Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Theorem (1968) is the kind of formally ambitious picture that could have only emerged from the late sixties, in which the ideological ferment of Marxism, Catholicism and psychoanalysis reached its apex. Lithe, ocean-eyed Terence Stamp stars as the Visitor, whose arrival into and seduction of an Italian family and their maid induces a crisis. In spite of its formalist rigour and ambiguous plotting, Theorem is also among Pasolini’s starriest and most accessible films, a comedy of manners which echoes Buñel in its savage indictment of the Milanese bourgeoisie. In daring to suggest that liberation may exist outside of monogamous, heterosexual confines, sympathising with his privileged protagonists, whilst also laying on a heavy dose of blasphemous allusion, Pasolini managed to provoke all audiences with Theorem, not least the Vatican, who successfully stripped the film of its special award at the Venice Film Festival. 

Yet Stamp’s character is more seduced than seducer, not least by Pasolini, who packed in enough lingering crotch shots to gain an X rating in the UK. Rather, Stamp appears to embody a midpoint between Jesus Christ (down to his Annunciation by a postman played by Pasolini’s muse and lover Ninetto Davoli, appropriately named Angelino), and a literalisation of the Freudian object. Through the Visitor’s (divine?) intervention, the family transform themselves: Emilia the maid abandons the family, the ailing father Paolo gives up his factory, the mother Lucia becomes a prostitute, the daughter Odetta becomes catatonic and the son Pietro an obsessive artist. The film asks increasingly unanswerable questions about the nature of change itself: who are we without our desires? Is it preferable to live in the sepia-toned, prelapsarian state seen at the beginning of the film, than to live with the knowledge that our needs and hopes for salvation can never be met, that the realisation of desire destroys its object?

The maid Emilia is the aberrant figure within Theorem. The only proletarian character in the film, she is the first to be overcome by Stamp, yet her seduction results less in a crisis of confidence than a wholesale reinvention. Abandoning the family’s fortress-like mansion, she returns to her village, subsiding off a diet of nettles, healing sick children and eventually levitating, to the wonder of its residents. Yet her brush with desire does not result in crisis: she is instead sanctified, levitating above the common crowd. Pasolini suggests both that the poor might retain the best chance at moral righteousness whilst also arguing against a straightforwardly sanguine reading of the proletarian saviour. 

Released almost exactly at the midpoint of Pasolini’s filmmaking career, Theorem is at times uncharacteristically equivocal, far more sympathetic to its privileged characters than his later masterpiece Salo, or than his closest creative analogue Jean-Luc Godard. Pasolini-regular Silvana Mangano as Lucia is shot with dignity even as she prostitutes herself in a ditch. Throughout Theorem, perceived corruption is always tangled with the scope for pleasure: the concurrent suggestion of sodomy and Michaelangelo’s Pietà when Stamp holds the father’s legs on his shoulders is a particularly loaded example. Yet it is the figure of the son who is afforded the most depth. Terrified of his sexuality before sleeping with Stamp, the son becomes an obsessive artist, abandoning all sense of intention in lieu of aleatoric, chance paintings, one of which he urinates on (a move that predates Warhol’s own piss paintings by a decade). His mixture of vain indulgence, frustration and blind faith in the production of art is the closest thing the film has to a director’s avatar. 

In a typically provocative declaration, Pasolini once said “A member of the bourgeoisie, whatever he does, is always wrong”. The family, made rudely aware of the essential meaninglessness of their existence, seem doomed to repeat it. Yet the film’s final scene offers something of a refutation. Throughout Theorem, Pasolini repeatedly cuts to a shot of volcanic earth, an ambiguous symbol of our primordial origins. The father, having sold off his factories, now runs fully nude across the isolated terrain of Mount Etna, letting out a guttural scream which suggests true bliss and terror. In a coda that is both bitter and comical, Pasolini suggests that for the bourgeoisie, the only means of liberation is to inhabit the world as they entered it, naked, screaming and alone.

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