At the beginning of last year, I wrote an essay on Pasolini’s screen adaptation of the Decameron by Boccaccio for my Masters degree. I delved into it and thought of its value in artistic terms as well as its relationship with the medieval text that it came from. Little did I know that this text would end up being at the forefront of most people’s mind only a couple of months later, once the pandemic started. This essay and its content have stayed with me since the beginning of this pandemic, a way of thinking of sorts, which could help us navigate these crazy times. It was this essay (as well as the global pandemic) that inspired the other two texts which I’ve since written; simple reflections of what has felt like a crazy year and yet an incredibly repetitive and isolating one as well. Past and present are at the core of this piece, as well as at the core of this present moment.
The Decameron, a book written by Boccaccio in the 14th century, is a collection of a hundred stories told by a group of ten people (seven of which were women, known as the "brigata"), hiding in a villa to escape from the Black Death. It is likely to have been written by Boccaccio after the outbreak of 1348, and is thought to have been completed in 1353. The power of stories here is not insignificant, putting an emphasis on the need of stories to entertain oneself in times of great hardship. The 100 tales range from tragic, to erotic, to scatological tales, to tales of wit, as well as life lessons. Every night, every member of the house would sit and tell a tale. While the first role of these stories was to amuse (a sentiment that is oh-so true in 2021) some also were supposed to educate. They serve as a testament of medieval folktales, giving a modern reader an invaluable insight of what was comical and entertaining to a medieval reader, while also being a testament of what life looked like back then.
Pasolini, an Italian filmmaker, author, political activist — mostly known for making his artistic craft reflect a political agenda — adapted medieval literary texts of incredible literary importance in his Trilogy of life films, where his love for storytelling really transpired. He first adapted the Decameron, then the Canterbury Tales, and finally the Arabian Nights. Of course, the first film sets the tone for the trilogy, and thus aimed to show how his passion for storytelling translated into film.
There are three medieval usages throughout the film that I feel the need to point out to a viewership and readership who may not have reflected on.
Using a Medieval Italian text in his Decameron meant that his (mostly Italian) audience would catch the subtle references he made, and know the text’s background, intent and style without having to explicitly portray them, allowing him to use the medieval text as a pretext to reflect on literature, storytelling and filmmaking as a whole.
Indeed, in the film, the tales all take place in Naples instead of its original Florence and are shown one after the other in a fragmented style; creating an invisible link between them. This link is indicative of the film’s microcosm which mimics its literary parent. Creating a microcosm helps Pasolini compare the text’s context with the film’s context; choosing a text which masterfully manages to "amuse" its readership, whilst also making it reflect, in a historical moment of great crisis shows Pasolini’s willingness to engage with the socio-political situation of his time, whilst also focusing on great storytelling. Indeed, the film shows how the “late-medieval Italian society in ideological and economic crisis, (…) becomes an allegory of late-capitalist society” (1). This political undertone shows a willingness by Pasolini to "use" this medieval context to reflect on this present historical moment; echoing Eco’s (excuse the pun) “Dreaming of the Middle Ages”. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure to read this exquisite essay, Eco names ten types of uses of the medieval in literature, and general culture. Here, Pasolini uses the Middle Ages as a pretext (2) to speak and denounce the society of his time, drawing on the first idea of Eco’s list.
By choosing to omit the brigata, Pasolini is distancing himself from the medieval text and the responsibilities that the text gave its readers (3). Further, by choosing to omit the microcosm of the brigata, which served as a moral compass for its members where every character presented a story from their own personal perspective, Pasolini changes the flow of the storytelling from an oral tradition to a visual one. Pasolini does not replace it but chooses to fragment his film instead. Every tale is told without a narrator, making its viewer responsible to understand which story is being told and what "moral" conclusions he should learn from said story.
Furthermore, Pasolini’s viewer must be well acquainted with Boccaccio’s text and thus understand its truly medieval spirit. Paxson’s idea that “the anachronism of a film shown in the late Middle Ages thus accretes a host of structural, hermeneutic, historical, and aesthetic issues that complicate our sense of film situated as an historically spec medium, ad of medieval culture with its paramount signifying form, allegory” (4) seems to frame what the loss of the narratorial structure does. Indeed, the viewer left to his own devices, is meant to give new meaning to the tales told and to Pasolini’s interpretation of them. By being brought back to life, Pasolini rejuvenates these stories, and brings new meaning to the text, changing them from ephemeral stories while giving them a metaphorical meaning.
The fragmentation of each tale does not, however, mean that there aren’t common threads weaving the tales together. Many have divided the film into two parts, the first where the tale of Ser Ciappelletto (a thief, murderer, liar amongst many other bad attributes) is told in the midst of tales such as "Andreuccio da Perugia", the first convent story (IX, 2 told by the Neapolitan storyteller) and "Masetto da Lamporecchio", "the story Peronella"; the second part, with a disciple of Giotto coming to Naples (played by Pasolini) to paint a fresco, he in turn paints and observes his public while the tales "Riccardo and Caterina", the story of "Isabetta and Lorenzo" who is killed by her brothers and becomes a pot of basil, the tale of "Don Gianni and Compare Pietro", "Meuccio and Tingoccio" are, so to speak "painted".
These two very different "narrators" emphasise the shift that occurs between the two parts of the film. In the first, realistically because of Ciappelletto’s evil character, sexual freedom is at the forefront which in turn is desacralised and rendered comical. For example, in the story of Masetto de Lamporecchio, a guy who pretends to be deaf-mute in order to be allowed to work in a convent and whose aim was to sleep with all the nuns. Every nun queues to sleep with him, and the head nun when Masetto, exhausted by his endeavours starts speaking, screams “Miracle” in order to keep him there and performing. A highly comical scene, which is told with greater visual skills. This free attitude to sex is representative of its medieval humour present in the text, which may challenge our preconceptions of what medieval literature is. Scatological humour, wit and comicality are highly employed within the tales, culminating in Ciappelletto’s fake confession to Messer Muscia and subsequent death.
In the second part of the film, dictated by the presence of the artist, humour is still employed through the different tales of the Decameron, however the fragmentation of the film is slowed down through the presence of the artist, who interrupts the tales with his observation of everyday life which culminates in his artistic inspiration, as is visible by the market scenes and the wedding of "Zita Carapresa".
As viewers we are in a similar predicament as the artist as we’re looking at and into the life of others, in a small microcosm, a life whose past is distant to ours, with mores so incredibly different and because they are different to our lives seem "Other".
The second use of the medieval is linked to Pasolini’s choice to change the geographical setting of Boccaccio’s Decameron and the language it uses. From Tuscany and tuscan dialect (known as the mother of modern Italian), the film relocates to Naples and uses the Neapolitan dialect. Filming in the area and not in the studio, however and casting local inhabitants rather than actors is thought to make a medieval film "authentic" (5). This could explain Pasolini’s intent to immerse his film in a Neapolitan context a return to the "medieval". Indeed, because of the difficulty of the dialect, the viewer’s comprehension may be compromised, creating further separation with the stories, making them feel like they pertain to their medieval context. This separation also makes the viewer feel as if they were looking rather than participating in the stories. The stories are brought back to a folkloristic and spoken dimension, true to the text itself, and to medieval culture. This is particularly emphasised in the scene with the Neapolitan storyteller, who has a hold of a printed version of the Decameronian tales (an anachronism in itself) and after reading it in Tuscan he states in Neapolitan “Now, in Neapolitan!”, bringing the text back to its oral tradition. Interestingly enough, any character who speaks Italian (apart from Giotto’s disciple), like the priest in "Andreuccio da Perugia’s tale" when Andreuccio is stuck in the tomb, is shown to be corrupt, pertaining to the authorities and consequently a reflection of the birth of the bourgeoisie.
I think that the nature of the film’s humour (a comic of situation which employs scatological, sexual, crude humour) is emphasised by the linguistic difficulties one has in understanding what is said. The stories are simplified, giving the character a one-dimensional figure. If we think about “Andreuccio da Perugia’s” tale, his simplistic portrayal of emotions such as fear and joy show that he is prone to being duped. The comic of that situation resides in the scene where he falls into the pile of feces and his “cousin” steals his money. This kind of humour brings us back to Eco’s Middle Ages. Indeed, “the Middle Ages as a barbaric age, a land of elementary and outlaw feelings” (6) seems to define well this humour represented throughout the tales. It is interesting to think about D’Arcens book on the comic in medievalism as “a vehicle for commentary on the present as well as the past, exploring the many ways it has enabled modern societies to express their anxieties about (…) issues as social change historical progress, political and religious structure and cultural tolerance” (7). Indeed, by our laughing at all the scenes of these deeply comical tales, we can truly think about the universalism of the mores represented, showing thus how truly modern they are; and thus remaining faithful to the authenticity of the text.
The use of Neapolitan dialect could be what one laughs at the characters because of the way they speak and act, more than laughing at the story itself. If we think of Peronella’s tale, the situational comicality is what brings hilarity to the absurd situation presented. Peronella, who is having an affair with another man is abruptly interrupted by her husband’s arrival. In order to hide her affair, though her neighbours are aware (which creates an a parte for they hope the husband won’t be duped and relish in Peronella’s demise), she tells her husband that her lover wanted to buy a vase which he should clean in order for it to be sold. Once her husband enters the vase, she starts having sex with her lover next to the vase, making the orders she is giving her lover applicable to her husband and creating a quiproquo. However, as many of the characters within these tales, the Neapolitan dialect and its expressiveness with the outcries, the exaggerations contribute to why these tales are funny. Given that all the characters, except for Ciappelletto and Giotto’s disciple (who is also here portrayed as foreign, the observer is thus looking into the Neapolitan ways and people), are portrayed as one dimensional, I cannot but feel uncomfortable about Pasolini’s choice to set it in this Neapolitan context.
Though I am aware that Pasolini’s larger discourse denounces the ways in which capitalism and the bourgeoisie have destroyed Italian society putting to the fore “la questione della lingua” (whether or not the country should have chosen the Tuscan dialect as the national language), I can understand why he would choose a southern dialect to portray these tales. It allows for the poorer and oppressed south to be vindicated. However, choosing to set a medieval film in the Italian South with the current dialect could speak for Pasolini’s vision of the South of Italy. In an interview, he exclaimed that the South of Italy was a world “which is at the limits of history, and in, a certain sense, outside history” (8), justifying the innocent joy and simple ways present within stories. Therefore, comparing an imagined Decameron in a Neapolitan context could possibly mean that we are laughing at the absurdity of the comicality of this Southern Italian context, their dialect and person while defining them to these stories.
A final use of the medieval is at stake within Pasolini’s representation of the Decameron: his use of the text to reflect on what it means to story tell and reflect on his concept of “cinema-cinema” and his “cinema poesia”; terms which he elaborated during a series of conferences which connect filmmaking to literature.
Essentially, the concept of “poetic cinema” is one where the language used reveals that of a “pre-grammatical” society or where the basis of the film is “oneiric”, therefore making the language used “extremely crude, almost animal” (9). From this definition, the fragmentation of the tales which slows down as the artist starts painting the tales is essential as from a sequence of dreams which one can make little to no sense of, one is made to think about what the role of the artist (and consequently, the filmmaker’s role) is in cinema. Interestingly, Davis thinks about painters in medieval films as “privileged witnesses” who can help obtain authenticity in the understanding that the paintings displayed are representative of the painter’s view (10). In fact, within the artist’s role of roaming around the city, looking at the way in which everyone interacts, looking at the paint within the fragments of the story, all he sees is beauty. Inspiration hits with the character dreams about Giotto’s Last Judgment, as a tableau vivant, creating a further layer in the film. The oneiric and art are seen as truly magnificent. Of course, let’s not forget the tableau vivant within part one of Brueghel’s The Combat of Carnival and Lent, as well as The triumph of Death. The first tableau vivant is shown before Ciappelletto’s last scene, and thus before the arrival of the artist/filmmaker who reflects on the role of art. Given the fragmentation of the film, I believe that these tableaux are as important as the other tales. By being religious pieces, I believe that Marcus’s point that “the filmmaker (…) view(s) Boccaccio’s Middle Ages through the lens of his sacralising gaze” (11) is apt. However, I believe that as Rumble points out “the painterly effect” which Costa comes up with is used throughout the film as Pasolini’s style, and is truly visible in the fact that the paintings depicted are contaminated by other paintings, and aren’t proper representations of the paintings cited (12). Indeed, none of the tableaux vivant are truly accurate, showing thus a misinterpretation by Pasolini. Furthermore, even within the painted version of the Last Judgment, he only depicts two out of the three sides of the triptych, stating “why realise a work when it is so nice simply to dream it?” which are the closing words of the film. This shows the difficulty that an artist, filmmaker has within his artistic endeavour.
Seeing the film through the character of the artist, according to Rumble, means that many of the images that we see are “reported vision”, which can be compared to the text where “reported speech” is at the basis of the cornice; these images which are given a “recycled quality” lead us to have a “melancholic gaze” (13). This remains faithful to Boccaccio’s text, for he writes to educate women and to cure them from the debilitating effects of melancholy (14). Though Melancholy and Nostalgia are different concepts, I believe that Melancholy can be a symptom of Nostalgia, which I think is a theme throughout the entirety of the Trilogy of Life, but specifically the Decameron. Furthermore, I believe that Nostalgia frames Pasolini’s view of the medieval. Boym’s definition of Nostalgia is multifaceted: “is not “anti-modern”; it is not necessarily opposed to modernity but coeval with it, furthermore it can “be a longing for a place, but it is a yearning for a different time” and it also does not have to be “retrospective; it can be prospective as well” (15). Given that a comparison can be drawn between the moment in which Boccaccio wrote his text and when Pasolini decided to adapt the text to screen; both disillusioned by society, I believe that Nostalgia and the longing for something different is omnipresent not only within the way in which the tale is told but the hope for a time before the bourgeoisie made its mark. Going back to a simpler society, whose morality was clear where corruption was minimised, shows Pasolini’s desire to go back to a simpler time and travel back to the Middle Ages. Indeed, this would explain the extremely expressive language used, the simple emotions displayed by the characters of the film, while also fragmenting the film, making it feel like a manuscript or a book one is flicking through rather than a story one is telling. I believe the trilogy of life to be an ode to literature, to storytelling. Therefore, I consider that as such the medieval that is portrayed in it is meant to be honest and unmitigatedly human, looking perhaps at a side of humanity which we do not often face as it stands.
Pasolini’s version of Boccaccio’s Decameron is quite a difficult film to categorise. Though I believe that it is truly a medieval film as it adapts a medieval text rendering it modern, I think that first and foremost it is a way for Pasolini to explore storytelling. Indeed, his framing narratology, quite different to many medieval films, shows how intensely the medieval was a means to explore a better time, a simpler time, helping him denounce the present which is gravely harmed by capitalism. The adaptation of this medieval text is extremely successful, for it allows it to truly be modernised while also giving Pasolini the space to reflect about cinema as an art form. It alludes to many different types of medievalism, including Comedy. Literature and medieval comedy, which is here represented the way it truly was, crude, scatological which shows how faithful Pasolini is to text. The comic aspects of this text have caused the text to be amply reduced in its reception, its scholarship, he is modernising the text and breaking free from its literature. However, given that Pasolini uses the past to speak about the present, the Medieval becomes a pretext. Yet his choice of a Neapolitan Decameron is, in my opinion, at risk of being too realistic and modern, risking the fetishisation of a region which has undergone tremendous exploitation for centuries, rendering its representation problematic.
(1) Rumble (1996), p.102.
(2) Eco (1986), p.141.
(3) Rumble (1996), p.128.
(4) Paxson (2007), p.298.
(5) Davis (1987), pp.461-462.
(6) Eco (1986), p.143.
(7) D’Arcens (2014), p.6.
(8) Petraglia (1974), pp-15-16.
(9) Rumble (1996), p. 77.
(10) Davis (1987), p462.
(11) Marcus (2013), p275.
(12) Rumble (1996), p.37.
(13) Rumble (1996), p.17.
(14) Rumble (1996), p.110.
(15) Boym (2007).
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Davis N (1987), “Any Resemblance to Persons Living or Dead” :Film and the Challenge of Authenticity, The Yale Review, 86 (1986-87):457-82
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Marcus M., Boccaccio and the Seventh Art: The Decameronian Film of Fellini, De Laurentiis, Pasolini Woody Allen, Medievalia, Volume 34, State University of New York Press
Petraglia S. (1974), Pier Paolo Pasolini, Florence: La Nuova Italia.
Paxson J., (2007) The Anachronism of Imagining Film in the Middle Ages: Wegener's Der Golem and Chaucer's Knight's Tale , Exemplaria, 19:2, 290-309.
Rumble P. (1996), Allegories of Contamiation; Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life, University of Toronto