Il Decameron

Il Decameron

Pasolini’s obsession was with finding a world outside of all the commodifications of capitalism, including, prominently, the bodily. By grafting the marginal modern (the Italian lumpen poor, the third world) onto medieval texts, Pasolini hoped to fashion an alternative to a present that he found ever more repellent. His first source text was The Decameron, in which ten young aristocrats flee plague-ridden Florence for the countryside. To pass the time, they tell ten stories each day for ten days – a hundred stories in all. The book, written in the 1350s, in the then still despised vulgar tongue of Italian rather than the culturally approved Latin, is one of the founding texts of modern Europe. Pasolini makes very short shrift of it. First, he completely abandons the framing device, placing us instead in a fluid world in which one story runs into another, sometimes interrupted by set pieces, sometimes continuously. The film nevertheless divides formally into two. We start with the opening tale of The Decameron, the account of a wicked man, Ciappelletto, who on his deathbed convinces a priest that he is a saint. This story is not, as in the Boccaccio, a discrete unit but has woven into it other stories from the book, two of which are exceptionally explicit: that of Masetto and the nuns, wherein a man pretends to be a deaf-mute in order to gain entrance to a convent, and the story of Peronella, who persuades her husband to get into a huge jar so that she can continue the lovemaking that his early return home has interrupted. After the death of Ciappelletto, the film shifts to Pasolini, who appears as a painter, ‘Giotto’s best pupil,’ traveling south to undertake a commission at a monastery. It is the painting of this fresco that becomes the intermittent commentary on the final stories, making up the second part of the film. The elaborate technical challenges of the fresco, in terms of both scaffolding and paint, and the team that the artist assembles produce within the medieval world of the film a clear analogy with a movie set. Pasolini’s identification with Giotto locates the film’s ‘medievalism’ at the level of form as well as content. Giotto painted just before perspective was mathematized, and for him perspective was one option among others. Pasolini is attempting to use a technology dominated by perspective (the cinema) to produce a montage of different views and perspectives. The film we are watching is a fresco. The Decameron is the first of Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life films. It summons forth a world in which bourgeois hypocrisy and capitalist exploitation have no place. It is, as Pasolini, in the role of Giotto’s pupil, muses in the last shot of the film, an attempt to render a dream.

Colin MacCabe1


“But, how should we read sex [...] in Pasolini’s trilogy? Or rather, how are we to understand the allegory of sex in Pasolini’s films in relation to consumerism?

‘I consider consumerism a worse fascism than the classical one, because clerical-fascism did not transform Italians. It did not get into them. It was totalitarian but not totalizing. I’ll give you an example: fascism has tried for twenty years to eliminate dialects and it didn’t succeed. Consumerism, which, on the contrary, pretends to be safeguarding dialects, is destroying them.’

For Pasolini, sex is always an allegory of commodification, of bodies, of languages, of resistance, and so on.”

Agon Hamza2

  • 1Colin MacCabe, “The Decameron: The Past Is Present,” The Criterion Collection, 13 November 2012.
  • 2Agon Hamza, Althusser and Pasolini. Philosophy, Marxism, and Film (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 155.
UPDATED ON 27.06.2018