Film Review: ‘Theorem’

Rereleased in selected UK cinemas this week by the BFI ahead of the second half of their Pier Paolo Pasolini season, the Italian provocateur’s 1968 film Theorem (Teorema) sees British actor Terence Stamp (Billy Budd, The Limey) star as a divine young bachelor who enters the lives of a well-to-do Milanese household, only to suddenly leave them in complete disarray. Banned in its native Italy for its overt sexual nature – tame, of course, by today’s standards – Theorem remains one of Pasolini’s most satisfying works, thanks in no small part to a magnificent supporting cast, including a quite sublime Silvana Mangano.

Stamp’s enigmatic, nameless visitor wanders into this bourgeois homestead with little or no fanfare, before inadvertently seducing each and every member of the family (plus maid – Laura Betti) simply by being in their presence. The maid, after a passionate embrace, becomes a latter-day saint; the son Pietro (Andrés José Cruz Soublette) an artist; the mother Lucia (Mangano) a nymphomaniac; the daughter Odetta (Anne Wiazemsky) is rendered catatonic; and father, Paolo (Massimo Girotti), turns his back on not only capitalism, but contemporary society altogether. Each post-Stamp transformation reveals the sense of empty unfulfillment that had previously blighted the lives of these most privileged, yet passionless people.

Forming a loose trilogy of films concerned predominantly with familial sexual politics as allegory (see also 1967’s Oedipus Rex and 1969’s Pigsty), Theorem is arguably the most lucid and technically assured of the three. Beginning, as a handful of Pasolini’s films do, with several spatially-distinct sequences that eventually come into synchronisation with the central narrative, we gradually settle into a flowing cycle of inhibition-alteration-affirmation, as each individual breaks free from the bounds and constraints of domesticity. The son, Pietro, in particular is worthy of further analysis. His ode to Stamp’s liberator – “You made me different by taking me from the natural order of things” – is perhaps Pasolini’s clearest cinematic allusion to his own homosexuality.

Though arguably lacking the sheer apocalyptic ferocity of both Oedipus Rex and Pigsty (Porcille), Theorem endures to this day as an essential partner piece to the aforementioned pairing, whilst also lingering long within the mind as a striking piece of sixties political cinema in its own right. If his The Gospel According to Matthew – last month’s previous BFI theatrical rerelease – hinted at the purity to be found in devout religious practice, Pasolini’s Theorem expertly illustrates both the ecstasy of faith’s arrival, and the darkening void that engulfs the human soul upon its departure.

Daniel Green

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