Satirizing the church with ribald adaptations of ten stories from Bocaccio, Pier Paolo Pasolini's lively and entertaining Il Decameron depicts 14th century Naples life. The middle of an unofficial trilogy of erotic medieval literary adaptations that include The Arabian Nights and The Canterbury Tales, this film has been debunked by the church for its profaneness. Pasolini's nihilistic vision didn't sit well with church officials that had previously praised his faithful rendering of Christ in his 1964 film.
Two brothers make a pact to come back and inform the other what the afterlife is like, so when the womanizing brother dies first and informs the pious brother that sex isn't considered a mortal sin, the surviving brother tosses his rosary beads aside and gleefully jumps on a willing woman. Such is the spirit of this down to earth film, that isn't as much a period piece as it is a commentary on the modern human condition.
The first images show Ciappelletto (Franco Citti, who had debuted as the lead in Accattone) clubbing someone to death and carrying his covered body through a series of nicely framed arches. It turns out that the local usurers engage his services to collect debts and literally dispose of deadbeats. Ironically, when the guilt ridden Ciappelletto suffers a terminal illness, the high priest is summoned to give the last rites and hear his final confession. Unable to recount any sin greater than spitting in the church, the priest ironically declares the dying Ciappelletto a saint while the usurers continue on with their dark ways. Such is the folly of humanity.
A convent should be a place of righteousness and refuge for spirituality. However, when a young man poses as a deaf-mute to gain employment as the convent gardener, soon the curious women want to know if the rumors of sexual ecstasy are true. The poor man finds that servicing ten sex-starved nuns daily is more than he can handle. Pasolini also satirizes hypocritical priests to show that they are just as fallible and human as the ordinary man—;an imaginative priest attempts to seduce his friend's wife right before his very eyes with a false tale of magic.
Pasolini's Marxist inclinations also come into play where he differentiates class differences between two young couples that engage in illicit sex, which by law and tradition can result in a death sentence. When Caterina's middle class father catches his naked daughter on the terrace with wealthy lover Ricciardo, he insists on marriage. On the other hand, when Elisabetta's merchant class brothers discover that she's fooling around with servant Lorenzo, they kill him. Various other tales of cuckoldry and swindling are unveiled during the 112 minute film.
Perhaps closest to Pasolini's heart is the vignette about the muralist, who must wait to be inspired before applying his art to the church wall. When this occurs, he works in a frenzied state, imploring his team of workers to follow suit. At the end, he realizes that the creative process is the most rewarding and wonders if his efforts will have lasting effects. As with much of his work, this simple tale illustrates both Pasolini's attraction towards the world's beauty while simultaneously echoing his despair and disappointment.
Initially rated X in the United States before being re-rated R more recently, Il Decameron is more accessible than most of Pasolini's other works. The disjointedness of the story lines becomes irrelevant, as it's easy to adjust to the conceit and follow the well paced narratives. It contains many scenes with bawdy humor that won't appeal to all audiences, but it stands as a down to earth indictment of human folly well worth checking out.