Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Teorema is undoubtedly a personal expression of film poetry from noted Italian iconoclast Pier Paolo Pasolini, the maker of fascinating films like Mamma Roma, The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Arabian Nights. This study of religious themes may be a pure expression of Pasolini's mindset on the middle class and the emptiness of bourgeois life, but viewers will need to already be riding Pasolini's specific philosophical wavelength to appreciate it -- for most it will be a slow and uninvolving experience.
A young male Visitor (Terence Stamp) shows up at a party given by a wealthy factory owner, preceded only by a telegram stating, :"Arriving." He becomes a member of the household. One by one each family member has a sexual encounter with the young man, even the maid who seems to worship him. All are moved and saddened when the Visitor announces that the time has come for him to leave. But the life of every family member takes a radical change ...
Too much of Teorema plays like a by-the-books meaningful-cinema exercise. We're interested only in how it turns out, as watching the slow-paced tale yields few of the pleasures of even the abstract movie viewing experience. We witness a series of barely staged and difficult-to-explain events, none of which seems to have a point that couldn't be better communicated in a couple of pages' worth of text. Handsome, enigmatic Terence Stamp appears and becomes intimate with every memeber of a well-to-do household, individual by individual. They're mostly isolated before he arrives, and they stay separate after he leaves.
All the scenes remain fragmented and there is no attempt to create any feeling of a real, functioning family ... the events seem to be happening one dimension removed from the world we know. Many art movies that stylize reality make interesting viewing - Last Year at Marienbad, Red Desert -- but Teorema is schematic and empty. The maid Emilia (Laura Betti)'s first impulse upon meeting The Visitor is to lift her skirts in desire. The son (Andrés José Cruz Soublette) is drawn to touch him in the middle of the night. The daughter (Anne Wiazemsky) likewise sits with him for only a few moments before being moved to make love to him. The mother Lucia (Silvana Mangano) has only to observe The Visitor on the lawn, and she disrobes to await him anxiously. Although there is a bit of nudity on Stamp's part, the sex scenes cut away before anything exploitaive happens. Paolo, the businessman father (Massimo Girotti) is merely seen walking with The Visitor into a thicket, and we presume there's some kind of affair going on. None of the family members seems to care about, or even be aware of, The Visitor's relationship with anyone else.
Obviously Teorema is about miracles, because The Visitor's presence results (by our observation only) in Paolo being freed from a sickbed condition. The Visitor's presence awakens the sexual drive in all of these people as if putting the spirit of God into them; they're suddenly alive as they never were before. Almost immediately The Visitor takes his leave and doesn't come back.
But he has effects in the people left behind. The son becomes more forceful in his art, searching for impossible, inspired brushstrokes and a new kind of style all his own. The mother begins a strangely exhilarating and fulfilling series of pickups of cheap men she finds on the road. The maid goes to a grim rural town, sits on a bench and only allows herself to eat a certain weed. The amazed farmers watch as she cures a boy with sores on his face and then hovers high in the air holding the form of a cross. And the father sells his factory, throws off his clothes in the middle of a train station, and is then seen running screaming across a volcanic landscape.
I've left out a few details but the above is the sum total of what occurs in Teorema. The actors play everything in silence, with blank looks (Mangano) or uncomprehending stares. The miracle story of the maid Emilia is the most interesting, and Pasolini gets a powerful image or two out of it. Finding a film one does not understand can be a positive experience, but Teorema doesn't give us much reason to care. I certainly am not inspired to search for more meaning in the picture, as I might be with something like The Man Who Fell to Earth. I could have seen Teorema back in 1972, as it was recommended by friends who claimed it was a masterpiece. I don't know if I could have sat through it.
Koch Lorber's DVD of Teorema is given a good enhnced transfer. The misty light of the Milan locations creates many low-contrast scenes that are consistent in this visually-relaxed picture. Only the first mysterious wide shots of Paolo's factory have anything approaching an interesting 'look' in he usual sense. Ennio Morricone did the soundtrack, which is sparse and unmemorable.
Pasolini and Death: A Purely Intellectual Thriller is a long (53 minutes) inerview docu that follows a collaborator and friend of the late director as he talks seemingly forever about Pasolini. The docu is well-directed and edited but unnecessarily frustrating. Instead of being subtitled, the speaker is overdubbed in English by another actor. Everything the man says is a breathless, elliptical statement that never defines its terms. We wait for explanations about what Pasolini is doing or why they were so suited to one another, and they never come. We see evidence and testimony of a relationship between Pasolini and the singer Maria Callas, but learn absolutely nothing except that the speaker is deeply moved. This goes all the way to the end, at which point the film hints that (I'm forced to guess) Pasolini may have staged his own death as an ultimate artistic statement. It's impossible to tell what the filmmakers intended, except for us to be worshipful of this man about whom we've learned very little.
The deliberate obscurity of the extra docu feature does not put us in a mind to regard Teorema or any other communication-inhibited art picture in a sympathetic light. Perhaps I'll revisit the film if I find enlightenment somewhere else -- a book on Pasolini, perhaps -- but this presentation of Teorema is not conducive to the enjoyment of esoteric art films. If a telegram shows up reading, "Arriving," I'm going to arrange not to be here.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: ? I know I saw a movie there ...
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: investigative docu essay Pasolini and Death: A Purely Intellectual Thriller
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 26, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson