By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 3/6/22 –
Screening on March 4 at the Motion Picture Academy Museum in the major Pasolini Retrospective was his 1971 anthology film “Il Decameron” (“The Decameron”), an adaptation of nine (actually ten) stories from the collection of a tales told by seven young women and three young men at the time of the Black Death in Italy in 1348.
Boccaccio’s book is structured as a frame story containing 100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men; they shelter in a secluded villa just outside Florence in order to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city. Boccaccio probably conceived of the Decameron after the epidemic of 1348, and completed it by 1353. The various tales of love in The Decameron range from the erotic to the tragic. Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini chose 10 (originally 12) stories from Boccaccio that focus on ribald and often irreligious themes. His version of the tales contains abundant nudity, sex, slapstick and scatological humor. Pasolini’s Il Decameron won the Silver Bear Award at the 1971 Berlin International Film Festival.
Pasolini’s intention was not to faithfully recreate the world of Boccaccio’s characters but to criticize the contemporary world through metaphorical use of the themes present in the stories. Stories are often changed to southern Italy and heavy use of the Neapolitan dialect is used to signify the mistreatment and economic exploitation of the poorer region by the richer northern parts of Italy. The adaptation of Boccaccio’s Decameron by Pier Paolo Pasolini has been debated regarding its faithfulness to the original text. His restructuring of Boccaccio’s original frame and change in focus of the nine (or ten) stories chosen and adapted for the film have engendered disapproval among literary and cinema critics.
The original frame story of Boccaccio has been replaced by a story about a pupil of the great painter Giotto is on his way to paint the Basilica of Santa Chiara in Naples with his companion Messer Forese da Rabatta. The pupil of Giotto and da Rabatta arrive at the church while dressed in these tattered outfits. The two begin painting the basilica’s walls after watching passersby in a market for visual inspiration. What is especially interesting is that the director Pasolini decided to play the role of the pupil of the early Renaissance master painter Giotto. This segment of the film does not actually occur until half way, after the first four tales have been shown.
The first tale from Boccaccio’s Decameron comes from the second day, fifth tale: A young man from Perugia named Andreuccio (Ninetto Davoli) has come to Naples to buy horses. He is swindled twice in Naples, and seduced into meeting a beautiful woman who claims he is her long-lost brother. He is wined and dined at her house and invited to stay overnight, in which he is tricked into falling into the filthy latrine. Later he crawls out and, amidst the laughter of the neighboring women. runs away covered with excrement and chased by two thieves who are plotting to rob the tomb of the recently deceased Archbishop Minutolo. They are after the Archbishop’s ruby ring but when Andreuccio crawls inside the tomb, he lies about finding the ring and they shut the tomb door. A later group of tomb robbers arrives with the same exact plan. Opening the tomb again, one crawls inside and has his leg bitten by Andreuccio. Terrified, they run away and Andreuccio jumps out of the tomb and prances away with his new ring.
Next, we have an old man reading a bawdy story in Neapolitan to a small crowd. Meanwhile Ser Ciappelletto (Franco Citti) is picking the pockets of men listening to the story. In the story (based on Ninth day, second tale), a nun is having a sexual affair with a male visitor. When the other nuns discover this, they rush to snitch on her to the Mother Superior. The Mother Superior who was sleeping with a priest is awakened by knocking on her door in the middle of the night and quickly gets dressed. She accidentally puts his underpants on her head mistaking it for her veil and rushes out of the door. The Mother Superior begins scolding the nun but she points out the underpants and the nuns all realize the Mother Superior is guilty of the same sin. After Franco Citti has picked several pockets, he gives some money to a boy in exchange for sex. (This introduces the homosexual theme that will be revisited later.)
In the second episode (based on Third Day, first tale), a young man Masetto da Lamporecchio (Vincenzo Amato) is encouraged by a gardener to seek work at a local convent filled with beautiful young nuns. The young man gets the idea to pretended to be deaf and dumb to get inside as the abbess doesn’t want handsome young men in the convent but will take exception for a deaf mute who she sees as non-threatening. He gets the job and while tending the garden two nuns decide to use him for sex because he cannot rat on them. The other sisters watch this and get the idea to join in. The sisters prove insatiable, and the young man finally breaks his silence to protest to the abbess that he cannot keep up with their demands. The abbess declares his sudden ability to speak a miracle from God, but this is merely an excuse to keep the young man at the convent.
In the third episode (based on Seventh day, second tale), the commoner Peronella (Angela Luce) makes a cuckold of her dimwitted husband Giannello (Vincenzo Ferrigno). While she is having sex with her lover, Giannello unexpectedly comes home. Hearing the husband knocking, the other man hides in a large pot. Peronella opens the door and yells at Giannello for coming home so early from work. Giannello explains that it is the feast day of San Galeone so there was no work to be had. Instead, he found a new buyer for the large pot they own (in which the lover is hiding, still unbeknown to Giannello). Peronella devises a scheme to explain her lover in the pot and tells Giannello that she already has a buyer and that he is inspecting the pot. She tells him she sold it for seven denarii which is more than Giannello had sold it to his buyer. The husband accepts this and tells his buyer to leave as the pot is already sold. Giannello goes to the pot room where the hidden lover pops out and yells at him that the inside of the pot is dirty. The wife tells the husband to clean it before selling it. Giannello enters the pot and while he is inside the pot, his wife and her lover loudly and passionately have intercourse next to it. The wife points around at different spots of the jar and tells her husband to scrape them all good until he finds the “right spot.” Her orders to clean the jar are the same as the directions for her lover to penetrate her. The husband however remains oblivious to this and laughs to himself.
In the fourth episode (based on First day, first tale), which begins in Prato, Ser Ciappelletto, a Neapolitan merchant (Franco Citti), is sent to make a deal in Germany by his employer. For most of his life, he had devoted his soul to sin, seduction and profit, disregarding all moral and ethical values. He has committed blasphemy, forgery, murder, rape and is a homosexual. His employer wishes to send him to Germany where nobody knows of his vile ways. There he will meet up with two fellow Neapolitans who are usurers. That night, Ciappelletto has an ominous dream that he is being paraded around while wrapped in a burial shroud while around him friars and monks play volleyball with human skulls. He reaches Germany where he meets up with the two men. They happily sing the Neapolitan song Fenesta ca Lucive together and drink wine but Ciappelletto falls down in a faint. God has punished him with a serious illness that forces him to his death bed. The two men are outraged because if they turn him out they will be seen as bad hosts but if his crimes are revealed in confession they will certainly draw negative attention.
Ciappelletto devises a plan to confess and calls a monk to tell him several lies and half-truths that make him seem very pure, while pretending to cringe over venial sins. He tells the monk that he has never slept with a woman (leaving out that he is homosexual) which the monk sees as a very holy and righteous act as he is very handsome. He recalls to the monk that he once cursed his mother for spilling milk and has been tormented by that memory ever since. He also says he is ashamed of spitting in church once. The monk is amazed because he believes Ciappelletto is the most holy man he has ever given confession to. Ciappelleto dies and due to these lies, the people consider him a holy man. After his death, Ciappelletto is revered as a saint. The monk delivers a eulogy to “Saint Ciappelletto” and urges everyone in attendance to take heed and remember his holy actions. He says they should all aim to live as he did. After the eulogy, many poor, disabled and sick people enter the room where Saint Ciappelletto is kept and touch his body in praise. The two Neapolitans look at each other in amazement that his plan worked.
In a brief intermission (based on Sixth day, fifth tale) a pupil of the great painter Giotto (played by Pier Paolo Pasolini) is on his way to paint the Basilica of Santa Chiara with his companion Messer Forese da Rabatta. The cart he is in is stopped by the rain and they take cover with a toothless farmer nearby named Gennari who gives the passengers clothes. The pupil of Giotto and da Rabatta arrive at the church while dressed in these tattered outfits. The two begin painting the basilica’s walls after watching passersby in a market for visual inspiration. He spots some market-goers who will serve as the actors in the next segment about Caterina and Ricciardo. The other stories of the film continue afterwards.
In the fifth episode (based on Fifth day, fourth tale), a young woman from Valbona (a town near Naples) named Caterina (Elizabetta Genovese) has fallen in love with a young boy named Ricciardo (Francesco Gavazzi) while playing hide and seek with her girlfriends She is afraid of telling her father as she believes he may be angered. She devises a ruse where she will stay with her lover overnight on a terrace to make love without her parents’ knowledge. She tells her mother that the inside of the house is much too warm for her and that she wants to stay outside so she may hear the nightingale sing in the morning. Her parents set up a makeshift bed for her outside where she awaits Ricciardo. He scales the wall of her house and makes love to her in the makeshift bed. The next morning the girl’s father goes outside to find the two lovers sleeping naked, while she is holding his genitals. He runs inside to get his wife telling her that their daughter “caught the nightingale in her hands!” The mother rushes outside to see what the commotion is about and is about to scream when she sees the naked pair. The father covers her mouth and explains that the boy is a good match, as his marriage would earn a significant amount of money through dowry and it would improve their social standing. The father wakes the pair up and tells Ricciardo that the only way he will leave the house alive is if he marries his daughter. Ricciardo agrees and everyone is happy. The father gives Ricciardo a ring and Caterina is married to him right there.
In the sixth episode (based on Fourth day, fifth tale), set in Messina, a girl, Elizabeth, attractive and possessing great wealth, falls in love with Lorenzo (Giuseppe Arrigio), a young Sicilian employee of her brothers. However, her brothers discover their love and become furious. They invite Lorenzo to their private garden under the pretenses of having lunch but then stab him in the back with a dagger in order to save their family’s honor. They bury Lorenzo’s body in the garden. They return to Elizabeth and say that Lorenzo is away on business. Elizabeth spends nights crying over him after which his ghost appears to her in a dream and tells her that he was killed and buried in the family’s garden. The next day, Elizabeth asks for permission to go to the garden and the brothers give it to her, not suspecting her to know that Lorenzo was killed and buried there. Elizabeth goes to the garden and when she finds the body, she cuts off Lorenzo’s head and brings it back to her bedroom. She hides it inside a pot of basil, which she tends to every day.
In the seventh episode (based on Ninth day, tenth tale), the commoner Pietro and his wife Gemmata (Mirella Catanesi) have a guest named Don Gianni (Lino Crispo) who is staying with them. Their neighbor Zita is getting married which means Gemmata can’t stay with her so all three must share the same house. Gemmata and Pietro sleep in the bedroom and Don Gianni is in the stable. Don Gianni, using his cunning, tells Pietro and Gemmata that Gemmata can be turned into a horse and then back into a human, so she can be used to sow the fields of her husband’s farm. Don Gianni can make this happen only with a special spell. The spell is a ruse: the doctor has imagined a ritual to enable him to have sex with the woman, in full view of her husband. Don Gianni strips Gemmata naked in front of Pietro and grabs her breasts, hair, back, and bottom and describes how each part will appear when she is a mare. In the last part he is about to stick his penis into her and calls it her “tail.” Pietro screams that he doesn’t want a tail. Don Gianni turns around and tells Pietro that his screaming ruined it so now she can’t turn into a horse.
The eighth episode (based on Seventh day, tenth tale) involves two characters from Naples named Meuccio and Tingoccio who agree to tell each other about Heaven or Hell when they die. After a time, Tingoccio dies. Meuccio is afraid for his soul because he had sex out of wedlock with his girlfriend so many times. One night he has a dream in which his friend tells him that he is in Limbo. We see the Madonna (Silviana Mangano) in Heaven, surrounded by angels. He explains that though the angels knew of all his sins, they do not consider sex a mortal sin as they had believed. Meuccio runs through the streets to his girlfriend and screams to her “it is not a sin!”
The final scene returns to the pupil of the painter Giotto (Pier Paolo Pasolini), who has completed his fresco, which illustrates episodes of the film. In the final scene, he marvels over his work and says to himself “Why complete a work when it is so much better just to dream it?”