Trilogy of Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (6th September 2020).
The Film

"The Decameron" ("Il Decameron") (1971)

"The Canterbury Tales" ("I racconti di Canterbury") (1972)

"Arabian Nights" ("Il fiore delle mille e una notte") (1974)

By the time filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini started work on his "Trilogy of Life" in the early 1970s, he was already known as a controversial figure in the world of art. Challenging religion, politics, sex, and social conventions through his works as a writer in poetry, novels and his works in cinema, each work caused an uproar the censors, the churches, and the Italian government, though progressive artists, critics, and the international cinema circuit saw his works as art through acclaim. With the "Trilogy of Life", three adaptations of classics in literature were adapted - "The Decameron" by Giovanni Boccaccio, "The Canterbury Tales" by Geoffrey Chaucer, and "One Thousand and One Nights". The three were anthologies of stories from different cultures and different time periods. "The Decameron" was a collection of comical Italian stories, first published in the mid 1300s. "The Canterbury Tales" was a collection of stories told by pilgrims traveling to Canterbury, and first published in 1400 in an incomplete form due to Chaucer's death. A singular is not credited to "One Thousand and One Nights", as the many tales from hundreds of years ago compiled from generations in the middle east cannot be traced to a single source. From tales of magic and wizardry, stories of love and tragedy, and everything in between, the incredibly long list of stories included have been adapted countless times in cinema over the years.

In comparison to Pasolini's earlier works, the Trilogy of Life was on a much grander scale in scope but also smaller as it concentrated on short stories weaved together. Like his earlier films, he concentrated adapting the stories for the common people with stories about common people in various situations. As the number of stories within each, it would be impossible for each two hour film to include everything from the source materials. "The Decameron" has 100 short stories. "The Canterbury Tales" has over 24 short stories. "One Thousand and One Nights" could have 1,001 stories altogether, possibly more give or take. The tales from hundreds of years ago may seem distant for a cinema audience in the 1970s, but with the sexual liberation from the late 60s onward was a perfect opportunity for Pasolini to let loose with some of the more erotic tales from the stories onto film. The Trilogy of Life has a lot of sex and full nudity in all three films but the situations are not always sexually arousing. There are many played out for comical value, like an oblivious husband being cuckolded while he is cleaning a vase for his wife's lover in "The Decameron", or a young male admirer asking for a kiss from a girl he is in love with but instead getting a fart in his face in "The Canterbury Tales". There are also sexual situations that go against standard conventions. Gay sex while other men peek through the door, Christian nuns finding sexual pleasure from a supposedly mute gardener, a post-coital young couple seen by her parents who are more than happy since the boy comes from a well off family, etc. Though some may get off on seeing the copious nudity, the situations that surround the sex scenes from the awkwardness, the bizarreness, and also how questions arise from what conventional sex is are where the audiences should be looking at.

"The Decameron" has nine individual short stories with little linking between each. Some of the episodes are very comical, such as the first story with the luckless Andreuccio (played by Ninetto Davoli) falling into a pool of excrement and unwittingly becoming part of a grave robbery. One story features a young couple Elizabeth and Lorenzo (I cannot find names for the performers) who are in a relationship, but this causes jealousy from her brothers and ending with murder. There isn't a delicate balance between laughter and shock, as one sequence could bring in the humor while others could make audiences feel uneasy. Moral tales featuring absurdities in relations, cruelty between people, and human beings unable to grasp their actions and emotions fully, the stories have very few actual likable characters. But this is not a film to feel sympathy with the characters but seeing a world of the past from the outside while also looking within at the awkwardness of the human soul. Do all the stories work? Not particularly. Some of the comical moments can be cringeworthy and some of the non-professionals are not particularly convincing or interesting except for their unique looking faces. But like the original stories from which they were based on, they are fables for interpretation. The characters may be doing heinous acts and their behavior is very questionable. But have society and human emotions really changed over the few hundred years?

"The Canterbury Tales" has eight of the 24 short stories for the adaptation. Unlike the original story in which different pilgrims tell the stories to each other during their journey. Pasolini himself plays Chaucer writing the stories in between, though there isn't a direct connection with the stories or the storytelling aspect. Like "The Decameron" the stories have little if any overlap between each other, with differing characters and settings throughout. The stories contain many comical and absurd happenings between a variety of characters, and like "The Decameron", the moralities of the characters are challenged, yet laughed about, all culminating in one of the most obscene and surprisingly insane ending sequences in possibly all of cinema. Some great highlights include the happy go lucky Perkin (played by Ninetto Davoli) in a very Chaplin-esque role with even the bowler hat and physical comical movements, the adulterous affair between Alison (played by Jenny Runacre) and Nicholas (played by Dan Thomas) which results in few awkward situations. There is yet again debauchery, violence, sexual taboos, as well as stabs at social and economic inequality, and dark humor thrown about, and as mentioned the final sequence outdoes them all. An orgy in hell with Satan literally shitting out Corrupt friars, there is a large amount of nudity and graphic insanity that puts any other hell sequence to shame, and is also very colorful and brightly lit outdoors, rather than the usual image of flames and darkness. "The Canterbury Tales" may feel a little inconsistent at times and feels closer to a continuation of "The Decameron" rather than a standalone film.

"Arabian Nights" is quite different in tone in comparison to the previous two features. Rather than adapting a collection of stories from "One Thousand and One Nights", instead it actually has a beginning, middle, and end with consistent characters, with some additional stories weaved in. Nuredin (played by Franco Merli) is a young boy who is suddenly given a female African slave, Zummurud (played by Ines Pellegrini) as she requests him to be her master. The two are immediately fall in love through innocence, but through unfortunately circumstances she is kidnapped, leaving Nuredin alone on a quest to search for his true love. While this may be the main story, there are sequences with Zummurud reading tales to Nuredin, and other parallel stories of princes and princesses, love triangles, and even violent stories of vengeance including gory mutilation. "Arabian Nights" is the most conventional of the three films with a structure in storytelling. Thematically speaking, sexuality, dark humor, and freedom are all present here like the previous two films. Shot on location in Yemen, Iran, Eritrea, and Nepal, it is a gorgeous looking work with the exotic locations and beautiful landscapes.

The three films were sexually liberating for content on screen, showcasing worlds from distant pasts, yet parallel with the modern era, and all three were hits both critically and commercially around the world for places that were able to screen them. There were censorship issues in various places including in Pasolini's native Italy, and some places having small cuts made before the films could be screened. "The Decameron" won the Special Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival, "The Canterbury Tales" won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, and "Arabian Nights" won the Grand Prize of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival. The explicit content and acclaim certainly helped getting audiences in theaters, and it wasn't long until other Italian studios capitalized on the success, but also creating similar themed porno films, including the name "Decameron" or "Canterbury" in their titles, with little substance but including a lot of skin. Eventually Pasolini disowned the Trilogy of Life films as they inadvertently created a trashy subgenre that lowered the standards of filmmaking in his eyes. The effect eventually led Pasolini to go in a completely opposite direction for his next film "Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom", looking at sexuality and violence in the most sadistic and disturbing light and in turn becoming one of the most controversial works in all of cinema. Tragically Pasolini was murdered a few months after the film's release - a case that is still unsolved. He may have looked down at what his "Trilogy of Life" spawned, but he claimed to not regret creating the films and as critics and audiences have found, they have outlasted all of the copycat films in longevity, and are continued to be analyzed and studied decades later. They may have their imperfections, but that's just like life.

Note this Blu-ray set is region B only

Video

The BFI presents the Trilogy of Life films in the theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratios in 1080p AVC MPEG-4. The booklet notes that the transfers were supplied to the BFI in HD by MGM, the rightsholders of the United Artists catalog.

All three films have their positives and negatives. Colors and detail are very vivid in all three releases, from the greens of the landscapes to the tan desert sands, the visuals are very nice with a good amount of darkness and light in the color photography. Detail is also fairly sharp in either closeups or very wide long shots. As for the negative points, even with the films being restored there are a lot of damage seen throughout the films, whether they are speckles on the frame, tramlines, water damage, and other blemishes that appear in certain shots. They are not overly distracting, but will happen between certain cuts within scenes suddenly appearing weaker in comparison to the next shot. The opening credits of each film also have a bit of flickering throughout. Both the original Italian language credits and the English language credits are offered for all three films on this release. These are done through seamless branching with the credit sequences and other text, and languages cannot be switched during playback via the audio key for all three films. All three films are given a generous amount of more than 30GB per film on the three BD-50s.

The transfers of all three films seem to differ compared to the individual BFI Blu-rays from 2009. The colors are darker and have much more texture on the new release, with deeper hues and bolder solid colors. Framing seems to look basically identical for "The Decameron" and "The Canterbury Tales", though interestingly for "Arabian Nights" the image seems to be ever so slightly zoomed and cropped. These newer transfers seem to look almost identical to the Criterion Collection "Trilogy of Life" release from 2012. In the Criterion notes, "The Decameron" and "The Canterbury Tales" were remastered in 2K from 35mm interpositives while "Arabian Nights" was remastered in HD from a 35mm interpositive.

"The Decameron" has runtimes of 111:15 for both the Italian Version and the English Version.
"The Canterbury Tales" has runtimes of 111:19 for both the Italian Version and the English Version.
"Arabian Nights" has runtimes of 130:27 for both the Italian Version and the English Version.

Audio

Italian DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0
English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0

All three films feature lossless audio in both Italian and English languages. With all three films being shot silently and redubbed later, neither could really be considered "original" though Italian may be the most preferred as they were Italian productions. The music by Ennio Morricone on all three films sound excellent especially on the Italian tracks. Synchronization is fair to say pretty terrible on all three films, as actors were speaking in their native tongues, and with productions having Italian speakers, English speakers, Arabic speakers, and others in the same sequences but later dubbed over, there are very rare occasions that the lips would match up. "The Canterbury Tales" does work better in English for many sequences with the English actors but even for them they are not using the actor's original voices but voice dubbers in studios. At least with "The Canterbury Tales" the English dubbing is by British English speakers for some form of authenticity. "The Decameron" and "Arabian Nights" on the other hand use American English dubbing which sounds out of place.

In comparison, the Italian audio tracks sound much sharper and clearer in fidelity, with clear voices, well balanced music and effects, with little damage to be heard. The English tracks though, are weaker with a slightly muffled sound and flatter tone, though damage in the tracks are rarely heard.

All three films feature optional English and English HoH subtitles in a white font, with the standard English translating the Italian audio track and the HoH subtitles captioning the English audio track.

Extras

The three disc set has one film on each disc with extras spread out on all three discs.

DISC ONE

"Notes for an African Oresteia" 1970 documentary (73:39)
This documentary film shot by and narrated by Pasolini has the director's footage from travels around Africa where he was scouting for locations and compiling ideas to adapt the Greek tale of "Oresteia" into a modern setting. The film was never made, but this is a fascinating glimpse into what could have been, with Pasolini narrating his thoughts on how to adapt the story for the recently changing African continent through various independence movements. Not only is there footage of Pasolini's travels looking at various people and landscapes, there is also a fascinating discussion with university students about the project and also an avant garde jazz session.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.33:1, in Italian LPCM 1.0 with optional English subtitles

Original Trailer (2:29)
The original Italian trailer is presented here, showcasing the nudity, the violence, and the exotic appeals.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.85:1, in Italian LPCM 2.0 with optional English subtitles


DISC TWO

"Pasolini and the Italian Genre Film" documentary (36:33)
This 2009 documentary from Severin films looks at the influence Pasolini had on the erotic film genre in the 1970s in Italy, which was something he was not quite proud of. After the successes of "The Decameron", other Italian production companies made dozens of softcore erotic period pieces to cash in on the demand, even by including "Decameron" in the title to ride the coattails. There are interviews with various producers and directors of the films, film historians and authors and more, chronicling the influence the art films had on the trashier copycats.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in Italian Dolby Digital 2.0 with optional English subtitles

"Robin Askwith on Pier Paolo Pasolini" interview (23:14)
In this 2015 interview for the BFI, actor Robin Asquith recalls his relationship with Pasolini, being cast in "The Canterbury Tales". Askwith's story of meeting Pasolini for the first time is very hilarious, and some of the stories he lays out of the production are incredibly funny, though when he recalls about Pasolini's letters and his unfortunate death, tears well up during the interview.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.78:1, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 without subtitles

Original Trailer (4:47)
The original Italian trailer is presented here, looking fairly good, and focusing a lot on the comedy, especially the farting.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.85:1, in Italian LPCM 2.0 with optional English subtitles


DISC THREE

Deleted Scenes (21:11)
The original runtime of "Arabian Nights" was at 155 minutes for the Cannes premiere, with about 25 minutes removed for the general release. This deleted scenes reel has most of these sequences, such as scenes with Nuredin and his family, scenes with soldiers in the desert, and more. Unfortunately the sound has been lost and is presented without dialogue, with some Morricone music cues used on the audio track. On the US release, there is on screen text from the script notes, but unfortunately no subtitles are offered here so one must guess what the dialogue is.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.85:1, in LPCM 1.0 without subtitles

Original Trailer (2:38)
The original United Artists English trailer is presented. Though there are no sequences showcasing the English dub, rather focusing on the images and music. Colors are a bit darker and some damage can be seen in the image, and the audio is slightly crackly.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.85:1, in LPCM 2.0 without subtitlesIn th


Booklet
A 32 page booklet is included in the first pressing. First is the essay "Trilogy of Life" by late author and scholar Sam Rohdie covering the overall details of the three films. Next there are three separate essays on the three films in deail by critic Roger Clarke. Contemporary reviews of the film are also included - Nigel Andrews on "The Decameron" and "The Canterbury Tales", and Tony Rayns on "Arabian Nights", all from Monthly Film Bulletin. A biography of Pasolini by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith is next, and also included are film credits, stills, special features information, transfer information, and acknowledgements.


All the extras from the 2009 BFI individual releases are included on this reissue, and also adds the Askwith interview originally found on the 2015 Blu-ray of "Pasolini". The US boxset from The Criterion Collection has an entirely different set of extras, with various documentaries, interviews, visual essays, and more, with only some of the trailers being overlapping. Also note the Criterion only has the original Italian audio for "The Decameron" and "Arabian Nights" and without the option to hear the English. "The Canterbury Tales" has both Italian and English audio tracks.

Overall

Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Trilogy of Life" continues to fascinate critics and audiences after all these years with the unusual balance of bizarre characters, sexual freedom, absurd comedy, violent retaliation, all with a mirror being held back to the audiences. They may be graphic in content, but they are all a celebration of life, sex, death, and everything in between. This 2019 BFI reissue boxset presents improved though imperfect transfers of all three films, includes all the previous release's extras and adds one interview, and includes an informative booklet, making the set very recommended.

The Film: B- Video: B Audio: B Extras: B Overall: B

 


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