Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema concerns the unexplained arrival of a mystical visitor (played by Terence Stamp) to an Italian bourgeois household. The visitor seduces and romances each member of the family (the father, mother, brother, sister and maid), and in doing so, reveals the superficial comfort of their lives for what it is: a spiritual, sexual and emotional emptiness. Following the visitor’s departure, each household member experiences a personal crisis leading to a renunciation of their previous lives.
How we are to interpret the visitor and his mysterious abilities remains unclear. Perhaps he is an immanent form of the divine, a kind of moral interventionist or a synecdoche for the Proletariat. Likewise, the film contains a bizarre mix of Marxist, Freudian and Christian symbolism but it’s this sense of mystique that also provides the work with its greatest strength. As legendary film critic Roger Ebert put it, the film “is perversely difficult… it has the power at some subterranean level to remain in your memory long after you think you’ve dismissed it.”
Teorema is streaming on the BFI Player.
Teorema by Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968
Faced with a decision between your life and betraying the cause to which you and your comrades have dedicated yourself to, which would you choose? This is one of the many questions Larisa Shepitko poses in her Golden Bear-winning, The Ascent, which follows two Soviet partisans as they trail across Nazi-occupied Byelorussia in search of food, a search which soon becomes one for their souls and their divine purpose in a depraved world.
Shepitko doesn’t shy away from the biblical nature of the partisans’ quest, invoking Christ-like imagery that indicates her own personal search for the transcendent during the gruelling shoot in the snowy, sub-zero fields of Russia. Featuring an outstanding performance from Anatoly Solonitsyn (Andrei Tarkovsky’s favourite actor), Shepitko’s final film before her tragic death bears witness to the becoming of a truly great artist.
The Ascent is streaming on the Criterion Collection.
The Ascent by Larisa Shepitko, 1977
Day of Wrath opens with an auditory assault. A thunderous rendition of Dies Irae (a Gregorian monk chant often sung at funerals, translated into ‘day of wrath’) plays over a scrolling manuscript shadowed by the cross. From this moment on, death pervades this 17th-century tale of a young woman caught between accusations of witchcraft. Every frame exudes deathliness. Death that has been, death that is to come and death that is happening on-screen. Day of Wrath is a weight on one’s soul that never lifts even after it fades to black.
Often underplayed as an allegory for Nazi persecution, Day of Wrath offers far more than a simplistic moral critique. It explores the psychological degradation of those living under an oppressive social, religious and economic regime. Its director, Carl Theodor Dreyer, is perhaps known for the silent classic La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc. Yet Day of Wrath displays the same humanity, affecting images and masterful camera work as Jeanne d’Arc and the rest of Dreyer’s oeuvre.
Day of Wrath is streaming on the BFI Player.
Day of Wrath by Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1943