Opening with the arrival of Chaucer (portrayed by Pier Paolo Pasolini) to a town where many of the people are travelers headed to Canterbury, the idea of telling stories is introduced from the start. A woman, The Wife of Bath (Laura Betti) speaks of herself in third person to a group of onlooking men. When everyone migrates to a diner that evening (Chaucer among them, the owner of the diner invites everyone to each tell a story to make their long journey to Canterbury go by more quickly. Perhaps no one takes the diner's request seriously, but Chaucer and the observance of him writing stories becomes the narrative glue for this disjointed assemblage of stories.
Comparatively, Pasolini's film of The Canterbury Tales feels less of a whole than the sprawling stories that comprise The Decameron which may be a result of clashing themes. Much of The Decameron focuses on young love, but The Canterbury Tales often has young women married to men more than twice their age. It's often uncomfortable to watch young women (such as Geraldine Chaplin) to be forced to sleep with elderly kings, but there are often young men trying to sexually free these women from their old husbands. As the film progresses, age becomes more of a presence in the film as one of the stories involves a group of young men who decide to hunt for "Death". What they do not know is that "Death" is a natural phenomenon and not a person – which is certainly the core theme of that vignette, as the young men kill themselves off during their quest to kill "Death".
Though age is one facet of The Canterbury Tales, one of the most compelling stories in the film is of a man portrayed by Franco Citti who follows (what appears to be) a peeping tom as he goes from house to house observing homosexuals. Franco Citti soon discovers that this man is actually a spy for the Church who is going to have the gay men that he found burned alive for their sins unless they can pay a hefty fee to the Church. The first man has plenty of money to spare, but the second is less fortunate and is sentenced to death. Dark clouds of smoke fill the air from the wooden alter that he is burned alive on before a full audience. During this, Citti stares on in horror.
It is not to The Canterbury Tales' detriment that the film is less enjoyable than The Decameron, as Pasolini should not be expected to repeat himself, but it certainly is not as accessibly humorous as its predecessor. Where The Decameron spoils its viewers, The Canterbury Tales is more likely to challenge them, which is totally fine. The larger concern with The Canterbury Tales is that it's not as focused thematically and is held together by a passive story (the observance of Chaucer writing) rather than an active story. Beyond that, The Canterbury Tales is a very well-crafted film with plenty of tricks and surprises up its sleeve – including one of the most sensational finales to a film that I've ever seen (Hieronymus Bosch would be proud).
My rating: 4/5