There's no need for a synopsis for Pasolini's The Decameron; it's just one bawdy tale after another, a series of stories that play as if they could have come from 400 years ago, without alteration. There must be fifteen or twenty separate tales, with only one that reappears several times through the show.
Boccaccio's Italia is populated with randy young men and eager young women, all trying to find their way to happiness through sex, while avoiding the condemnation of the church. Fundamentally anticlerical, several of the stories involve oversexed priests and nuns. The main appeal is the freshness of the whole affair, which appears to be shot with non-actors who really do look like they might have come out of the middle ages, bad teeth and all.
The stories aren't cut and dried, and many are so simple that they end before we initially think they should. A sinful debt collector is poisoned, but uses his final time with the priest to recant so convincingly of tiny sins, that he's canonized. We keep waiting for him to pop back to life as some kind of joke, but that's not the tone of what's happening here.
Some of the stories belong in old issues of Playboy, in the ribald fairy tales or whatever they were called. Only one is the kind of 'hide somewhere, my husband's coming' farce we expect. In the first episode, a rich man's son is trapped into paying dearly for his father's sins, but then falls in with some thieves seeking to rob the crypt of an archbishop. The story deliberately has no moral, as the thief is first entombed alive with the dead priest, but then freed by a second set of graverrobbers, and escapes with a prize.
Because Pasolini's approach lacks smarmy overtones, a kind of ribald honesty emerges. A pack of nuns is all too happy to have a deaf mute gardner to 'share' among them, yet there's not a smidge of blasphemy about the scene - well, beyond the obvious. The nudity is frequent and rather blunt. There's a shot of a very interested, uh, you know what. The film was originally rated X, a branding that I'm surprised was downgraded to an R.
A couple of the stories play as if written by dirty old Renaissance men, and come off as authentically 'dirty' (Read: 'Earthy'), but there are also gems. A midnight assignation between two Romeo and Juliet-like teenagers leads not to tragedy but a marriage with the purity (and wardrobe) of the Garden of Eden; in another strange episode, shamed brothers murder their sister's lover, and she journeys out to his shallow grave on a strange mission.
My favorite is a tale of a sinner who comes back from the dead to tell a buddy that, sure enough, there's punishment beyond the grave. But to his pal's great relief, illicit sex in itself isn't considered a sin at all.
The director has reserved an autobiographically-slanted episode for himself, as the Painter Giotto, who we return to several times as he creates a mural on a monastery wall. He's a happy man, interrupting breakfast to rush back to his scaffolding, and, like Pasolini, surrounded by young and handsome assistants. At the end, when the mural is finished, the painter (director) stares at his work and sighs, saying how much more fulfilling it is to imagine his works than to actually create them.
The beautiful Silvana Mangano (The Witches, Dune) shows up in only two or three static shots, as a Madonnna in a religious painting come to life.
MGM's DVD of The Decameron is a very handsome transfer, picture and sound, of a film shot without a great deal of production gloss. But the celebrated cinematographers and designers have created some entirely credible settings. Ennio Morricone's score is either very sparse, or so perfect I didn't even notice it. For once, MGM's standard 16 chapter stops coincide almost perfectly with the number of episodes, so the feature is actually useful. The trailer is a nondescript UA collage of images which in themselves aren't very striking; The Decameron is one of those pictures whose appeal has to sneak up on one.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Decameron rates: