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Criterion Collection: Teorema (1968) | Blu-ray Review

“Whatever the bourgeois do is wrong?” is a question posited in the flurried opening segment of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s arcane arthouse classic Teorema, a truly enigmatic metaphorical exercise from an auteur who challenges the notion of what defines such categorization.

For those focused on the minimal dialogue, a majority of the film’s 923 words (a distinction used as part of the film’s marketing), this sequence may be an entry point into deciphering what the film is all about, partially a Marxist dissertation utilizing an existentialist mainframe to decode the obvious emptiness of the bourgeois (or in today’s contemporary terminology, those ‘elitists’ and ‘one percenters’ whose growing economic stronghold have thinned the gossamer veneer of capitalism). But even Pasolini’s frequent musings of his film are contradictory, himself a troubled compass of oxymoronic political leanings.

A classic, seminal text of interloper cinema, his 1968 metaphysical foreplay remains as mysteriously ingenious today as it did in upon a reception which focused on its flamboyant titillations, earning it a charge of degeneracy and banned by the Catholic Church. In a world where Pasolini’s taboo shattering may now seem passé, it’s still an unsettling venture which examines personal emptiness, the examination of which is continually sacrificed to our cultural facades—those emotional voids wherein our base desires are muffled and (momentarily) quieted. Takashi Miike would attempt a loose remake in 2001 with Visitor Q, while Adam Wingard’s 2014 Carpenter inspired genre film The Guest is worth comparison as well.

Open to multiple interpretations, Teorema is, at its basic level, is about a mysterious stranger who causes an existential crisis amongst the members of Paolo (Massimo Girotti), a powerful industrialist, and his household. The stranger (Terence Stamp), who is announced by Pasolini’s frequent muse Ninetto Davoli (named Angelino and flapping his arms like a deranged messenger angel he’s supposed to represent), finds himself approached by each family member, from the maid Emilia (Laura Betti), the virginal daughter Odetta (Anna Wiazemsky), the repressed mother Lucia (Silvana Mangano) and eventually Paolo himself. But upon his exit from their estate, each of them is left to ponder the emptiness of their lives highlighted by his absence.

The first forty minutes of Teorema are arguably the most digestible, with the cherubic Terence Stamp quietly and methodically bedding each family member of an industrialist family, the aftershocks of which find them each in their own existentialist undoing. But it’s a regression for each which promises the hope of rebirth, landing its patriarch in a volcanic ash pit while he howls naked, a primordial scream in the abyss.

From the ashes come new life, however, as each family member dismantles their own understanding of what life, as they know it, means to them. Much of these proceedings border on dark or camp comedy, such as the seduction sequence of Pietro (Andres Jose Cruz, who only appeared in a couple features, his last being the 1969 Sergio Corbucci film The Specialists). His attempts to be an artist, wherein he deduces the success of which is merely the “trick of an impotent man” relays Pasolini’s views on the oft pretentious delineations of what constitutes art, the originality in form of which, is accidental.

Pasolini’s textual references are loaded with meaning, from the queer alignment of Rimbaud and Francis Bacon to Stamp’s comparison to Gerasim, the personification of Goodness in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Likewise, the rejection of her servitude to the bourgeois is the stone-faced Emilia, for which Laura Betti won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival. Returning to her village, she becomes a Christ-like figure who subsists on stewed nettles, heals the afflicted and eventually levitates thanks to her sacrificial glory.

As Odetta, Anna Wiazemsky (as tortured as ever, between Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar and Ferreri’s The Seed of Man, all in the same period) is left in a paralytic state as a response to her memories of pleasure. It’s the parents whose unraveling hits harder. Silvana Mangano, whose make-up is like a mummified Dietrich mask over her striking features, descends into a sexual oblivion, picking up men who resemble Stamp—a snarl of disgust curls her face between trysts, one of the film’s most eloquently human moments. And Paolo’s public breakdown is also quietly empathetic as he disrobes, musing to himself about giving his business over to the workers, upending the ‘order’ of things. As he screams in the ashes of life as he once knew it, one thinks of what Janis Joplin meant when she belted “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Film Rating: ★★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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