In medieval times, a group of pilgrims are assembling to make their way across the countryside of England, but one of them, Geoffrey Chaucer (Pier Paolo Pasolini), is inspired by this event to begin forming a selection of stories in his head which he plans to put to paper once he gets the chance. As the hubbub of the town continues, with wrestling and singing and selling supposed holy relics, the first tale arises, one where nobleman Sir January (Hugh Griffith) is holding a celebration to mark his latest wedding to a far younger woman...
After director Pasolini had directed The Decameron, he dived straight into the second in his so-called Trilogy of Life, three films which took aged texts and had a very Pasolini put spin on them, much to the dismay of those who held them dear as classics of early literature. Nevertheless, the extremes he went to in adapting them appealed to many more who would never have dreamed of sitting down to read the originals, mainly because they included a lot of sex and nudity, as well as daring material which would not be considered fit for polite society, not outside of a cinema of the seventies at any rate. So while there were voices decrying the Pasolini method, he felt he was getting through to the audience which mattered.
Certainly there was an irreverence to this film which belied any of the more serious themes he wished to convey, and if it wasn't exactly hilarious for a comedy, even one based on a medieval work, then enough colour filled the screen to make it worthy of interest. Taking the form of an anthology of the Canterbury Tales, picking and choosing from the source to fashion a genuinely convincing sense of Chaucer's times, it had been filmed in Britain at its most bucolic, utilising a section of local talent which Pasolini augmented with some of his Italian actors. As this was dubbed into the Italian language, English speakers had the confusing prospect of watching the likes of Griffith clearly speaking their own native tongue, only with another, foreign voice over the top.
It didn't take that much adjusting, and if you were put off there was always the English language dub, but what was more intriguing for Brits was to see actors from its stage and screen appearing in a bawdy art movie, and occasionally revealing all. Robin Askwith may not have shown anything off we had not seen in his Confessions series, but in those he didn't spend a couple of minutes pissing on his fellow cast members, and as for future Doctor Who Tom Baker, seeing him naked was not something generations of Whovians were going to forget in a hurry, no matter how they tried. Interestingly, both Baker and Askwith spoke glowingly of Pasolini in their autobiographies, not least because he supplied them with excellent anecdotes.
The director's appreciation of Charlie Chaplin led him to bring back Ninetto Davoli from The Decameron to play a very Chaplinesque figure, complete with bowler hat and cane, and went even further in casting the great silent comic's own daughter Josephine Chaplin in the opening instalment, so you could well see his mind was more on humour than the previous entry in his trilogy. That said, he still found space to criticise the way a rich man was able to buy himself out of a homosexual buggery charge while the poor man who committed the same consensual act was executed, that need to expose hypocrisy back once again. The Church was in for much of that scabrous derision, and for many the most indelible imagery of his Canterbury Tales was in its last five minutes and Pasolini's version of Hell, which featured friars shat out of a giant devil's arse, in case you were in any doubt about how he felt about holy men. There was a joie de vivre to this trilogy which was rarely seen in others of his oeuvre, and this in the middle was little different. Music by Ennio Morricone.