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the trilogy of life

By Jack Dorfman

On November 2nd, 1975, the gay catholic marxist filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini was brutally bludgeoned, burned, and beaten to death. Though the exact circumstances and motives regarding his death remain an enigma, it was likely a reaction of the decades of controversy and outrage he uncovered with his poetry, art, and most of all, films. Pasolini was consistently known for creating art that challenged and outraged society. It was almost always his dissatisfaction with contemporary society that fueled his desire to create such provocative art. His reaction to society mirrored society’s reaction to him: outrage, response, and sometimes change.

Pasolini’s unique intersectionality of identity was the driving force behind most of his art, from the moment he started writing poems at seven years old. One of his first influences was the poet Arthur Rimbaud, who had a controversial romantic relationship with another man. At such a young age, Pasolini wouldn’t have know the exact reasons why he was excited by the poet’s work, but in subsequent years the deep-seated fascination with sexuality and provocative material would manifest itself through his art. His life was saturated with controversy even before he was a renowned filmmaker, from being caught publicly masturbating with three sixteen year olds to being expelled from his own communist party. His first few films were no exception, as the provocative subject matter stemming from his unique, and somewhat contradictory intersectionality of identity. They incorporated elements of Christian scripture, critique of the bourgeoisie, and unconventional representations of sexuality. These elements culminated into his “Trilogy of Life,” a wondrously sexual interpretation of the ancient works The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. He selected specific tales from each anthology, most of them sexually explicit, and wove them into a cohesive trilogy that highlighted his frustrations with his own sexuality and the restraints of society. The trilogy is a notable departure from his earlier films, as he is trying, for once in his life, to be positive. Up until this point in his life, he had always been a staunch adversarial, constantly rejecting the popular norms of society in favor of his own contradictory views. Because of this, it was natural for him to be driven to critique society through his art. In the Trilogy of Life, his goal was to craft an alternate vision of these historical eras that would combine the the lower class of contemporary society with the abominable living conditions of the medieval period. Pasolini was no stranger to critiquing the upper and middle classes, but these themes were even more present in The Decameron. Even though the original text was set in Florence, he decided to change the location to Naples, a much closer representation of the lower class of contemporary society. This location change motivated his choice to reject the Tuscan dialect (the Italian national standard) use the Neapolitan dialect of Fruilian. Despite the choice being condemned upon initial release, this was a decision that had a massive impact on the perception and effect of the film. The Neapolitan dialect helped portray this society as a grimy, and dirty representation of the past (and, in turn, present society) that intentionally made people uncomfortable and come to terms with the similarities to present society. Much of Pasolini’s first poems were written in the Friulian dialect, a language he did not grow up speaking but learned in order to be able to write poems in it. This was representative of his hatred that one dialect (the Tuscan dialect of Florence, which was used in the original book of The Decameron) became the national standard, while pushing the colorful dialects of lower class people into obscurity. His knowledge and relationship with the underworld and lower classes was actually what got his filmmaking career started. He was hired to help write a script for Federico Fellini, as a reference for dialects and accuracy regarding the lower class. This fascination with the underrepresented groups of people and rejection of bourgeoise was an instrumental element of both his personality and art. He famously said that in a conflict between the police and university students rebelling and fighting against them, he would support the police from poor families rather than the spoiled students. This fascination with the bottom class also came through in the content of The Decameron, as none of the stories in it surround Kings, Queens, or royalty of any kind, which is usually what is first associated with this time period. This serves to reinterpret these ages rather than recreate them. While this might seem alienating at first, it actually lets these stories further resonate with the audience and forces them to come to terms with their own life in contemporary society. The entire trilogy represents somewhat of a departure from Pasolini’s earlier works, as it is notably more playful and optimistic than much of his films. This is representative of a time in his life where he is less dissatisfied with society, and has a more optimistic outlook. However, this was a very short-lived period in his life, as even with Arabian Nights he tends to be more cynical. He disowned the trilogy in 1975, and the overly optimistic tone (especially in The Decameron) was likely one of the reasons. This period of lightness ended abruptly after the trilogy, as he went on to make Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom after the Trilogy of Life, which is just as sexually explicit, but takes on a much darker tone, and remains one of the most personally disturbing films I’ve seen to this day. Though Pasolini’s retreat back to cynicism was motivated by various factors in his life, the degradation of his relationship with actor Ninetto Davoli had a detrimental effect on him. He met Ninetto when he was just fifteen years old, and quickly became his mentor, friend, and sexual partner. Their relationship lasted for several years and seven films, but deteriorated during the production of Arabian Nights. There is a visible change in tone regarding Ninetto’s role, as prior to this film (especially in the Trilogy of Life) Ninetto played naive, comical characters. However, after Davoli decided to leave Pasolini in order to marry someone else, Pasolini cast him in a way that departed from his previous works. He was still a comical and playful person in the film, but Pasolini places his sexuality on full display. This was the first time that Ninetto’s genitalia was displayed in full on screen. This might be because Pasolini had tried to keep Davoli to himself prior to this role, or that he wanted to expose him to the world as a response to their breakup, but either way it is a noticeably different treatment of the actor. Ninetto never acted in a Pasolini film again. Though the trilogy has a generally lighter tone overall, there is a palpable darkening of the tone in each subsequent film. The Decameron is by far the lightest, with The Canterbury Tales dealing with the subject matter in a more pessimistic way. The clearest example of this is the brutal torture and slaughtering of a man for being homosexual. This piece does not appear anywhere in the original literature, it is purely of Pasolini’s creation. While one man is saved from the same fate by bribing his way out of it, the other is condemned to be burned. Pasolini intends to highlight that the actual homosexual act is not what determines the fate, but how much money one has. This is reflective of his feelings towards how homosexuals were treated in society, and he hoped that by putting this in the film he could highlight the oppression and hostility that was (and still is) unnecessarily abundant in society. Despite Pasolini’s strong desire to express his frustrations with society’s treatment of sexuality, this did not always come through. Though Arabian Nights being very homoerotic, some critics have said that the final scene is actually harmful to representation of homosexuality on screen. Gay sex is portrayed as something to fear, as Zumurrud, the slave-turned king, tricks her lover, Nur-ed-din into thinking that the king will rape him. Though this could be interpreted that Pasolini is saying that homosexual sex is something to fear, I interpret it as a more symbolic representation of Pasolini’s recent breakup with Davoli. The initial separation between Zumurrud and Nur-e-Din somewhat parallels his relationship with Davoli, so the final scene represents more of what Pasolini wished for his relationship with Davoli than a literal representation of heterosexuality being more desirable than homosexuality.

While each film has narrative similarities, such as being in an anthology format and being based on ancient literature, there are distinct formal differences between the films that provide for a dynamic trilogy. The original book of The Decameron was based around a group of aristocrats who told ten stories each day for ten days. The first thing Pasolini did was discard this concept, instead deciding to center his film around his own two framing devices, the first being the tale of a dying priest interwoven with the other tales. This enhances the fluidity of the naturally episodic structure, making it more digestible as the stories are held together by a common thread. However, the second framing device Pasolini employs is much more interesting; he includes a painter who is recruited to make a painting at a monastery. He cast himself as the painter, making it impossible not to see this as a self-reflexive element. The construction of his painting parallels the construction of a film, as the extremely complex process of getting the painting finished (including scaffolding the paint and assembling a team to help produce it) directly compares to the process of making a film. Through this, he is trying to make it clear what he is doing with his film. The painting, a fresco, uses one canvas to tell a multitude of stories and perspectives. This is exactly what Pasolini is doing with his film, using cinema, which almost always adopts the perspective of a single character or story, to weave together various independant experiences to craft a version of the medieval world that feels full and real, enhancing his critique of society.

In The Canterbury Tales, Pasolini plays Chaucer, the author of the original works. This further serves as a self-reflexive metaphor in which Pasolini is the central storyteller. This highlights the fact that this is Pasolini’s interpretation of the tales, a distinctly separate version from Chaucer’s original vision. While the original Canterbury Tales were told for a 14th century audience, these tales are intended as a critique of contemporary society. This is specifically Pasolini’s vision of the tales, made clear by his rejection of the original framing device (a girl repeatedly telling fascinating stories in order to avoid her own prosecution) and using himself to tie the story together. The third film lacks an equivalent central storytelling figure, and instead focuses on one story that is interwoven with the others. Although not as obvious as in the first two, this is also a self-reflexive element of the film. While The Decameron deals with painting as a form of art and The Canterbury Tales deals with writing, Arabian Nights deals with oral storytelling. These similarities only become apparent when you view the films as an entire trilogy, and serve to examine the methods in which we tell stories. Pasolini was a proclaimed fan of all types of art, and these interests led him to include these elements in his films. He got his start in poetry and literature, and while he wasn’t much of a painter himself, he was an avid enthusiast of the painting world. Renaissance paintings in particular had a large influence on his work, especially in his compositions. He was known to place characters square and center in the frame, which was reminiscent of the flat, precise compositions of many renaissance paintings. This had a much larger influence on his process of filmmaking as a whole, as he approached his films as an artist or writer rather than a filmmaker. He was even said to have ignored film history in favor of techniques more similar to art. He constructed his scenes on a shot by shot basis, crafting each shot specifically for the edit. There was almost never a master shot of the scene, but since he was so specific about what he wanted, there was never a need to. This is what stylistically distinguishes Pasolini from other filmmakers, although the content of his films also distinguished him, especially with their unique combinations of reality and fantasy. The stories he told contained specific spectacular elements, such a slave tricking an entire society into making her the king. These coincidences and almost fantastical elements serve to shape a vision of the period that combines the present and the past. He shapes this alternate version of history through a variety of other techniques as well. He was well versed in Italian Neorealism, and implemented some of the tactics into the films. The dialogue isn’t exactly natural and free-flowing like much Neorealist films, but the organic, handheld camera movement and dirty, grimy, unpolished sets and characters highlight flaws in society. Many films (especially hollywood films of the era) used slick makeup, camera, and cinematography techniques to hide the ugly aspects of past societies in order to make them more accessible. If you compare any hollywood film set in ancient eras, such as Ben-Hur or Spartacus, it is obvious how much less polished, and therefore more realistic the worlds of Pasolini’s films feel. Personally, it has always bothered me how almost every film set in ancient eras have characters with absolute perfect teeth, shaved hair, and general attributes that would comply with contemporary beauty standards. Pasolini does not shy away from off-putting bodily features, from compositions that seems to put crooked, rotting teeth at the focal point of the frame, to the almost excessive inclusion of crude bodily functions. However, Pasolini does contrast this realism with painterly compositions, making use of vivid colors and some surrealist elements. This contributes to the fictional versions of this world, and can be seen most clearly in the final scene of The Canterbury Tales or when the characters float in Arabian Nights. Another important influence for Pasolini was the silent film era. He included many Chaplin-esque elements in the trilogy. The story with Andreuccio (played by Ninetto Davoli) in The Decameron is the most apparent example of this type of comedy. This added to the superficiality of the films, and in combination with the naturalistic dialogue it creates a somewhat disorienting, yet intriguing vision of the past. This fusion of realistic and artificial elements strive towards creating a world in which society had not corrupted sex beyond the point of recognition.

Just as society had greatly influenced the production of the Trilogy of Life, the trilogy would have a tremendous impact on society. The initial response was polarizing, as some some immediately recognized the artistic integrity of Pasolini’s works, while others were dismissive of the graphic content. In fact, there were a myriad of lawsuits against Pasolini following the release of The Decameron that claimed he had made pornography. In an era before the internet and widespread accessibility to pornographic content and the majority of film history had been constrained by strict sexual censorship, the public had likely never been exposed to such explicit content photographed before. Because of this initial shock, much of the public reaction was focused on that instead of the actual artistic content behind the seemingly pornographic material.  The entire trilogy spurred a flurry of imitation films that incorporated graphic sexual content but lacked any semblance of artistic integrity. Some films were even based on ancient literature as well, in an effort to disguise themselves as valid pieces of art. These were all serious blows to Pasolini, as the commercialization of sex was what he was trying to condemn in his films, yet the financial exploitation of sex actually increased as a result of the trilogy. This was in part the reason for Pasolini’s subsequent dismissal of the Trilogy of Life. He was infuriated that the studios had allowed both his films to be distributed and then also allowed lesser, more explicitly pornographic films to be shown at the same caliber. His films celebrated a fictional society of carefree and non commodified sex, which was directly undermined by the release of the barely disguised pornography that pretended to be associated with high-minded literature. He rejected his trilogy in a outspoken letter which condemned the misinterpretation and exploitation of his art. The rejection represented the end of the fleeting period in his life where he maintained a positive outlook on sex and society’s treatment of it. His next film, Salo, was the ultimate pessimistic look at these themes, an obvious representation of the frustration with the reception of the trilogy, which forced him to portray sex in a depraved, dehumanized way. It serves to provide similar critiques as the Trilogy of Life but since that didn’t resonate in the intended way, he wanted to force the themes upon the audience through a more upfront and disturbing vision of another alternative version of society. Salo was intended to be the first part of the “Trilogy of Death,” although he was assassinated before he could complete it.

Pasolini’s cinema, for the most part, can be described as poetic realism. Although his movies do contain some fantastical elements, most specifically the final scene in The Canterbury Tales, his films usually use realistic situations to highlight specific aspects of society. In The Decameron, there is a story where the gardener pretends to be mute in order to sleep with some nuns. This seems like a light-hearted comedy tale on the surface, but Pasolini is using specific elements and metaphors to make a pointed statement about how religion is unnecessarily repressive of sexual desires. Pasolini’s cinema also deals with themes of totality; how you can’t have happiness without suffering, divinity without blasphemy, or freedom without repression. This can be seen more when you look at his career as a whole, but it can still be found in the Trilogy of Life. While most of the trilogy portrays sex as careless and guilt-free, there are moments when the repression is shown unflinchingly, such as the burning of the homosexual in The Canterbury Tales. The combination of these elements serves to contrast the ideas of freedom and repression, making each one more effective. After being exposed to such inconsequential sex for most of the trilogy, the violent execution of the homosexual comes as a shock, forcing us to come to terms with the fact that we don’t live in Pasolini’s fantasy world filled with guilt-free sex. This can be found in his stylistic choices as well, as he combines naturalism with superficiality. This inclusion of all aspects of life in his art stemmed from a fundamental aspect of his personality that had been present since his childhood. In an interview, Pasolini talked about his complex relationship with his father. He expressed conflicting feelings about him, saying that he felt deep gratitude, yet also a tremendous hatred. This dynamic had a great impact on the rest of Pasolini’s life, as he said that this was the single most important and dramatic relationship of his life. The conflicting nature of his feelings towards his dad shaped not only his art, but his political views as well. He maintained what many considered to be a contradictory identity as a gay catholic marxist artist. This was a result of the importance of totality and inclusion of all ideas that had been implanted into his head as a child.

Pasolini’s story is somewhat of a tragic one. He was never a conformist, almost the exact opposite, which limited his ability to thrive within society. From the very beginning of his artistic career, his reputation was laden with controversy. I don’t think this is from him wanting to be determinedly adversarial, but something that happened as a result of him being constantly undermined by society as a whole. Just as society caused internal conflict and strife within his life, he caused outrage and controversy in society. In the end, he couldn’t outrun the disruption he had caused, leading to his eventual assassination. While to this day it is still shrouded in mystery, it has been connected to his final film, Salo, as some of the reels were stolen from him that night. It is interesting to imagine what his Trilogy of Death would have entailed, but no one will ever be able to decipher what exactly went on inside Pasolini’s incredibly unique mind. However, just as Pasolini couldn’t handle society, maybe society simply wasn’t ready for him. His movies were filled with progressive themes that still resonate today, and continue to promote conversation regarding sexual liberation and acceptance.

Works Cited

Maccabe, Colin. “The Past Is Present.” The Past Is Present, Criterion Collection, 2012.

Maccabe, Colin. “Sex and Death.” Sex and Death, 2012. Criterion Collection, 2012.


Maccabe, Colin. “Brave Old World.” Brave Old World, Criterion Collection, 2012.


Morricone, Ennio. Interview with composer Ennio Morricone. The Canterbury Tales. Criterion

Collection, 13 Nov. 2012.


Rayns, Tony. On “Arabian Nights”. Produced by Kim Hendrickson, Criterion Collection,

13 Nov. 2012.


Rohdie, Sam. Interview with film scholar Sam Rodie. The Canterbury Tales. Criterion

Collection, 13 Nov. 2012.


Rumble, Patrick. On “The Decameron”. Produced by Kim Hendrickson, Criterion Collection, 13 Nov. 2012.

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