“Truth lies not in one dream, but in many.” –Arabian Nights

“Pier Paolo Pasolini’s so-called Trilogy of Life, which Criterion is reissuing today on Blu-Ray and DVD, consists of The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1974). The explicit sexuality of these adaptations was what got everybody talking at the time, but what sets his medieval tales apart from his other work is that they represent Pasolini the filmmaker (he was also a poet, novelist, and critic) at his most optimistic.

These were Pasolini’s most commercially successful films, and they were gleefully raunchy without being anywhere near as stomach-turning as Salò (1975), his subsequent and final film, a scatological torture-fest that’s in a category all its own. (Pasolini was murdered, in circumstances that have never been fully explained, a few weeks before its release.) The Trilogy of Life’s pre-Enlightenment folktales were a perfect match for Pasolini’s idiosyncratic approach to filmmaking. With these canonical proto-novels, he had more license than ever to reject cinema’s storytelling conventions in favor of the looser, more poetic syntax he’d always preferred and argued for in his writings. Imagine a medieval artist using a movie camera for the first time and you’ve got an idea of Pasolini’s naive realism: The close-ups on characters are almost always frontal, the quivering long shots expressive without feeling composed at all. Watching the Trilogy of Life, one wonders at times whether this is how Chaucer might have filmed his England, Boccaccio his Tuscany.

Pasolini occasionally interrupts the flow of pranks, courtships, punishments, and acts of love and revenge with careful reconstructions of tableaux by the likes of Giotto, Breughel, and painters of Rajput miniatures. As schizophrenic as it sounds, his blending of naturalism and mannerism, the refined and the primitive, results in a fascinating pastiche—“one language citing another,” in the words of scholar Sam Rohdie—and a sincere, rather than winking, acknowledgment both of Pasolini’s predecessors and of the artifice inherent in any work of cinema.”

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