November 23, 2009

Pasolini's 'Canterbury Tales'

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Tired of reading Middle English? If you fancy a break while still doing something vaguely academic, you could do worse than checking Pier Paolo Pasolini's film version of The Canterbury Tales out of the library. It's an Italian-language (though, interestingly, filmed in English then dubbed into Italian, so if you watch the actor's mouths, you can match what they're saying with the subtitles) version of several of the tales, intercut with framing material featuring Pasolini himself as Chaucer.

The film says a lot more about Pasolini than about the original text, mind. Part of a conceptual trilogy with his versions of The Decameron and Arabian Nights, Pasolini insistently breaks the taboos of 70s Italian cinema by selecting the tales that best allow him to interrogate (and condemn? discuss) man's slide into moral corruption. No place here for The Knight's Tale: these are the stories that give Pasolini the best possible excuses for nudity, farting, sex and violence.

While it could be seen as gratuitous, Pasolini's portrait of life is deliberately ugly. The film opens up some provocative debates which can just as equally be applied to The Canterbury Tales in their original form: what purpose does the crudity serve? How are we meant to respond to these kinds of behaviours? At what point do realistic portraits of life descend into parody and caricature? Ultimately, do these stories give us a moral message and hope for a better world, or is this view of society resigned to the corruption?

From a filmmaking point of view, despite the style being decidedly dated (don't watch this if you're impatient), there are moments of staggering beauty, in particular the climax to The Pardoner's Tale, shot at sunset and shrugging off all irreverence for the moment of death, a moment which arguably points to the real agenda of this film.

I flag it up now because both The Miller's Tale and The Reeve's Tale are given fairly full treatments during the film (what a shock), as well as The Merchant's Tale and part of The Wife of Bath's Prologue (week 9), so if you wanted to be able to bring it into class discussion, now would be the appropriate time to watch it! Just don't watch it over dinner...

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. I forgot to mention in the seminar that I borrowed the dvd last night and found it quite entertaining.
    Although, as suggested, I wouldn’t watch it over dinner, or in front of your house mates unless they do English!
    I found the Italian dubbing with subtitles odd, and the acting a little dubious.
    But it gave a good representation of the tales and provided some quality laughs!

    27 Nov 2009, 18:13

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This blog is a resource for students in Peter Kirwan’s seminar groups for Medieval to Renaissance English Literature.

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