Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The Canterbury Tales (1972)

Pier Paolo Pasolini's adaptation of Chaucer's notorious collection of stories is, first and foremost, an ugly film. Predominately shot in shades of yellow and bleached-out brown, this looks like the film stock has been dipped in cess. What's more, the story and editing lurch instead of flow -- scenes bang and slam into one another with little regard for coherent pacing, and the stories often end abruptly, jumping from one narrative to another without indication. What's more, a couple of stories appear to have lost something in the translation from page to screen. (I have no idea what the hell happened in the Wife of Bath's tale.) In most films, these would be detriments. Not here, though -- if anything, the rough look and craft feel like an organic part of Pasolini's celebration of all things earth(l)y. If the filmmaking is crude, it's merely an extension of the subject; Pasolini has reconfigured the source material as a meditation on the bodily impulses and functions that unite us as a species. Which is basically a high-flown way to say that there's more fucking, shitting, pissing, farting, bouncing boobies and flapping willies in this than in any other reputable film you could care to name. Rather than being appalled, though, Pasolini seems amused and even impressed by the excretions and secretions of humanity (he drives this home by appearing in the role of Chaucer, thereby turning himself into the storyteller). His is an ode to baseness and vulgarity, not a fugue. If there's anything worth condemnation in his world, it's avarice. Time ans again, greed and thievery are punished; the reigning theme plays off as if the obeying of our animal sides is what brings us low and give us commonality, the pursuit of monetary acquisition or power is an attempt to betray that commonality and set hierarchies, which is the only sin here worthy of redress. In other words, it's very much a power-to-the-peasants movie (Pasolini's red side is showing!), the kind of film where an extortionist's attempt to squeeze money from a poor old widow results in the loss of his soul and where two young boys revenge themselves on a miller who tries to fuck them financially by literally fucking his wife and daughter, and as such, its bawdy, lowbrow sense of humor is understandable. Of course, I suppose it helps if you have a taste for the lowbrow (otherwise, you're just wallowing); fortunately, I do, so I thought this was funny as fuck. Even if I didn't find it particularly funny, I'd still be tempted to recommend it just on the strength of the closing tale, a jaw-dropping fever dream in which a money-hungry friar meets the Devil and discovers what awaits him in Hell. (The cheeky Chaplin homage was pretty cool too.) Pasolini's film may not be perfect, but I wager he'd argue that it's the imperfections that make it worthwhile.

Grade: B


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