spirituality, but whatever he is, Theorem just doesn’t give us quite enough food for thought to care that much. While Bunuel’s view of the bourgeoisie may be almost as bluntly simplistic, he tends to have a lot more fun with it and it seems to me that the inflammatory comedy he employs is far more effective a tool than Pasolini’s underworked dramatic approach.
Theorem is released by the BFI in dual DVD and Blu-ray formats on 27th May 2013. Special features include a 34 minute interview with Terence Stamp, a feature commentary by Italian film expert Robert Gordon, a 2013 rerelease trailer and, as we have come to expect from the BFI's handsome packages, a generous booklet featuring essays about the film, Terence Stamp and Pier Paolo Pasolini.