Following Porcile and Medea (both from 1969), which were a bit uninspired, Pier Paolo Pasolini's ninth feature film is a real return to form: The Decameron (1971). Taking on a very loose vignette structure, The Decameron is on a massive scale as it depicts the sprawling world of Renaissance-era Italy which its characters inhabit. Compared to Pasolini's previous work, The Decameron is far more light and jovial as it celebrates the pleasures of the flesh, blasphemy, and combinations of both all at once.
There are two core narratives that serve as a bridge that crosses all of the stories featured within Pasolini's adaptation of The Decameron. The first (which goes from the opening of the film to about the half way point) follows a sinful thief named Ciappelleto (Franco Citti) who is given the task of leaving town to engage in some shady activity where he isn't yet known. Between each scene of this thread of the story, a different vignette is depicted.
The first stand-alone vignette (starring the incredibly charming Ninetto Davoli) is a brilliant slice of comedy. Davoli portrays a wealthy young man named Andreuccio, and he carries himself with caricatured pomposity – which is highly sexualized by the chaps that he is wearing which accentuate the bulge of his crotch (one of the many beautiful costumes designed by Danilo Donati). From afar, Andreuccio catches the attention of a beautiful young woman who send one of her servants to retrieve him. When he arrives at her home, she pretends to be his long-lost sister and invites him to stay at her home that night. When he visits the restroom, the floorboards (which were cut down the center in an earlier scene) fall out from under Andreuccio's feet so he falls into the sewage below. Now, Andreuccio is locked out of his "sister's" home and all of his money is being stolen. This could be a tragedy, but Pasolini manages to keep the tone light so that when Andreuccio is given the chance to earn all of his money back (and more), he is both a character that can be sympathized with as we watch in anticipation to see if his situation can get any worse.
The second primary story that helps give the film a sense of direction begins around the halfway mark of the film and continues until the very end. An artist (portrayed by the director of this film, Pier Paolo Pasolini) who studied under Renaissance painter Cimabue's apprentice, Giotto, has been commissioned to paint a triptych mural on the inner wall of a cathedral. Giotto's apprentice is now revered as one of the greatest artists in the land, and though he is welcomed by the church officials, he is not necessarily understood.
Naturally, much can be drawn from the parallel between the character that Pier Paolo Pasolini is portraying and the film that he is actually making, The Decameron. On the surface alone, Pasolini is starring in the film as a man who has studied under Giotto, so Pasolini is essentially positioning himself as a student of the great artists that came before him. Looking to the form of the painting that Giotto's apprentice is making is the next point of comparison as the mural is a triptych, in the same way that Pasolini's film The Decameron is a collection of multiple stories. Throughout the film, we observe Giotto's apprentice work with his assistants as he directs them – guiding them in his vision as a contemporary film director does on a film set. At one point, Giotto's apprentice even holds his fingers up to his eyes making the shape of a frame as a film director may do on set to pre-visualize a composition. These self-reflexive moments contribute to the flavor of The Decameron as we are invited to see the inner-workings of an artist's mind.
Masterfully realized, The Decameron is a captivating collection of stories that range in various degrees of perversion. Though it could be seen as merely a great film for comedic storytelling, it also offers a remarkable commentary on the passion of an artist, and the ways in which the artistic process reflects reality. Conclusions are not always necessary, and often the imagined conclusions are better than anything that could ever actually happen.
My rating: 5/5