The Canterbury Tales (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1972)
Italian Title: I Racconti di Canterbury
The Canterbury Tales, Pier Paolo Pasolini's middle entry to his Trilogy of Life (also consisting of cinematic adaptations of The Decameron (1971) and Arabian Nights (1974)) won the Golden Bear, the top prize in the prestigious Berlin Film Festival. Obviously, it is an adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer's beloved collection of tales as told by different travelers who are in a pilgrimege to the English town of Canterbury. Chaucer's work is supposedly telling of morality in both serious and humorous ways, but Pasolini decides to withdraw from Christian morality and use the tales as fervent attacks on religious institutions. Pasolini's The Canterbury Tales may very well be deemed blasphemous as religious symbols are pitted against acts of amorality, where holy men are shown as greedy, where the only language understood is that of sexual appetite and avarice. Yet, despite Pasolini's strategy of overblowing the more libidous aspects of Chaucer's tale, the adaptation remains to be faithful, which is quite a feat.
The Canterbury Tales may be the most pedestrian of Pasolini's films. Humor is mostly achieved through unsavory methods, and Pasolini does not shy away in graphically detailing his comedy. We are forced witnesses of several pissing, farting, adulterous sexual acts, and much much more. Yet, despite Pasolini's questionable methods, the film still feels grounded and does not let its boisterous values to drown its storytelling roots. Moreover, the film does give a certain notion that Hollywood does not have a patent as to making use of farts, piss, and other bathroom matters as sources for cinematic humor, Pasolini was way ahead, and did it much better.
What The Canterbury Tales lacks is a form or structure. Although Pasolini tries to provide for a logical continuation of the tales, by beginning the film with a tavern encounter, and showing little glimpses of Geoffrey Chaucer (played by Pasolini) working on the compilation, most of the tales are randomly stringed together without a clue or a guess how they are supposedly linked. It's probably Pasolini making use of the literary source's given popularity that he decided to forgo of formalities and just see the tales cinematically told in whatever manner. The randomness somewhat works, but Pasolini showed how good a storyteller he can be with Arabian Nights were the tales flawlessly spring forth like infants from other tales. Here, the storytelling is erstwhile interesting, but mostly dull.
While the film as a whole is good, the parts are of various quality. "The Cook's Tale" turns into an annoying Chaplinesque slapstick comedy with one of Pasolini's frequent actor prancing around town with a bowler's hat and a stick, inviting trouble all around, and ending his fate while atrociously chanting in a very annoying manner. "The Miller's Tale" is deliriously obscene. The last tale is visually and nightmarishly inventive, with friars being farted out of Satan's red buttocks in outright comedic fashion.
The Canterbury Tales is one of those films you'd either love or hate. I'm one of those who thought that it's brave filmmaking, that Pasolini's irreverent rendition of Chaucer's tales of piety and morals is not done out of bad taste but with a primal passion for portraying man as creatures of desire, and desires as weapons for violence and trickery. Others hated it, and I really can't blame them. The literary source is a revered tradition, taught in different schools from around the world, and is considered as England's most important contribution in world literature. That its cinematic adaptation is this raunchy, oftentimes obscene, and even rather plainly photographed feature is a mighty hard stab to the enriched tradition of Chaucer's work.