Overwhelmed with a narcotic dreaminess and possessing a supernatural allure akin to its lead character and primary symbol, Teorema merges the secular and the divine, drawing parallels between the physical response to sexuality and the emotional depth of spiritual devotion. Through “The Visitor,” Italian poet Pier Paolo Pasolini personifies the transformative nature of religion, depicting faith as both inspiration and frustration.
Acting as a link to his early work as a Neorealist, Pasolini opens on a colorless, flat, industrial landscape. It’s the workplace of the impoverished, disenfranchised and forgotten Italian people. Standing in a non-descript lot, a well-dressed factory boss conducts a television interview, turning over his stake in the company to the workers that fabricate its product. One journalist opines that this may lead to a “transformation of all mankind into a middle class.” It’s a striking thought, but the moment passes, whisked away in a quick edit to fog rolling over a barren desert.
This sneaky cut is the first instance of visual symbolism or, more accurately, the conversation Pasolini intends to conduct for the next 95 minutes. His mission is to engage his audience in the mystery of the narrative, knowing that the use of cinematic syntax will provoke a response. This revelatory moment compares the birth of a unified middle class to a sun-scorched landscape, completely drained of life, metaphorically linking corporate progress to passivity. This contentment will sap the worker of the drive to subvert, fight, be inspired and even create.
Pasolini brings the sterility of the desert to the city, landing on a Milanese street draped only in bleak, sepia-tone photography and carrying dreary echoes and moans regurgitated from mouths and mufflers over the soundtrack. Five humans wander through daily activities joylessly, only converging for an evening meal that feels machinated, as if it were enforced. They have no defining qualities except for the roles given to them by Pasolini: father, mother, son, daughter and servant.
Change rushes in without warning. The family has welcomed a guest (Terence Stamp), and with him come brilliant bursts of color, from the yellow cover of his book to the earthy hue of his khakis. The servant (Laura Betti) observes him from a far, unable to stop herself from focusing on the prominent bulge between his legs. She musters the courage to approach, sheepishly wiping ash away from his pant leg before scurrying off like a field mouse.
Stopping to reflect in the mirror, the servant is overwhelmed with guilt for her open display of sexual desire, slowly fingering for the religious images adorning the mirror’s frame, quietly asking for forgiveness. In a moment of insanity, she removes the hose from the stove and prepares to asphyxiate herself, only to be saved by our nameless object of affection, whose angelic face and piercing blue eyes relieve her of all inhibition. Freed of her self-consciousness, she voluntarily lifts her skirt and succumbs to his will.
Her fellow housemates also bare their souls and bodies to “The Visitor,” basking in his grace and figuratively stripping themselves of all allegiance to class and culture. These passionate moments share a striking similarity, structured like the movements of a symphony, opening with guilt and reluctance and building to a crescendo of acceptance and elation. Each encounter differs only in the resulting emotional response, brought on by “His” swift and unexpected departure. Those left behind struggle, channeling this frustration into miraculous acts or uninhibited hysteria, permanently out-of-step with the superficiality of the secular world.
Through the tangibility of sexual intercourse, Pasolini explains the abstractness of faith, comparing life experience, outside of the shell of the middle class, to an epiphany. Audiences screamed blasphemy in 1968, but none of his detractors ever seemed to grasp that his vehemence wasn’t directed at religion, but at the wealthy and politically powerful. Teorema was meant as an affront to the growing capitalist mentality in Rome and Milan, preferring intangible beauty and liberation over rationality and the banality of social status. Never has a rallying cry been so exquisite or metamorphic, possessing images as rich as an oil painting and enduring as Christian iconography.
Teorema (Koch-Lorber Films, 1968)
Written and Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini
Photographed by Giuseppe Ruzzolini