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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Why bother finishing a work of art, when it's better just to dream about it?", 9 Feb 2010
This review is from: The Decameron [DVD] [1970] (DVD)
Pasolini's movie presents ten stories from Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron. It's filmed in the old town of Amalfi, all crumbling buildings and lush green fields, which stands in for medieval Naples.

Boccaccio's Decameron consists of a hundred stories - ten stories a day, told by ten young Florentines over the course of ten days. Pasolini, with one or two exceptions, concentrates on their Neapolitan stories, and when the stories aren't set in Naples (most notably with the tale of Ciappelletto) he just uproots them and plants them there.

The movie itself begins with a murder - a young man is beating someone to death. The victim is screaming for his life from inside a sealed sack. The killer finishes him off with a big rock, carries the sack to the edge of a cliff, throws it off, and spits with contempt. Life can be short and death can be brutal. We later learn that the killer is Ciappelletto, from the opening story of Boccaccio's Decameron. (And there's an awful premonition of Pasolini's own death here, since he was murdered at the age of 53, probably in a contract killing, which seems to be pretty much what the soon-to-be-saintly Ciappelletto is carrying out here.)

The film then covers the following tales: II v; IX ii; III i; VII ii, I i, and then there's an interval. In the second half, Pasolini creates his own story, casting himself as a pupil of Don Giotto (who appears in Boccaccio's VI v), and Pasolini's invented story weaves together the remaining five tales: VI v; V iv; IV v; IX x and III x.

The Boccaccio story has Don Giotto as the greatest living artist, but Pasolini rewrites the character that he himself plays, so that he's playing not Don Giotto but the Giotto's unnamed student. But the point of Boccaccio's story remains: supposedly great artists can be caught in the rain and splattered with mud just like the rest of us. Pasolini gives the movie's final line to himself as "Don Giotto's student": "Why bother finishing a work of art when it's more fun just to dream about it?" And Pasolini's fictional addition to Boccaccio - in one of the most striking images in the film - presents a story in which the artist's dream of a painting turns out to be much more beautiful and dynamic than the painting itself, even though the public might be quite satisfied simply with the painting.

Aside from that, Pasolini tinkers about with Boccaccio's stories in ways that don't always come off. Ciappelletto, for example, in the original, is definitely short, malevolent and quite elderly - he falls sick in Burgundy and makes a false deathbed confession which results in his being venerated as a saint. Pasolini's Ciappelletto is not a Florentine in France, but a Neapolitan in Germany. Maybe there are good 1970s reasons for replacing 14th century Florence with 20th century Naples (Camorra instead of Guelphs and Ghibellines) and France's medieval military alliances with more recent Italian ones with Germany, but these allusions aren't really chased up. Also, Franco Citta's character is normal height, mid-thirties and nice-looking. It's hard to make out why he dies (it's after a long illness in the original, but he just inexplicably collapses after a cheerful meal here). Also, because his episode is so far removed from the movie's introductory murder, it's hard to associate him with the evil killer we saw at the start.

Pasolini shies away from some of the gorier bits of Boccaccio, whether for reasons of good taste or low budget I'm not sure. In the opening scene (based on II v), for example, Andreuccio exclaims, "How ugly you are!" to the corpse of the bishop (although the poor man doesn't look ugly at all) whereas in the original, the corpse is crawling with maggots, which spill onto Andreuccio when he faints and collapses alongside the dead man. Similarly, the famously severed head in the honour killing (adapted from IV v) is suggested rather than shown explicitly, while in the original, the stages of decomposition of the dead man's head form part of the narrative.

There are other slight changes of emphasis. For example, when the old storyteller tells the tale of IX ii in Neapolitan dialect towards the beginning of the film, the punchline is that all the nuns in the convent end up with lovers, which leads nicely into III i (because that's what happens in that story) but it's quite different from the original of IX ii. In that convent, although the Abbess and Sister Isabetta end up with regular visits from their lovers, Boccaccio tells us that the other nuns "consoled themselves in secret as best they could." Conversely, in Pasolini's version of III x, which closes the movie, the "sin which is not regarded as a sin in heaven" is frequent love-making - whereas in Boccaccio, frequent love-making is pretty much taken for granted, and the sin that heaven takes no interest in is that of making love to the mother of your own godchild.

Pasolini's movie is good fun, beautifully shot, and even the dentistry looks medieval. But there's a lot more fun to be had from going back to the original. For anyone who'd like to find earthier and gutsier versions of these tales, G H McWilliam's excellent translation, published as a Penguin Classic, is well worth getting hold of.
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T. Allen
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Location: Liverpool

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