However disposable our current trends are, there’s still a desperate need to classify what digital culture means to us. Trolling, outrage on social media, hacktivism – is it just iconoclasm writ large across the web? Some argue that these actions represent the mutilation of community, the loss of social value, worth and privacy. If so, we haven’t travelled far from a 1960s culture which wrestled with the emptiness of bourgeois living. So we revisit 1968: stumbling towards the end of a tumultuous decade which united the student population and liberated many attitudes towards sex, politics and money.
All across Italy (and indeed much of the West), undergraduates rioted against police, supported by the convictions of left-wing organisations. But Pier Paolo Pasolini, openly an anti-consumerist along with communist comrades, opposed the students, arguing that policemen were the real proletariat. The same year, Pasolini delivered his sixth feature film, Theorem (Teorema, 1968), which opened at the Venice Film Festival amidst a still-scorching political climate.
In Theorem, Pasolini tells of a pan-sexual stranger (Terence Stamp) who visits a wealthy Milanese family and seduces them all: mother (Silvana Mangano), father (Massimo Girotti), son (Andrés José Cruz Soublette), daughter (Godard favourite Anne Wiazemsky) and maid (Laura Betti). When he suddenly leaves, the family are led towards self-destruction and insanity as they fail to recover their reason for living, something they felt their visitor had given them. As one would expect with such a peculiar plot, Pasolini’s film is deliberate and poetic, recalling the slight obscurity of Fellini and Rossellini. Stamp’s character arrives unannounced and without explanation, and there’s very little dialogue in the film.
When Stamp’s stranger leaves, the family can’t cope with the overriding sense of worthlessness: the mother becomes promiscuous, the daughter falls into a state of shock, the boy becomes a tortured artist and the father seeks embarrassment, pain and ultimately purification. With this, Pasolini drives at the idea that it’s impossible to protect the concept of sacredness. The bourgeois life has dismembered it in favour of consumerism and only divinity can restore it. Another reason Stamp’s wanderer is androgynous is to convey this sense of spirituality and mysticism: his very presence is the energy that will save the elite.
It’s a masterful balance of religion and politics, attributing the loss of one with the collapse of the other. These ideas remain as trenchant today as they did in the 1960s – maybe even more so. Certain aspects of the film itself have aged poorly, such as the use of montage which now comes across as a little tacky and obvious. The shock value has also faded, but still holds on to strong notions of moral identity and how it has been obliterated. Almost joyously, Theorem remembers an age in which it was good to be political, to have ideals, whereas today we’re punished for even naming an ideology. For this, it embodies the political heartbeat of the spiritual Left.