Pier Paolo Pasolini is a renaissance man in its truest form. Philosopher, poet, novelist, political activist, and a filmmaker, his works are more popular for their political ideologies than for well-weaved narrations. With his roots firmly set on communism, Pasolini told stories from the lens of a Neorealist showing the grave lives of the poor, the proletariats, while underlying the vanity of the lives of the bourgeois. Teorema, or Theorem, is exactly as the name suggests—it formulizes the way of life in Italian society years after the Second World War.
When a strange man (Terrence Stamp) visits the house of a discreet bourgeois, he emanates bizarre vibes seducing the father, the mother, the son, the daughter, and the maid. They find him irresistible and are unable to understand this enigmatic being, yet they’re all attracted to him. In return, this Visitor “grants them their wish” and seduces them one-by-one: the maid, son, mother, father, and daughter.
One morning, he leaves abruptly, and after he leaves, their lives spiral out of control as they seek redemption through their own actions, which doesn’t appear forthcoming for this elite family. There are various interpretations as to who this Visitor could be; whether it is God, or the Devil itself—but that’s not the main point. Whoever this Visitor is, he seduced all of them; everybody (except the maid) confided to him, and ultimately—he transformed their lives, for better or worse.
Paolo (Massimo Girotti), the father, finds no purpose in living. He renounces his material possessions and strips naked before entering the barren desert—a symbol that recurs throughout the movie.
Lucia (played by famed Italian actor, Silvana Mangano), the mother, realizes that she’s lived a life with no meaning. She has no special skills. She’s merely a passive spectator, without any silver lining. After the Visitor leaves, she wanders around trying to search for this seductive creature and ends up seducing young men who look like him.
Pietro (Andrés Soublette), through his homosexual encounter with the Visitor, loses his innocence and engages in his passion, painting, through which he tries to find the image of this ripple-less man.
Odetta (Anne Wiazemsky), the daughter, who once negated herself and avoided men, finds herself in love with the Visitor. She tries to live in his memory, but finds herself unable to, thereby, entering a catatonic state.
Finally, Emilia (Laura Betti, playing the maid)—out of all, she was the only one who didn’t confide in the Visitor. She leaves the house, goes to a rural locale, and attains, what we’d call, a state of Nirvana before immolating herself, as she no longer feels the need to burden the world. The Hindus would call this Samadhi.
Teorema is a strange, minimalist movie. With little dialogs and recurrent symbols of bareness in the desert, the clouds drifting above, it symbolizes the nakedness of the bourgeoisie life. It points towards the eventuality of change—an initiation that is beginning to surface the layers of European society. Many theorists argue that Teorema highlights the inability of the elites to live a sacred life in harmony with existence. As a result, they’re unable to attain liberation—unlike the maid who attained Moksha. Yet, the film goes much deeper in its psychological portrayal of the vainness of people who live inside mansions and “own the poor.”
Pasolini uses deep spaces and extreme wide shots to fortify his stance of emptiness. He shows how the world is ultimately open and free to all, and no matter how much we stuff our lives with material possessions; at the end, everybody engulfs into this planet. Everything is without meaning, yet in this meaninglessness – there is divinity.
In the outskirts of Milan, the poor sympathize with Emilia. In the metro, the rich can’t handle the vibrations of the heart, the purity of the soul, and through nurture—more so than Nature—these people are conditioned in living behind the veil of materialism. When vanity of matter is exposed, they have nothing to hold themselves. They fail to march on and embrace a life of spiritual substance because their souls are as hard and lifeless as their concrete foundation failing to realize that the only thing permanent is change itself.
In the context of the narrative, the Visitor appears to be the self-regulating mechanism of society—theorized into a symbol and well put in account by Pasolini. He, or it, is the subtle element within society that keeps it evolving. Only here, sexuality is the trigger, however, when one analyzes sexuality; it’s also the first path to liberation, of transformation, and towards creation of the new. The Visitor, comes from nowhere, and converts these people—constructing a new avatar within them. This renewed self is much more conscious and intelligent than their previous sleeping selves. But the impressions of their hardcore minds try to reject this rejuvenated self for they are left in a limbo, neither here nor there.
When these transformed beings, fresh as new, look at the world from their new gained perspective, the old starts wearing off; the new starts seeming too wild, too intimidating, and perhaps too wonderful for them to ever comprehend. Their defense mechanism kicks in. Those who could leave behind their traces are left transformed (Emilia) and those who couldn’t, run insane (Paolo), or into a perennial cul-de-sac (Lucia).
Behind the wonderful visuals and paradoxical story, Teorema, in essence, pays homage to Freud’s psychoanalysis and Marx’s dialectical materialism. Sexuality remains in the subtext throughout the movie. Viewed as a positive force, Emilia in this case, is born again. To those who consider it a passion of the body, the guilt haunts them and to undo one vice, they falter into a series of vices.
Ultimately, though, the theory of oppressor vs. oppressed forms the main text of the film. Whom are they oppressing? Who is oppressing whom? What is matter? What good is materialism? How to evolve from this material state into something far more ethereal—is it even possible? Teorema tries answering these questions, but leaves much to the discretion of the viewer.
Pasolini’s views run throughout the movie. His ideologies of anti-consumerism, communism, and renunciation ultimately form an arc that catapults Teorema as a discourse on society than a feature film. Pasolini isn’t concerned with how the movie progresses. He wants people to talk about the movie after it’s over. And, he’s succeeded because Teorema starts where the story ends. He only gives us the beginning. The middle and the end are entirely up to us.
All of this makes Teorema a peculiar movie that’s a hybrid of documentary, pure montage, and narrative cinema. It’s stimulating and opens the gate to issues surrounding Italy and most of Europe two decades after the Second World War. The movie provokes people into thinking about societal tendencies, about life, and about phenomenology as very few movies have, before or after. And that’s where the movie manages to stump us, with its uncommitted observation of the microcosmic reality present in our society.
Watch Teorema when you have the time. Sex is treated pure, in its primeval sense, leading to creation of the new, consequently, giving birth to originality, whilst providing a continuum to the inherent virtue of humans. It’s a cathartic movie leaving you with many questions, few answers – and that’s the romance of this splendid movie. It doesn’t say a lot, but the little it does—encompasses the grand theories of an individual’s place in an ever-changing reality.