Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Sexual Healing of Terry Stamp

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s controversial TEOREMA (1968) first came to home video on the Connoisseur label back in 1993, cropped, with a $79.95 price tag. Bear this in mind as you consider that Koch Lorber Films released it last week on DVD as a single disc priced at $29.98. It’s a little steep for a single disc, but we should not mind paying extra for the good things in life. The film’s audience is so marginal, especially in modern day America, that it’s worth the extra expense just to have it in a proper anamorphic presentation. When I first saw the film and reviewed it in Video Watchdog #18, page 26, it leaped immediately onto my list of favorite films, but I’ve never watched it a second time in all those years. I've prefered to savor the experience I had.

Watching the movie again, I find it still holds up, though I wasn’t as shaken by it as I was the first time. It's best when you're ravished by it the first time. If you’re unfamiliar with TEOREMA, it’s about the wealthy family of a Milanese industrialist (Massimo Girotti, married here to Silvana Mangano), who receives an unsigned telegram stating “Arriving Tomorrow.” Suddenly, a handsome and beatific Terence Stamp – identified only as “The Boy” – is among them, awakening feelings of passion in old and young alike. Everyone in the household is mysteriously touched and excited and fulfilled by his presence, even the maid (Laura Betti, who was kind of the Madonna of Italy in those days, won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the 1968 Venice Film Festival for her unglamorous performance). When he leaves, about halfway through the film, the maid returns to her hometown where she performs miracles and is found, at one point, levitating in rapture above a farmhouse. The fates awaiting the family she worked for are just as poignant and surprising.

TEOREMA was banned in Italy for being obscene, but there is no explicit frontal nudity or sex, and what innocuous nudity there is, is all male. I suppose the film was considered obscene because it is impossible to not see Stamp as a modern day Christ, and that the passions he excites are homosexual as well as heterosexual. Yet we never see this Holy Guest making love, only giving love – and the film’s second half rather clinically documents the sometimes dark paths people’s lives take when they feel deprived of, or energized by the grace of God. This theme of an outsider coming into a domestic situation and shaking it up, spiritually and sexually, occurs in a number of films by another of my favorite filmmakers, sexploitation director Joseph W. Sarno, reaching an apotheosis of sorts in his outstanding CONFESSIONS OF A YOUNG AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE (1976). I once asked Sarno about this, and he told me he'd never seen TEOREMA… in fact, the theme existed in Sarno’s work long before the Pasolini film was made.

Koch Lorber’s DVD is welcome, not least of all because it removes the time compression of the 94m 10s Connoisseur transfer and gives us the film at its correct 98m length and speed. On the negative side -- and this is considerable -- it suffers from overzealous digital noise reduction. Close-ups and less complicated medium shots look almost fully revitalized, but whenever the backgrounds introduce a lot of leafy trees, the haloing smears together into a vague and pasty mess; the narrow bars of a wrought iron gate or the pebbled path inside a courtyard yield all kinds of unwelcome moirés and rainbow effects. The average bit rate is 7.2, but it looks conspicuously worse on my 53" screen. I spot-checked the disc on my computer DVD drive and found that the smeary stuff looked merely soft-focused on a smaller monitor.

It should be mentioned that TEOREMA, like THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (and hundreds of other Italian films of the 1960s), was scored by the great Ennio Morricone. I suspect that Morricone and Pasolini were at odds, as (except for an Ornette Coleman-like main theme for jazz combo) the music is mostly heard in tinny snippets overheard on unseen radios. This is a movie that could have done without music.

The disc is filled-out with “Pasolini and Death: A Purely Intellectual Thriller,” a 53m interview with artist Giuseppe Zigaina, who worked as a technical consultant on TEOREMA. He doesn't discuss this collaboration; instead, Zigaina shares his theory – inspired by a complete rereading of Pasolini’s oeuvre – that the director’s violent 1975 murder was not unexpected but rather a work-for-hire that Pasolini felt was necessary to underscore his life’s work with meaning. For some reason, Koch Lorber have opted to overdub Zigaina rather than subtitle his conversation, which is a bit distracting. It’s a disturbing story nonetheless, and he presents a very convincing case. Engrossing material, but not the right chaser for TEOREMA.

So what are the right chasers for TEOREMA? Sitting under the stars, listening to jazz, running, cuddling, drinking, smoking, crying, praying, making love. All in all, a moving experience that not even an imperfect transfer can diminish. My rating: B

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