Pier Paolo Pasolini’s works have always been controversial and Teorema has proven to be no exception although anyone who has seen his other films namely Salo would have to agree that Teorema is one of his relatively more tame and restrained films. Nonetheless, it has the ability to elicit responses from its audience ranging from shock to plain bewilderment. The film proves to be elusive to one central interpretation but perhaps it was intended to be that way. In my personal opinion, the strongest reaction that the film can draw out from its viewers is bewilderment and discussing the film has proven to be a challenging task. As such, this entry will employ three general frameworks namely Freudian psychoanalysis, Marxist class analysis and religion, and post-modernism as guides in an attempt to provide a coherent discussion.
The plot is enough to attract an audience. A mysterious and nameless stranger, played by Terence Stamp, is welcomed as a visitor to a conventional and upper-class Milanese family which is comprised of a father, mother, son, and daughter. He proceeds to have sex with each member of the household including the servant Emilia. Given the plot, people are probably anticipating a salacious movie but they are in for a disappointment because the sex scenes are far from explicit although this did not stop charges of obscenity at the time the film was made in 1968. This is because sex is only a metaphorical tool used by Pasolini to bring about the main part of the film which holds the central theme. Though these sex scenes hold an integral role in what Pasolini wants to convey, it is the scenes that follow the departure of the Guest in the middle of the film that proves to be more crucial and more effective in drawing out stronger reactions like disbelief and bewilderment.
After their sexual encounters with the Guest, each member of the household is thrown from his/her comfort zone and copes with the void that the Guest left behind. The servant Emilia leaves the household and returns to her rural hometown, becomes a miracle worker and is soon sanctified by the villagers for performing these miracles. On the other hand, the family breaks apart and is plunged into making existential self-assessments. The timid daughter Odetta, falls into a catatonic state while her brother Pietro who is a painter, deviates from his usual repertoire and isolates himself from the family by making artworks no one is able to understand. Lucia, their mother proceeds to pick up young men who resemble the Guest and engages in sexual liaisons with them. Finally, Paolo, the family patriarch who is a factory owner, decides to strip himself of all his possessions and takes it to the highest level by giving his factory to his workers and by disrobing in a busy station before taking off to run about in the desert. These scenes appear to be the cathartic response of the family members after the Guest pulls them from their life of conventions, order, and worldly possessions.
Pasolini makes use of minimal dialogue lines. If it weren’t for the brilliant soundtrack of Ennio Morricone, one would’ve mistaken the movie to be a silent film. Each scene occurs with no warning as opposed to conventional films where the climax is a culmination of events that makes it predictable. This is what makes discerning the film challenging. Therefore, frameworks for understanding must be used. Before anything, Pasolini’s work is not complete without a Marxist analysis given his communist leaning and his outspoken criticisms of industrial societies and consumerism. Using Marxism and incorporating the concept of God, the film can be seen as a critique of a bourgeois society shaped by industrial values. Given that the basic unit of society is the family which Pasolini views as a bourgeois structure, an upper-class family in Milan, which is the industrial center of Italy, breaks down after the Guest’s appearance. The film heavily hints that the Guest is an allegorical reference to God which has shocked religious groups given the Guest’s sexual nature. Some have proposed that he is a devilish seducer who breaks down families although given Pasolini’s orientation towards the family, the first proposition seems more likely. In an interview, Pasolini reveals that it is not important to understand Teorema and that he leaves it to the audience to decide for themselves who the Guest might be. The important thing is that he is a sacred and supernatural being, not necessarily a Catholic God, but a god regardless of religion (Flatley par. 6). Using content analysis as a methodology, Pasolini’s interviews reveal that because of industrialization, the family members are now incapable of recognizing what is sacred in contrast to the servant who comes from a pre-industrial society and is able to fully absorb the capacity for working miracles (par. 9). It is apparent that Pasolini is partisan towards the servant because of her peasant background which he favors. On the other hand, a bourgeois structure like the family, who cannot recognize the sacred because of their consumerist tastes, conventional values, and preference for material gains, cannot resolve their predicament. My main critique of the film however, is that in his preference of Emilia’s peasant background, Pasolini is inadvertently romanticizing the peasant condition with its simple but superior lifestyle which is divorced from the true conditions in reality. Hunger continues to be a primordial problem and it is highly doubtful if this can be addressed by feeding on nettles like Emilia. It may also cultivate false hope among the working class by planting the notion that one only has to cling to the purely simple peasant lifestyle in order for miracles to occur. Epidemic health conditions continue to hound these poor communities and making them believe that divine miracles will be their panacea institutes learned helplessness and passivity. This contradicts the Marxist stand that religion is the opium of the people.
While a Marxist framework provides a structure of explanation for the film, it barely helps the audience in clarifying the actions of the family members after the Guest’s departure. Each character’s actions must be assessed as a function of his membership under the larger frame of society. This is where I would propose Freudian psychoanalysis to address the gaps left by the Marxist framework. Each character in the film is essentially experiencing repression before the Guest’s arrival. According to Freud, their id which adheres to the pleasure principle has been so repressed to give way to their superego which ensures compliance with the standards of society. Because of their ego’s inability to find a balance between the two, the characters fall into a state of psychosis. The use of repression in Teorema refers to a dual conceptual definition. It is political because it forcefully censors what has been considered unacceptable and psychological because it is a process in which unacceptable desires are excluded from the consciousness and left suppressed in the unconscious (Peterson 215). Emilia’s devotion to her religion has made her suppress carnal desires which she might have viewed as a cardinal sin but as implied by the first framework, she was able to overcome this conflict because her peasant background allows her to recognize what is sacred. The family members are not so fortunate. Odetta, who is hinted to harbour an Elektra complex towards her father, is able to divert these forbidden desires with the Guest. She becomes catatonic as she is reverted back to her former state of repressing this taboo. Meanwhile, Pietro repressed his homosexuality to avoid condemnation from his peers and a society which views it as a pathological condition. As a result, he has ensured through his postmodern artworks that he cannot be judged. Lucia repressed her sexual proclivity to maintain the image of a chaste bourgeois wife and to conform to expectations of a woman whose life revolves around her family. She then finds consolation by picking up random young men as she comes to terms with these desires. Finally, the father whose whole life is anchored on material goods and a conformist family life based on the societal measure of a man’s success, breaks down and strips himself of everything in the most literal sense in an attempt to find his true identity, free from the dictates of societal standards.
The last framework in the attempt to analyze the film is based on postmodernism. The film exhibits one of the most ambiguous features that a movie can have and this deviates from the modernist view where a central Truth, order, and unity are required. Through Pasolini’s deconstructionist style, he uses the film to challenge conventional notions of family life, economic prosperity, and life aspirations. Standards are now expunged and there are now no judgments to be meted out. Pasolini hints that the family members are better off leading a life faced with conflict and contradictions which is better than a life of alienation and false consciousness under the hegemonic worldview of seeing economic prosperity and family life as the ultimate aspiration and valuing conspicuous consumption. The title Teorema is apt for it refers to something that must be proven. As the central Truth of each family member collapses after the Guest’s appearance in their lives, they are compelled to engage in dialectics to overthow their former condition. The central Teorema has now collapsed and each member must find his own teorema.
Flatley, Guy. N.d. “Pier Paolo Pasolini - The Atheist Who was Obsessed with God.” Accessed on 15, September 2011. http://www.moviecrazed.com/outpast/pasolini.html
Peterson, Thomas. “The Allegory of Repression from Teorema to Salo,” Italica Vol. 73, No. 2, Summer 1996: 215-232
- Faysah Abdullah