In seclusion from the ravages of the Black Death, the world of Il Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio grows one tale at a time, a hundred narratives from a youth whose existence will be defined, not so much by the Black Death in real time but, by how the memory of it will force the sort of conclusions drawn about the world, now and then, in reading it as a historical non-fiction, through parables of all facets of human nature.
Few filmmakers quite understand the power concepts of human existence over which we assert no real control are unifying influences over all periods of time that never truly exist apart from one another like Pier Paolo Pasolini, who adapted Boccaccio in 1971’s The Decameron. In his telling, it is truncated, but fierce and pointed; it points the finger at the modern age using the art of the past, showing us for all our advancement, we’ve not come very far as a species, and that only makes us more human— that, like death, human nature itself cannot be outrun.
We’re experiencing a sort of persistent, low-level anxiety in the modern world; there’s a moment in the Richard Ayoade film Submarine, where the protagonist, Oliver Tate, is explaining his mother to the audience in narration: she works in an office, appears dead operating a copy machine, and confronted with the metaphysical proposition of, on your birthday, being responsible for brining your own cake, something unpleasant to everyone involved. Yet, we participate in these things, because it’s what we do, and it’s tragedy and farce all at once; we experience these mini crises of humanity, of purpose, thousands of times per day, and it’s very literally killing our souls. So, why in fiction, is giving into vice always the only joy your characters can ever experience? Maybe our vices aren’t the answer, but they are saying something is the answer, and as a species, we’ve engineered a society to deny ourselves in a race to acknowledge superiority over the natural world, but in what way is societal malaise and principled deprivation of crucial pleasure superior? We don’t apply technology for our convenience, seemingly only applied to make life harder in managable, but objectively harmful ways.
But The Decameron, at least not as such, is not about these things, but more about turning the narrative form on contemporary culture, it becomes a lens through which to view these things. It is just one film in a trilogy of similar construction (albeit in different adaptive sources from different places), but this is the one viewers might naturally start with, and thus, makes its case to viewers about modernity as understood through past parable.
Murray Bookchin once wrote, in service of a politics and governance surrounding a feminist municipality, “As victim and aggressor, woman and man are thus brought into blind complicity with a moral system that denies their human nature and ultimately the integrity of external nature as well.” As a socialist, and one adjacent to (prominently, as an admirer of Antonio Gramsci) Italy’s Communist Party, Pasolini was keenly aware of the dynamics of intersectionality in any oppressive framework— it stands to reason that his work would eventually reflect what he saw as the, almost (if not at least metathematic), growing extremism of the oppressive against the oppressed on all manner of intersection. In the case of Pasolini, himself, he was a target of smears by the state related to his sexuality, an orthogonal circumstance he never contested (either because he didn’t believe it criminal, or because fighting it would’ve been futile— it has been speculated that he was eventually murdered, or was staged to appear to be related to, over this aspect of his personal life by the mafia), similar to Gramsci’s imprisonment by the Fascist Italian state being of the intention to exacerbate his physical handicaps to his detriment while imprisoned to ensure he’d never recover (if ever freed), many reactionary elements within Italy were, as was broadly suspected, activated through propaganda and moralistic posturing in mainstream sentiment to act on this extremism even after the fall of Mussolini, for example the environment in which syndicates developed and continued to exercise a lot of extra-legal influence.
Each of the episodes in The Decameron speak to these real world political matters: most episodes of the film involve a main character believing to be able to successfully make one compromise for personal gain at someone else’s expense, only to find themselves having been exploited themselves as a result at the hands of their target— a gardener who feigns disability to work at a convent, only to have the convent’s nuns exploit him sexually; a man who brings his wife to a doctor to turn her into a horse for his farm, only to find the spell allows the doctor to possess the man’s wife sexually (consider, again, here the implications of the above Bookchin quote in the context of post-war Italian morality) in front of him. There are several critical of the artifice of the church’s precepts as a modern guiding institution of morality: a man whose crimes (murder, rape, theft— perhaps the most concerning to the church, also is a homosexual) flees his home to reinvent himself elsewhere, and in his new life becomes lauded for his piety where he is, in death, sainted, and consequently homosexuals are brought to his crypt to reflect on their lives of sin and invited to follow his example; another episode has two friends who have violated church law of premarital sex agree to tell the other, upon their death from the afterlife, where they end up, only to find that the human condition of sexuality only lands you in limbo, to which it is the living man’s great astonishment that it is, simply, not a sin.
The lesson seems to be that it’s a fool’s errand to look to an apparently corrupt, at the very least inconsistent, institution for moral guidance in the execution of one’s duties in society— an institution made of its own flawed and sometimes vile individuals holding dominion over the morality of those outside its operation, most of whom never have their sins see the light of day, while the codified sins damn the moral and just for eternity no matter what they do. The matter of sexuality as a means of holding power, but also a conduit of violence, against the backdrop of the church’s agents, themselves, being lapsed or in some cases just blind to the reality of the humanity they revere in favor of rules that would equate crimes against society (murder, rape) with the supposed offense of homosexuality (as the church had, but also modernity in its treatment of gay people)— this moral certainty at what becomes a sin came, in this case, at the expense of actual justice, only for the characters in the film to realize the former never calculated into the latter at their deaths, it simply just is. One could choose to interpret a “sin” like premarital sex, in this context, as immaterial to whether or not, upon one’s death, a person is judged for it at all, the implication being this is likewise so of homosexuality, and that in the church’s zeal to condemn, they (in the case of this film) wind up canonizing a murderous thief, but the church would have seen no difference between that offense and the sexual one, at least in theory.
The modern parallel Pasolini is making here is a fairly apparent one, as noted, but even into the present day, there’s a certain amount of reactionary puritanism in every generation believing it’s restoring some kind of nebulous traditional utopia they imagine existed decades previous, but one that prosecutes sins inconsistently—either to the letter, or with leniency, because of this bias; sort of a social microcosm of how Pasolini depicts the church. It’s no coincidence that this ideological bent shares much in common with those presdisposed to seek out or join or even lead a fascist movement as a means of framing it as a holy crusade against what they mythologize as degenerency on the structural-social level. We’re experiencing something of this phenomenon in the contemporary US, and bearing out online potentially becomes even more viral than in Pasolini’s era because it can masquerade further as aspirational, aesthetic, somehow wholesome, if not just sad and pathetic, and thereform harmless, when, as Pasolini’s film depicts, this is the vehicle for putting dangerous people in positions of molding the public consciousness, and combatting this is a function of remaining critical and vigilant. This lesson still very much applies, perhaps more so because of how quickly and thoroughly information can become embedded as socially conscious reality.
“If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.” said Pasolini, and in saying so suggests there’s a social good in belief, but one must unbelieve in good faith to hold that power accountable by those who wield it, in this case the Catholic Church— it’s a begrudging respect for what belief represents for man, but not how it’s practiced (in this case, at odds with Christ) and reinforced politically as an institution. It makes for a society that reflects these values, as Pasolini suggests in these fictions and his peers’ writings in Italy’s communist movement. However, Pasolini’s view is bleaker, that the revolution will amount to mere “sentiment” as long as these extrapolitical institutions remain as the standardbearers for morality in such a society, a view not shared, primarily, by peers like Gramsci, who felt a revolution was eminently possible: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.” Gramsci writes at one point, feeling the frustration of the stagnation of the sort Pasolini is troubled by as well, however, he concedes a point where Pasolini will not— that there is hope, essentially that the work must always go on if anything is to ever happen one way or another. “The point of modernity is to live a life without illusions while not becoming disillusioned”
Some things I’m reading, watching, or listening to that I am now recommending: