The Canterbury Tales: Sex and Death

The final shot of The Canterbury Tales (1972) shows us the director Pier Paolo Pasolini, in the role of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, writing his closing comment on the stories we have just seen. The careful script slowly spells it out: “Here end the Canterbury tales, told only for the pleasure of telling them.” Following the success of The Decameron (1971), Pasolini had moved from Italy to England to shoot the work of an author as significant in the development of English as Boccaccio was for Italian. Pasolini’s attempt to go back to the beginning of the modern, to the beginning of capitalism, to the beginning of national languages, now changes geographical gears. This was also the time of Jean-Luc Godard’s Dziga Vertov Group and of a host of other politically committed filmmakers. Pasolini had been one of the most articulate contributors to those debates in the sixties and had made a series of explicitly political films. The final words of The Canterbury Tales, which justify the film simply in terms of the pleasures of narration, are a provocative rejection of the political discourse that he had done so much to promote.

However, the film is not, as it might seem, some apolitical soft porn, although that was indeed how it was received by both many leftist critics and at least a portion of its enthusiastic public. Pasolini’s dream was of a world in which sex had not been corrupted by the pursuit of profit. He created his dream by fusing elements of the present and the past into a genuine vision. But the emphasis in The Canterbury Tales is less on the simple pleasures of the flesh than on its pains, particularly the final pain of death. A striking addition to Chaucer’s text comes toward the beginning of the film, when a man is burned to death for the sin of sodomy. This sequence has no parallel in the source material; it’s of Pasolini’s making, and all the darker for its relation to his own homosexuality. The grisly, realistic scene, which looks forward to the horrors of Salò (1975), creates a much blacker tone than is to be found in The Decameron. Indeed, its horror is accentuated by the fact that we know that the sin for which the screaming man is being burned is not the sin of sodomy but of poverty—unlike his fellow sinner, he does not have enough money to buy off the power of the church.

Pasolini ascribed this darkness of tone both to his own personal unhappiness while he was shooting the film and to Chaucer’s text itself. For Pasolini, Chaucer had a darker view of life because of the grayness of the Northern European climate, while sunlit Tuscany allowed Boccaccio his brighter outlook. Certainly, the gray and overcast skies of England are an essential part of the film. However, it must also be said that this is a much more faithful adaptation than its predecessor in Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life, and that the fusion between the past world of Boccaccio’s Florence and the contemporary shantytowns of Naples has no such powerful parallel here.

The fluidity of The Decameron is replaced with a more conventional structure that faithfully replicates Chaucer’s framing device. We are first presented to the pilgrims before we plunge into the episodic narration, and we return to them sporadically throughout the story. What this work shares with the prior film is the reduction of the social range of the source text, so that the emphasis is on the deeds of millers and students, not kings and queens. The closest we get to nobility is in the opening “The Merchant’s Tale,” and even that makes no real play on social hierarchy. This emphasis on a “universal popular,” independent of time and place, finds its most important stylistic element in slapstick. The Canterbury Tales is in constant dialogue with the comic films of the silent era, most notably in “The Cook’s Tale,” a fragment in Chaucer’s original text but expanded here into a whole narrative in which Pasolini regular (and companion until this film) Ninetto Davoli appears in the figure of Charlie Chaplin, complete with hat and cane.

While The Decameron is offered as a painting, with Pasolini taking the role of “Giotto’s best pupil,” The Canterbury Tales is presented as a written film, with Pasolini as Chaucer, starting his book on the road but finishing it in his study. Pasolini’s deliberate refusal to attempt a representation of the medieval world is most clearly signaled by this writing. In the first story, for instance, a young squire sits down to start a letter to the newlywed woman he loves. Chaucer does not give us the exact words, but Pasolini slowly writes them out on the screen: “Dir May, I luv yoo with all my hart and if yoo dont make luv to me I shall die,” goes his English-language version. This is complete cod Middle English, with yoo, hart, and luv particularly flagrant errors. But this simply emphasizes that Pasolini is not aiming for an accurate representation of the time but a modern re-creation of its spirit—an intention also revealed in the extraordinary range of folk songs, from throughout the ages, that he deploys on the soundtrack. This fusion of past and present is foregrounded in The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales by the mixing of cinema with the older arts of painting and writing.

Nowhere is the contemporary aspect of these medieval tales more evident than in the treatment of the human body. Pasolini uses male genitals and female pubic hair with a freedom that had never been seen in legal cinema. This led to numerous court battles that were part of a general movement that saw much greater license given to the cinema than it had ever before enjoyed. Part of Pasolini’s ultimate disillusionment with his trilogy was that the films immediately inspired a slew of soft-porn imitations, as commercial filmmakers cashed in on his bravery. It is important to remember today, when there is very little censorship of explicit sex and pornography is widely available, that nudity and the depiction of sex were an integral part of European art cinema in the fifties and sixties. The relaxation of sexual censorship in the midseventies was one of the major factors in the demise of a separate art cinema distribution circuit. The Canterbury Tales is one of the last films to cross explicit sex with an explicit aesthetic vision.

It is conventional to consider The Canterbury Tales the weakest part of Trilogy of Life. Critics have complained that it lacks the ebullience of The Decameron and the later Arabian Nights (1974). However, if one understands that this is the piece of the trilogy that deals most directly with death, then it is not surprising that it strikes a more somber note. Pasolini’s second major addition to Chaucer’s source text, ending “The Summoner’s Tale” and the film with a visit to a hell full of devils farting friars out of their nether parts, certainly points to this, as well as to the film’s dark humor. But if the vision is more despairing, it is just as powerful as the brighter vistas of the films that precede and follow it. Nowhere is the genius of Pasolini’s trilogy more evident, for example, than in “The Pardoner’s Tale,” where the encounter between the old man who cannot die and the three murderous youths about to meet their deaths achieves a force more than equal to the famous original.

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