May 12, 2014

Pasolini's Decameron: Nudity Alone

When I was studying  Italian literature at USC in the mid-1980s, I liked The Divine Comedy, Orlando Furioso, and the poetry of Michelangeo, but not Boccaccio's Decameron (c. 1350).

The frame story was morbid, uncomfortably reminiscent of AIDS: ten young aristocrats flee plague-ravaged Florence, seek refuge in a deserted villa, and pass the time by telling stories. As they're waiting to die.

And the stories themselves were dull, all about corrupt clerics and randy housewives. I didn't find any gay characters, and the professor, of course, didn't mention any.

When Piers Paolo Pasolini wrote and directed Il Decamerone (1971), the first of his famous Trilogy of Life (other installments include The Canterbury Tales and The Arabian Nights), he didn't include gay characters, except for one identified as "a bit queer." Nor any gay subtexts.  Most of the stories are about illicit heterosexual affairs:

1. A young man (Pasolini's boyfriend Ninetto Davoli, left)  is swindled by a woman who claims to be his sister, then forced to help rob a tomb.
2. The nuns at a convent force a young man to have sex with them, thinking that he's mute and won't be able to tell anyone.
3. A woman has sex with her lover while her husband is cleaning a large pot.
4. A dissolute man tells lies on his deathbed, and is revered as a saint.
5. A boy and a girl have sex, and their parents discover them and force them to marry.

6. A girl's brothers kill her lover, but she preserves his head in a pot of basil.
7. A priest finds a clever way to have sex with a woman in front of her husband.
8. A man is terrified of going to hell due to having sex with his wife (even marital relations were considered sinful during the Middle Ages).  But his dead friend tells him that no one in the afterlife cares who you have sex with.

The near-complete omission of same-sex behavior or romance is striking, when you consider that Pasolini was gay himself; his Canterbury Tales is full of same-sex behavior and romance, and his Arabian Nights contains frequent statements like "some people prefer boys, and others prefer girls."

Maybe he was afraid.  Gay characters and situations were very much taboo in 1971, and he had not included them in any significant way in his previous films.

There is, however, an emphasis on the male form, with lots of muscles and frontal nudity (mostly of amateurs, not of established actors Ninetto Davoli and Franco Citti).  Sex usually occurs between a fully-clothed woman and a naked man.  Pasolini gives us a gay male gaze, but closeted, hidden, available only to those in the know.

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