“Canterbury Rides Again”… PASOLINI & HIS “DECAMEROTIC” IMITATORS

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During the quarter Century that Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo (1975) was banned, raided and prosecuted in the UK, it became one of the most hotly traded items on the bootleg video underground, alongside those familiar Fulci, Lenzi and Deodato titles. No doubt many of those trading it were more interested in seeing people eating shit, raping, torturing and murdering each other than with weighing the political and philosophical arguments with which Pasolini underpinned his dark masterpiece. .. blissfully unaware of the ambivalent relationship between Italian “Art” Cinema and the “B” movies whose profits sustain it.

I’ve always been suspicious of false dichotomies such as the one between Art and exploitation… the long running Continental Film Review (redubbed Continental Film And Video Review a couple of years before it went out of business) remains one of my all-time favourite film magazines precisely because of the completely guileless way with which it juxtaposed the sacred texts of Robbe-Grillet and Godard with the latest crime thriller from Fernando Di Leo or new Joe D’Amato sexploiter, genuflecting as reverently before the iconic screen presence of Laura Gemser as that of Anita Ekberg and proving perfectly capable of following up an earnest discussion of the latest Ingmar Bergman effort with a splash of cheeky FOH stills and verbatim press office synopses for the likes of Danish Dentist On The Job. The hoary old Art vs exploitation distinction cut no dice in the editorial office of CFR, where the only thing that mattered was the exponentially increased likelihood in a European film (of whatever stripe), as opposed to any British or American production, of encountering some tit, a bit of bum or possibly even a stray wisp or two of pubic hair.

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During the samizdat flowering of a thousand fanzines that thrived in response to the introduction of draconian video censorship in early ’80s Britain, my own writing and editorial efforts were intended as a contribution towards extending and enriching this democratic and eclectic tendency. In the best of the zines, the new wave of pundits were as comfortable enthusing about the latest beguiling enigma from Borowczyk or Zulawski as they were in singing the praises of some rediscovered giallo or slice of crime-slime and the flip side of this was the rash of learned papers emanating from the groves of academe, whose scholars were apparently poring over the collected works of Russ Meyer, Dario Argento, et al. I’m sure that the ever-iconoclastic Pasolini would have welcomed this sacking of the academic ivory towers though in characteristically contrary fashion I’m not so sure the grumpy old bugger, mindful of the Marxist notion of “repressive tolerance”, would have appreciated the degree to which his own incendiary efforts had become “respectable”, clutched to the bosom of the bourgeois cultural mainstream. No doubt he took a few turns in his tomb after the BBFC’s decision to finally pass the much persecuted Salo on 16/11/00…

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You can only fully comprehend the disorienting howl of rage, recrimination and despair that is Salo if you are familiar with the fierce joy of the films that Pasolini made immediately prior to it, the “Trilogy Of Life” he initiated with The Decameron (“Il Decameron”, 1971), continued in Canterbury Tales (“I Racconti Di Canterbury”, 1972) and concluded in Arabian Nights (“Il Fiore Delle Mille E Una Notte”, 1974). Pasolini’s loving, albeit free ranging adaptations of these stately story cycles (self mockingly replaced by pernicious pornography employed to tickle the jaded palates of old fascists by the time of Salo) were expressions of his faith in the common people (or his picaresque vision of same) in all their lustful, acquisitive and roguish “authenticity” (a quality which Pasolini, on account of his homosexuality and genteel antecedents, felt that he lacked), the great unwashed whose ribaldry and very zest for life could recapture the pre-capitalist, essentially pagan idyll for which Pasolini pined. Well, whatever… readers are urged to check out the BFI’s spanky , extras-packed BD /DVD combi editions of the “Trilogy” Films, unalloyed gems of joyous European cinema which are guaranteed to significantly lift your spirits even if they don’t propel you to the nearest barricade, movies which happily occupy the middle ground between Art house and outhouse… in the Canterbury Tales alone you can gawp at the spectacle of Satan blowing sinful friars out of his crimson arse at the film’s astonishing conclusion… giggle uncontrollably at the sight of a badly dubbed Tom Baker’s knob…

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… most pertinently to the purposes of this piece, check out this disc’s 35 minute bonus featurette “Pasolini And The Italian Genre Film”, lovingly put together by the ubiquitous Severin crew to celebrate the brief but intense flood (some have estimated nearly fifty films!) of “decamerotic”  cheapo knock-offs, illuminating in the process the symbiotic relationship of Arty and more popular films in Italy which stands in stark and refreshing contrast to the snotty, hidebound attitudes of the British cinema establishment. In the words of the BFI’s genial James Blackford: “Genre fans will be pleased to know that the documentary features interviews with such Italian exploitation veterans as Luciano Martino and Gabriele Crisanti, who speak eloquently and candidly about their relationship to Pasolini’s work and the Italian commercial cinema at that time… for the British Film Institute to have commissioned an extra feature that includes the producer of Giallo A Venezia, Burial Ground and Patrick Still Lives (below) is certainly something of a landmark moment and should really capture the imagination of genre enthusiasts”. Too true, matey…

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The now moribund tradition of Italian popular cinema was, in its pre-’90s pomp, often subjected to the simple minded criticism that it did nothing more than regurgitate bargain basement copies of commercially successful American models. Kim Newman refuted this simplistic charge beautifully in a series of articles he wrote for the Monthly Film Bulletin, although I’ve mislaid the original quote and must here rely on my imperfect translation of an Italian translation (itself possibly imperfect) of a previous piece in which I quoted his indispensable aphorism… seems kind of appropriate, somehow. Anyway, in the wise words (approximately) of Mr Newman, “the best examples of Italian ‘imitations’ are actually an incredibly sophisticated mix of revision, pastiche, parody, deconstruction, reinterpretation and operatic conflation”. I couldn’t have put it better myself… in any language. Leaving aside any consideration that some of the American hits that inspired Italian cinematic trends sometimes owed their own debt to Italian originals (anybody who doubts that the cinema’s enduring genres were forged in the white heat of the nascent Italian film industry is advised to check out Tim Lucas’s miraculous Mario Bava biography All The Colors Of The Dark, published by Video Watchdog in 2007), the erotic medieval portmanteau movie provided an unarguably Italian form on which the spaghetti exploitation and imitation mills lost no time going to work. “The secret was being quick, not letting the audience’s interest die down after Pasolini had opened it” according to incorrigible scum producer Crisanti, who relates in the Severin doc how he braved a snooty dressing down from Pasolini himself, then a plagiarism lawsuit from the production company Pea and finally a threatened obscenity rap before establishing his right to bring Il Decameron No. 2 to the screen. “And that’s where it all started…” according to Signor Crisanti: “the circus of real and fake Decamerons”…

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… ah yes, “the circus of real  and fake Decamerons”: Roll up, roll up roll up, for Mino Guerrini’s Il Decameron No. 2 – Le Altre Novelle Di Boccaccio (“Boccaccio’s Other Stories”, this being the one that Crisanti weathered so many storms to bring to the screen and whose cast includes Camille “I Spit On Your Grave” Keaton, Buster’s niece) and Gli Altri Racconti Di Canterbury (“The Other Canterbury Tales”); Italo Alfaro’s Il Decameron No. 3 – Le Piu Belle Donne Del Boccaccio (“Boccaccio’s Most Beautiful Women”, optimistically and inaccurately retitled The Last Decameron for overseas release, with the enticing subtitle Adultery In 7 Easy Lessons) and Canterbury Proibito “”Forbidden Canterbury”, with Femi Benussi); Giuseppe Vari’s Beffe, Licenze Et Amori Del Decamerone Segreto (“Pranks. License And Love From The Secret Decameron”); Gian Paolo Callegari’s Le Calde Notti Del Decameron (“Hot Nights From The Decameron”); Renato Savino’s Decameron ‘300; Decameron Proibitissimo – Boccaccio Mio Statte Zitt from Marino Girolami (Enzo Castellari’s dad); Lucio Dandolo’s I Racconti Di Canterbury No. 2 (“Canterbury Tales 2”, released in Anglo territories as “The Lusty Wives Of Canterbury”); Brunello Rondi’s Racconti Proibiti… Di Niente Vestiti; Bruno Corbucci’s starkly titled Boccaccio; Pino Tosini’s Racconti Romani Di Una Ex Novizi; Vittorio De Sisti’s Fiorina La Vacca; Silvio Amadio’s … E Si Salvo L’Arentino Pietro Con Una Mano Avanti E L’Altra Dietro; Aldo Grimaldi’s Quando Le Donne Si Chiamavano Madonne; Pier Giorgio Ferretti’s Decameroticus; Manlio Scarpelli’s Le Notti Peccaminose Di Pietro L’Aretino; Enrico Bomba’s Le Mille E Una Notte… E Un Altra Ancora; Antonio Margheriti’s Novelle Galeotte D’Amore; Franco Rossetti’s Una Cavala Tutta Nuda; Paolo (Beast In Heat) Solvay’s Confessione Segreti Di Un Convento Di Clausura; Mariano Laurenti’s La Bella Antonia Prima Monica E Poi Dimonia and Adalberto Albertini’s Metti Lo Diavolo Tuo Ne Lo Mio Inferno.

Incredibly, all of those and more were cranked out in 1972 alone, as were a brace of pictures by the dynamic directing duo Carlo Infascelli and Antonio Racioppi, namely Decamerone Proibito – Le Altre Novelle Del Boccaccio (aka Forbidden Decameron) and Le Mille E Una Notte All’Italiana (“One Thousand And One Nights, Italian Style”), which was also known in the domestic market as Decameronissimo and released in France as Canterbury Interdit, illustrating the extent to which the different story cycles were getting confused with each other in the popular imagination (with the active encouragement of film makers as opportunistic as any medieval rogue) and also how the quick fire knock off merchants were actually anticipating the release of announced instalments in Pasolini’s trilogy… the inexhaustible Margheriti’s cheekily titled Finalmente… Le Mille E Una Notte (1972) seduced the gullible Italian punter into believing he was coughing up his lire to see Pasolini’s projected adaptation, a full two years before the latter actually hit the screens.

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Oblivious to such niceties of priority, Anglo distributors renamed Margheriti’s picture (which starred both Femi Benussi and the even more gorgeous Barbara Bouchet) as 1001 Nights of Pleasure or House / Bed Of A Thousand Pleasures. No prizes for guessing that it took Aristide Massaccesi aka Joe D’Amato to take the numbers game to its logical, smutty and quite possibly chronologically accurate conclusion with 1973’s Sollazzevoli Storie Di Mogli Gaudenti E Mariti Penitenti – Decameron No 69 (or plain old More Sexy Canterbury Tales over here). Ever busy and diligent in his studies of classic literature (if uncharacteristically slow off the blocks to exploit a cinematic trend), D’Amato knocked off Canterbury No. 2 – Nuove Storie D’Amore Del ‘300 (imaginatively aka Tales Of Canterbury) in the same year,  which he rounded off with Novelle Licenziose Di Vergini Vogliose (“Lusty Stories Of Willing Virgins”), whose working title (Le Mille E Una Notte Di Boccaccio A Canterbury) took the proverbial soggy biscuit for mythos mix-and-matching. If D’Amato was surprisingly slow in jumping this Medieval muck cart, the likes of Paolo Bianchini’s Decameron No. 4 – Le Belle Novelle Di Boccaccio (“The Most Beautiful Stories of Boccaccio”); Adalberto Albertini’s … E Continuavano A Mettere Lo Diavolo Ne Lo Inferno; Edoardo Re’s I Racconti Di Viterbury – Le Piu Allegre Storie Del-300; Amasi Damiani’s Quando I Califfi Avevano Le Corna and Roberto Bianchi Montero’s Donna E Magia Con Satanasso In Compagnia (all released in 1973) represents the tail end of all these titillating tales  (the wooden spoon though, must go to Lucio Dandolo’s 1975 effort, Quant’E’ Bella La Bernarda Tutta Nera, Tutta Calda) which were about to be supplanted from their brief period dominating terza visione screens by the altogether longer running vogue for Sexy Comedies All’Italiana. In that Severin documentary, Exploitation film scholar Antonio Tentori identifies the transitional film, probably correctly, as Mariano Laurenti’s Quel Gran Pezzo Dell’Ubalda Tutta Nuda E Tutta Calda (“Ubalda, All Naked And Warm”), produced in 1972 by Luciano Martino as a vehicle for the pneumatic charms of his main squeeze and soon-to-be undisputed queen of the Sexy Comedies (not to mention gialli) Edwige Fenech.

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Martino, Crisante and Bianchini are among those contributing their ten penn’orth to the Severin doc, as does producer Alfredo Bini who, having produced several of Pasolini’s earliest films, would later (i.e. in 1972) discharge the same function for a Decameron / 1001 Nights mish-mash directed by Piero Vivarelli (who also appears in this featurette), namely Il Decamerone Nero (“Black Decameron” aka Africa Erotica). Bini happily concedes that this move was partially designed to pay Pasolini out for jumping production ship on Il Decameron but, as if to underline the point that the high and low brow are not nearly as clearly demarcated in Italy as an Anglo-American observer might presuppose, Pasolini’s new producer Alberto Grimaldi (who continued to punctuate his collaborations with Pasolini, Fellini, Bertolucci, et al, with stints on spaghetti westerns, mondo movies and at least one Zorro adventure) also contributing to the rush of cash ins with Storie Scellerate (aka Bawdy Tales” / Roguish Stories), directed by Pasolini’s frequent collaborator Sergio Citti in 1973.

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When I interviewed Giuseppe “Pupi” Avati, who has himself successfully juggled alternate careers in Art-house and genre productions, just one of his uncredited gigs that we discussed was his contribution to the script of Salo and he insisted that “Pasolini had never even read De Sade… we wrote the film with Sergio Citti, who was going to direct it. Then the company that was supposed to produce the film went bankrupt. One evening I met with Pasolini and proposed to him that he should direct the picture himself. He accepted my suggestion, and that’s what happened” Serafino Murri, author of a critical study of PPP and a prime candidate for “Italy’s thinking woman’s crumpet critic”, argues in Severin’s documentary that Pasolini was furious to see his vision of a lost erotic paradise vulgarised into a popular franchise of disposable cheap thrills (though he was surely tempting fate by speeding up scenes for comic relief in The Decameron and casting Robin Askwith, he of the “Confessions Of..” series, in Canterbury Tales) and specifically that it was his outrage at the spectacle of the masses lapping up these low brow mutations of his poetic purpose that inspired the notorious shit banquet in Salo.

Alienated from the Left by The Historic Compromise (by which the Italian Communist Party entered into mainstream Parliamentary politics) and disgusted by his idealised youths’ acquiescence to their own enslavement in a consumerist cage, Pasolini disowned his Trilogy of Life as an over optimistic aberration… Boccaccio, Chaucer and the storytellers of the 1001 Nights were out, enter De Sade and his four killer libertines. Ironically, it was Pasolini’s continuing desire to get down with the kids in a very literal fashion that proved his undoing. On November 2, 1975, a month before the premiere of his grim magnum opus Salo, Pasolini’s ideological rejection of Italian youth was reciprocated in all too solid fashion, when one of the common people he wanted to sleep with took up a spiked club and beat his brilliant brain to a, er, pulp.

Do yourself a favour, skip the latest block headed remake of some American slasher movie that wasn’t that great in the first place and engage with Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life, if only as  a prelude to immersing yourself once again, with a cleared palate and enhanced understanding, in the vituperative vileness of Salo.

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