In medieval days, folk were pious and respected the word of God, well, when it suited them at any rate. We will follow nine stories which illustrate the true nature of supposedly Godfearing people around Italy, starting with Andreuccio (Ninetto Davoli) who was a horse trader visiting the big city when he was taken to the house of a noblewoman who claimed to have major news for him. Hoping it would involve sex of some kind, he gladly went along only to find the young woman telling him she was his long lost sister and was delighted to track him down, for now she could share her fortune...
And if you believed that, you'll believe anything. Pier Paolo Pasolini was the man behind these very influential adaptations of Boccaccio's Decameron, here not exactly giving up his preoccupations by applying them to these aged texts, but letting his hair down all the same by taking a more comedic approach to his material than he had previously. He evidently enjoyed the experience as his next two films, The Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights, were very much in the same vein, taking historically-based episodes and running them through his filter of sex, death and religion, all with gay abandon as to who he might be offending.
Certainly with the new loosening of censorship across many territories Pasolini was able to get away with a lot more explicit business on screen, and though his seventies work pushed at those easing boundaries there was still plenty many would have liked to edit out from these efforts. The more humorous tone assisted in smoothing over the spikier aspects, though the sight of a group of nuns being serviced by a supposedly mute gardener (the idea being that he would never be able to tell on them) remained something that not everyone was going to laugh at. Actually, though many of the tales here were in humorous style it wasn't exactly hilarious, as you could still see Pasolini's need to take down the hypocrites in society as the overriding theme.
Thus most of the time we are watching characters who are of the one rule for me, another rule for everyone else variety: basically it's fine for many of them in their minds to sleep around outside marriage, or steal from their fellow citizens, or even at their most extreme murder others, but as far as things go for those they look down on then they're a big no-no. The most obvious examples of these is when they have sex, either with someone other than their spouse or with someone they are not married to, but the three brothers who kill their friend for romancing the sister they keep under their collective thumb are perhaps the most repugnant in terms of behaviour. Not too many chuckles there, but in the main there was a lightheartedness to this.
Not that Pasolini didn't make observations about his art, as he appeared in the film himself as painter Giotto, creating a fresco with his team of apprentices which was interspersed with the Boccaccio narratives, leading to a revelation about whether art is just as effective, or even better, if it remains in the mind instead of made real in the world for others to appreciate. As often, although the director rejected much about religion, it was one of his obsessions, which is why we see Giotto's vision of how he sees heaven in a dream starring an uncredited Silvana Mangano. In the meantime, he invited you to seize life by the scruff of the neck and enjoy the pleasures of the flesh, apparently no matter who you may be harming in the process: sex is to be enjoyed, and if you're cuckolding a husband or bringing shame on a family, it didn't really matter as long as you threw off the shackles of suffocating morality and dived straight in. Not everyone shared Pasolini's point of view on that, it had to be said. Music by Ennio Morricone.
[This is released by the BFI as part of the Trilogy of Life on a Blu-ray set with the following features:
• Presented in High Definition
• Includes both Italian language and English language versions of all three films
• Notes for an African Oresteia (1970, 73 mins): Pasolini's visual notes for an unrealised film project
• Pasolini and the Italian Genre Film (2009, 37 mins)
• Robin Askwith on Pier Paolo Pasolini (2015, 23 mins)
• Deleted sequences (1974, 21 mins): deleted sequences from Pasolini's Arabian Night
• Illustrated booklet with essays by Sam Rohdie and Roger Clarke, original reviews, biography of Pasolini and full film credits (NB. first pressing only).]