At turns hilarious, sensual, vicious and poignant, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life sees the legendary Italian director tackling three sets of medieval stories. All three films retain the distinctly mythic qualities of their respective source materials, but Pasolini also imbues them with tangible, earthy humanity — his matter-of-fact portrayals of love and sex and the un-self-conscious nudity that accompanies them making for a unique rendition of stories that might otherwise feel hermetically sealed. Certainly, Pasolini underpins these stories with modern societal concerns, philosophical inquiries and a not insignificant amount of biting satire, but it’s the humanism of these films that stands out most of all, affirming the trilogy’s title in their exploration of the foibles and beauties of a life.
First up is 1971’s The Decameron, adapted from Boccaccio’s allegory and offering up the most pointed satire and overt humor of the trilogy. Filled with scatological humor and a conflation of the sacred and the profane, the film tells nine stories of religious hypocrisy and sexual adventure, with Pasolini himself starring as an assistant to Giotto who observes the proceedings and is inspired to create a fresco. Stories include a man who pretends to be mute in order to have sex with an entire convent of nuns, a woman who uses a giant pot to hide her lover from her husband and three domineering brothers taking their revenge on their sister’s boyfriend.
Similar in structure but darker in tone is 1972’s The Canterbury Tales, which features eight of Chaucer’s tales told in unabashedly bawdy fashion. Pasolini again includes a bit of self-reflexivity, casting himself as Chaucer writing down the tales of his traveling companions. Many of the most famous stories are represented here, with a silly, playful version of “The Miller’s Tale” and a succinct, perfect rendition of “The Merchant’s Tale” standing out. And though the bawdiness can tend to outweigh any of the other concerns of the source material, it’s all worth it for the unforgettable conclusion of the film, when “The Friar’s Tale” is extended into hell, complete with a giant devil farting out friars across an apocalyptic landscape.
Less episodic and more purely erotic than the other two films, Arabian Nights closes out the trilogy with several stories — the main one focusing on a young man who falls in love with his slave girl, but loses her after foolishly ignoring her advice. As he embarks on an epic journey to find her, other tales of love and loss are told, including that of a man who falls in love with a mysterious woman on the day of his wedding and the subsequent heartbreak his betrothed experiences as he attempts to win over his new love. A globe-trotting production that included shoots in Africa, Iran, and India, Arabian Nights is a fascinating combination of fantasy and Neorealism-like reality, with Pasolini often stopping to simply document beautiful locations and the non-actors populating them.
Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life is a vibrant collection of stories with a strong thematic through-line. This is no disjointed anthology — even if some of the individual tales don’t always connect, the sum effect is a simultaneously crass and reverent, dark and cheerful celebration of life.
The Blu-ray Discs
Each of the three films is presented in 1080p high definition in their original 1.85:1 aspect ratios. All are beautiful transfers, with superb image clarity, bright and bold colors and an unmistakably film-like look that comes from the perfectly reproduced grain structure. The Decameron probably boasts the strongest transfer, with some heavy tram lines late in The Canterbury Tales and some slightly worn materials and problematic optical effects in Arabian Nights marking those discs down a bit. But overall, the films look exceptional. Audio tracks are uncompressed monaural, which are all free from distortion or noise problems, but feature pretty underwhelming dialogue, thanks to the post-production dubbing common to Italian films of the era.
Criterion collects a whole host of extras for this box set, including visual essays on The Decameron and Arabian Nights; archival interviews with the late Pasolini; several documentaries on deleted and cut scenes; several extended segments for Arabian Nights; interviews with composer Ennio Morricone, production designer Dante Ferretti, and scholar Sam Rohdie; a documentary on Pasolini’s distaste for modern architecture; and a collection of theatrical trailers. The set also includes a substantial booklet with various writings on the film by Pasolini and essays on all three films by scholar Colin MacCabe.
The Bottom Line
Another superb box set from Criterion.