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Tuesday, June 25, 2024
The Observer

Browning Cinema strikes gold with screening of ‘Il Decameron’

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Christina Sayut | The Observer


Last Thursday, the Browning Cinema at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center screened “Il Decameron” by director Pier Paolo Pasolini. The movie adapts nine of the 100 short stories in the original “Decameron,” a collection of tales by medieval Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio. 

When discussing medieval art with sex jokes and poop gags, the critic is obliged to wheel out “the words.” Forgive me the cliches, but Pasolini’s “Il Decameron” really is bawdy and ribald, raucous and racy, irreverent and cantankerous. 

It’s two hours of scheming criminals, lecherous nuns and star-crossed lovers, but to keep the film from becoming a mere compilation of hijinks — a sort of lewd medieval Looney Tunes — Pasolini works in plenty of moments of touching writing, acting and direction. Between one tale about a homosexual murder and another about two lusty teenagers, for example, Pasolini interjects with “Giotto’s Pupil”: a break from the rapid fire, thousand-mile-per-hour plotlines for an episode inside the mind of an artist. The viewer is treated to massive, intricate shots of medieval paintings reenacted under Pasolini’s meticulous direction. 

Pasolini switches from melodramatic scenes to contemplative moments like this before the movie becomes grating, but he also knows when to switch back from contemplation to melodrama before the movie becomes boring. This is Pasolini’s masterpiece. If you’re curious about his filmography, start here. 

If people have heard about Pasolini, though, it’s almost never because of “Il Decameron.” It’s almost always because of “Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom” — Pasolini’s adaptation of a novel Marquis de Sade (whose name gives us the word “sadism”) set in the last days of fascist Italy. In “Saló,” four men kidnap and torture nine boys and nine girls with the help of a team of soldiers and prostitutes. The film depicts every horror you can imagine and is frequently banned. It’s notorious. 

In “Il Decameron,” the sex jokes and potty humor are handled lightheartedly. The woman sitting in front of me in the theater even felt comfortable enough to bring her toddler. In “Saló,” however, Pasolini presents sexuality and scatology in a deeply disquieting way. 

The film is typically explained as a work about the evils and excesses of fascism and how they are unequivocally bad, but this ignores what’s actually on screen. The “evil and excessive” crimes are beautifully framed and shot; Pasolini works hard to make them attractive to the viewer. Neither are the criminals portrayed as “unequivocally bad” — we’re charmed, whether we like it or not, by their sardonic senses of humor. 

This is the real horror of “Saló”: the way Pasolini devilishly lures us into the sin on screen. We come away knowing not just that fascism is evil but how and why so many were tricked into becoming a part of that evil. 

Yet this isn’t the reason most people watch “Saló.” I first saw it because I overheard my brother and his friends whispering in horror about “literally the most evil movie ever,” and I’m no chicken, so I hunted it down and watched it when I was way too young. This is how a lot of people first find Pasolini — because of the urban legend that surrounds “Saló,” because of the myth of the grossest movie ever. It’s one way in, but very few people watch “Saló” and think, “I should see what else this guy made!” 

“Il Decameron” was the second installment of a series at the Browning called “Beyond the Classics: Early 70s Italian Cinema,” and it was a great pick. First and foremost, it’s a good movie, but if you want to dig deeper, it’s also Pasolini at the peak of his optimism about sexuality. “Saló” then becomes the mirror image of “Il Decameron,” and it starts to make a little more sense as part of a bigger picture. Pasolini is making an argument about the dual nature of sex: as a source of both beauty and horror.