The Canterbury Tales, released in 1972, adapts one-third of Geoffrey Chaucer’s poems and stories. One infamous segment involves two men caught in an act of sodomy. The wealthier of the two averts punishment, the less financially secure winds up being burned alive in front of an audience (some of whom blithely snack on griddle cakes). In a lighter moment, Ninetto Davoli adopts Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp persona in “Cook’s Tale,” leading a few hapless characters to quite literally take a long walk off a short pier. The undercranked camera speeds up the slapstick antics. The Chaplin’s references don’t stop there. Josephine Chaplin (Charlie’s daughter) has a small role. The fourth Doctor Who, Tom Baker, is briefly present as well.
Arabian Nights concluded the trilogy in 1974, becoming Pasolini’s penultimate film. Its stories were adapted from a collection of Arabic folk stories, The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. The international production begins with a young man, Nur-e-Din (Franco Merli), being chosen by a female slave who is being auctioned off. Quite liberal, I suppose, for the auctioneer to allow the young lady, Zumurrud (Ines Pellegrini), to choose the man who will purchase her. The two fall in love, but Nur-e-Din somehow loses track of her by mistake. He spends the better part of the film, easily the trilogy’s lengthiest at 130 minutes, trying to locate her. As his quest unfolds, punctuated by Nur-e-Din’s encounters with numerous nubile lasses, we are treated to a variety of tangential stories of sex and temptation.
Maybe additional viewings will help me uncover the layers of profundity that others have found in Pasolini’s trilogy. For now, I’m unconvinced that it possess the depth and artistry so many attribute to it. The films are never boring, but it does take some time to get used to the excruciatingly poor dubbing. The Canterbury Tales includes a Pasolini-approved English track and really, why not go with that? The sync is terrible on the original Italian soundtracks (inherent in the original productions, not Criterion’s presentation) and the actors’ deliver their lines with overheated, histrionic glee. In other words, the stylized performances are an acquired taste that might throw off viewers unaccustomed to such theatrics.
And there’s no other way to say this—there’s a lot of penis on display in these movies. Yeah, there’s plenty of female nudity too, but the emphasis in all three films is the male sex organ. Non-pornographic female nudity is simply less “in your face” than close-up after close-up of every imaginable variety of male member (including erections). I wasn’t offended by it in the slightest, but it’s worth knowing for viewers who find such material repellent. The sex, though considered “erotic” by Pasolini, comes off as the awkward groping of people who have heard of the act but never actually done it. Late in Arabian Nights, Nur-e-Din plays “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” in a swimming pool with a group of young girls. This naïve exploration is far more convincing than any of the adult sexuality that so dominates the trilogy.