At about the halfway point of his filmmaking career, Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote (both as a book and a film) and directed Teorema, an elusive, quiet film that I sometimes think is deep and brilliant and sometimes think is empty and inane. It’s one of my favorite of his films, in large part because those two feelings swap at a moment while watching the film or while thinking about the film afterwards. One thing I know, though, among his work it is the one I go back to and think of the most. In his attempt to provoke and philosophize, he pushes hard, but not, I find, too hard. This week The Criterion Collection is releasing the film on home video, so I can see myself engaging with it even more now than I have in the past, and I certainly will. At the very least I find the film interesting and provocative. I love how it utilizes Rimbaud, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Mozart’s Requiem, the art of Francis Bacon, among others, to comment on a variety of themes. I like trying to understand it, and I’m glad that, ultimately, I can never quite put my finger on what it’s about or why it’s about whatever it is.
The basic premise, though, seems as simple as simple can be, and it’s in recounting it that the film feels its most flimsy, its message too blunt. Here goes, though: A stranger, whose appearance is announced by a mailman named Angelino, enters the lives of a wealthy family who had, up to that point, been presented to us in sepia.
We don’t know where he came from or why he is there or how long he will stay. But, played by a young Terence Stamp, he is appealing to everyone. For the most part, he sits and allows them to ogle him. He seems unassuming, there for their needs alone. In his commentary, film scholar Robert S. C. Gordon, he calls Stamp’s visitor “indifferent,” and I think that’s part of his charm.
But while there he, one by one, “connects” with each of the members of the household: the maid, the son, the mother, the daughter, and the father. While presented in that order, we don’t know if these trysts happened in that order or if they happened somewhat simultaneously. Suddenly, Angelino appears again and the stranger says he must leave the next day. Each family member talks to the visitor about how much he has revealed to them. The maid carries out his luggage and gestures her farewell. The visitor leaves. Each member of the household subsequently responds to his absence in their unique way.
Famously, the film has only a little dialogue (less than 1,000 words, which is less that the wordcount of this review), so the film is played out in several silent encounters, leaving us — and the family — to seek for meaning, if there be any. After all, the stranger rarely speaks.
Pasolini also uses quite a few images to help or hinder us in finding that meaning. Some are blunt and might even be considered puerile. For example, Angelino, as if his name weren’t enough, flaps his arms as he approaches the residence with news of the arrival and departure of the stranger. For example, when the son is attracted to the stranger, he longs for him while in the background we see a poster that says, “Seize him.”
For example, often Pasolini inserts shots of the desolate, sterile slopes of a volcano just before we see one of the family members start lusting after the stranger. Is Pasolini saying something about spiritual emptiness among these folk? I think so!
At the same time, each of the examples above also makes me delve deeper. The angel certainly brings me to consider what Pasolini is saying about religion, and it makes me wonder if this stranger is holy or hellish. Or is it the same thing for Pasolini? When it comes to spiritual emptiness, which I think is clearly the intent of those shots of the volcano, I have to wonder if the the stranger is helpful or not. For a time, it seems the stranger is giving the family non-judgmental connection, which must be good. But when he leaves, he certainly leaves some of them worse off, or at least I think so. Is it because their spiritual emptiness is finally apparent to each of them? Does that do them — or anyone — any good?
So, you see, this film can at one moment seem ham-fisted while in the next it can be quite provocative and even intellectually vigorous and enriching.
There are other mysterious aspects I enjoy grappling with. First, the film doesn’t open with the family. Instead it opens with a kind of flash forward to the factory this family (the father, anyway) owns. These shots of the factory are the first things we see, and, we soon learn, the boss has divested his factory to his workers. In what looks like some documentary footage, a film crew is asking a handful of factory workers questions about the bourgeoisie, particularly if any member of that class can ever do something good. This opens up so many interesting questions as the film plays out (particularly on a rewatch).
I also find it interesting, as I said above, to consider the nature of Stamp’s stranger. In many of the film’s blurbs, he is presented as “seducing” the household, one person at a time. But I’m never quite sure he’s doing anything particularly active here. They, after all, are drawn to him, though he’s usually just going about his business. Encounters with the family feel incidental from his point of view. It seems they are the ones pursuing and seducing, and he goes along with it like a good sport. If you watch just the first half of the film, it could be argued Pasolini is just arguing that human connection will help these folks out of their doldrums, particularly if that human is a mostly silent and amenable Terence Stamp.
At the same time, it’s hard to argue his presence is purely benevolent thanks to the last half of the film. It’s fickle, after all. Far from stable, he abandons as readily as he approaches. Certainly, these people are mostly unable to live in the world he left them.
I really enjoy this puzzle, this theorem. I’m happy to say that the supplements on the Criterion disc are intriguing and helpful as well, particularly the essay by James Quandt, which made thinking about all of this again quite enjoyable. I also quickly rewatched the film with Gordon’s audio commentary, so Pasolini has definitely got me in his grasp, even if I can’t say I’ll ever be able to say whether I think this is a definitive masterpiece or, ultimately, desolate like the slope of the mountain.