Teorema: The Enigma of Divinity in the World of Class

2009 August 5
by Zachary McCune
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When Pasolini first released “Teorema” it had a rather perfect effect on Italy’s film-going public. At once lauded and reprimanded by the Catholic Church, the film seemed to be both perfectly Catholic and entirely non-Catholic in the same moment. In a New York Times story from 1969, Guy Flatley reported that “Teorema” was awarded a special citation by the International Catholic Film Office, only to have the award revoked by higher Vatican authorities who saw the film as failing to “respect the sensibility of Christian people.” The left was likewise baffled admitting that the film was “visionary” yet “ambiguous.” It was as if Pasolini had produced a film that managed to thwart the traditional reading of cinema- causing a rupture in the very process of meaning making that could allow a dogmatic institution like the Catholic Church to understand the film in to opposite ways in the same moment. “Teorema” had a perfect effect on Italy’s film-going public in that it resisted a single understanding, producing instead readings that were entirely against one another, a process similair to the film’s central character.

The Visitor

“Teorema’s” visitor is never named. He is not presented with a false identity, his left without an identity. Contrasting heavily with the bourgeoisie family, whose names and behaviors reveal them to the cinematic audience as standard “types,” the visitor is irreducible. He seems to contain parts of all of them, and changes depending on who he is around. When he is around the brother, he becomes fraternal and playful. Around the mother, he is erotic and lustful. Around the maid, he is respectful.  Around the father, he is youthful and obedient. Around the sister, he is trusting and caring.

The Testing of the Bourgeoisie

Reacting to each in the manner they desire of him, the visitor becomes superhuman. He is freed of a single identity, and becomes the sum of the families hopes, dreams, wishes and nightmares. Pasolini has said that this character must be read as a divine being, a person whose character is beyond all characters. If this the case, then like Godard’s “Week-End” or Bunuel’s “Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” we might read “Teorema” as a social experiment- a testing of the bourgeoisie by exposure to a certain element, here diviinty. Exposed to this enigmatic divine figure, all of the bourgeoisie family members (plus the maid) react in different manners. Each has a new part of their character brought out by their intimacy with the visitor. When he leaves, each follows a new track, the mother becoming a nymphomaniac, the son an artist, and the daughter catatonic.

Divinity & Devotion

Only the maid and the father persue a lifestyle that is somehow more religious. The maid in particular becomes a miracle-worker, able to levitate and cure illness. She ultimately desires to be buried alive, not to die, she says, but to become a spring. The father, stripping naked, embarks a sort of pilgrimage into the world of the divine as we see him cross the very bleak mountainous landscape that has been used by Pasolini to represent timelessness and divinity throughout the film.

The Overcoming of Class

If one had to take a lesson away from the film, it would seem that Pasolini is commenting on class by means of the fantastic. By employing a mysterious divine visitor, Pasolini breaks the bourgeoisie apart into a number of tendencies and impusles. He reduces them to bodily urges (the mother), priviliged inspiration (the son), inability to cope (the daughter) and ambition (the father). Only the maid, who is not bourgeoisie, is benefited by her interaction with the stranger. She becomes a figure of semi-divinity herself.

“Teorema” is an investigation of the enigma of divinity in the world of class. It asks how a church that worships any one god or force can endorse a stratified class system. Because the divine stranger moves among all of the people in the family, the boundaries of class are shown to be incomensurate with divine reality. Moreover, the complete re-ordering of society that the visitation of the divine enables points at the fact that the true divine would overturn social hierarchies. The best example of this is the behavior of the father, who goes from a prominent industrialist to a born-again figure who gives his factory to the workers, strips himself, and becomes invested in a spiritual quest. He is also the end of the film, for he represents an entire deconstruction of the Italian social order. In awe of the idea of true divinity, it seems that Pasolini is indeed lampooning the church. Imagine, he seems to say, what social re-ordering would be necessary were true supernatural beings to mix in our midst.

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