The films of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini make a welcome return to Bay Area repertory cinema screens for the next month-and a-half. Thanks to new 35 mm prints, filmgoers can be reintroduced to the work of a decidedly leftist filmmaker whose films can still skillfully and entertainingly outrage present-day audiences jaded by commercialized button-pushing.

The weekend-long San Francisco leg of the Pasolini retrospective emphasizes some of the director’s literary adaptations, such as his “Circle of Life” trilogy. The longer Berkeley retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive will feature all the films screened in San Francisco plus additional short films, documentaries, and slice-of-life dramas. Beyond Chron previewed three of Pasolini’s literary dramatizations. The director’s ultra-controversial Marquis de Sade adaptation “Salo, or The 120 Days Of Sodom” is not discussed here.


Famed opera soprano Maria Callas made only one film, Pasolini’s adaptation of Euripedes’ tragedy “Medea.” Any concerns about Callas’ lack of dramatic flexibility (she had previously played the same role on stage) are decisively allayed by a magnificent performance that makes her character’s violent actions empathetic.

The early wordless scenes in Medea’s homeland of Colchis immerse the viewer in a world where ritual sacrifice becomes a key to bring about change. Killing a young man to use his blood to water the crops may be barbaric. Yet as a means of cementing the fortunes of the village to the land beneath Colchis, it’s hard to dispute its effectiveness.

It’s no surprise that Jason and his fellow Argonauts fail to understand Medea as something other than an exotic barbarian. They display a callow attitude towards life, whether it’s an attempt to capture wild horses for riding or Jason’s lack of fierce commitment to reclaiming his stolen throne. Jason appreciates Medea as an attractive woman willing to throw herself at his feet, yet he’s incurious about her personality. The priestess’ disrobing from her old official vestments makes a wonderful visual metaphor for Medea’s loss of personal power.

Pasolini’s treatment of Medea as a tragic but sympathetic figure doesn’t deny the horror of the slaying of her children, even if the killings occur offscreen. But the former priestess’ deeds symbolize a belated rejection of the marriage she created with Jason. The matter-of-fact existence of centaurs and a Greek man singing mournful Japanese songs in Pasolini’s adaptation just makes Medea’s actions more reasonable than expected.

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A feature-length film could never provide a completely faithful translation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s classic short story collection “The Decameron.” The setup of Boccaccio’s original concerned a group of ten young people who each tell ten stories on such themes as human vices, tragic loves, and trickery and deceit. In other words, the collection consisted of a hundred short stories.
Pasolini’s solution was to adapt a fraction of the stories and give the viewer a sampler of these frequently licentious but ultimately moral tales. Moving the film’s setting from the original’s Florence to Naples will mean little to viewers unfamiliar with the region. What matters more is that Pasolini’s camera captures some of the world these tales arose in.

It may seem odd to praise stories whose humor is based around the passing of gas or spectacularly licentious behavior. Yet such physical humor works to break down the emotional resistance of viewers who assume that stories set in an earlier century of human existence have little relevance to present day audience members. Boccaccio may have written his stories in the 14th century. But Pasolini shows that stories featuring con artistry and hypocritical behavior by religious officials remain timeless.

The original “Decameron” may have displayed a strong moral tone at its base. Pasolini’s cinematic adaptation shows sex-positive attitudes and morality are not incompatible. If his sexually active characters fall prey to such misfortunes as Tingoccio’s death by excessive sex, there’s nothing puritanical about the life lesson drawn from his demise. Stable boy Lorenzo’s terrible fate may appear an exception. Yet the story shows class snobbery played a greater role in the boy’s end.

Pasolini’s small role in the film as an eccentric painter offers a nice metaphor for the whole of his Boccaccio adaptation. While his character may not capture every single detail of everyday life in Naples, he can capture those details of this world that intrigue and amuse him.

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“The Canterbury Tales” climaxes with an unforgettably funny trip to Christian Hell. Before that finale is reached, this Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear Award winner continues Pasolini’s Circle of Life trilogy with an adaptation of some spectacularly randy tales from Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic book. What makes the telling funnier is that the storytellers use them to pass the time on their long religious pilgrimage to Canterbury.

Pasolini’s cinematic adaptation of Chaucer’s tales triples “The Decameron”’s level of slapstick comedy and provides a cornucopia of nudity of both sexes. One highlight, the Cook’s Tale with Ninetto Davoli as Perkin the Reveler, offers uproarious nods to Chaplin’s style of comedy. For original sexual slapstick, one is hard-pressed to choose between the tale of Nicholas and Alison, which works in both a fake prophecy and a very memorable “kiss,” or the tale of the students and the deceitful miller, which demonstrates the comedic potential of inadequate lighting.

It’s not all laughs in Pasolini’s film. The tales of three young men seeking revenge against Death and another about the link between poverty and punishment provide grim reminders of humanity’s shortcomings. The final tale, though, transforms the grim subject of eternal torment into incredibly droll dark comedy.

(“Medea” screens at 6:30 PM on September 14, 2013. “The Decameron” screens at 9:30 PM on September 14, 2013. Both screenings take place at the Castro Theatre (429 Castro, SF). “The Canterbury Tales” screens at 7:15 PM on September 15, 2013 at the Roxie Theatre (3116-16th Street, SF). For further information on the San Francisco screenings, go to www.pasolinifilm.com . For advance tickets and further information on the Berkeley screenings, go to www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/filmseries/ .)