̶ And you, Sprague, what were you like at my age?
̶ I was like Terence Stamp in Teorema.
̶ I love that film!
It was at once strange and seductive, as if in taking off my panties I had unveiled reality.
̶̶ So you were the stranger, the saint, the guest? she asks.
̶ Did you make love with men?
̶ No. But if their desire, unbeknownst to them, was homosexual, I was the one who’d reveal it.
̶ Did you make love with the mother, the maid, the daughter?
̶ Yes. But I myself didn’t know my secret. I was simply silent and available. The girl always gave the signal.
Mystery returned to the world: Naked, I assumed my desire and felt free to play with identity.
̶̶ Did you read Rimbaud in the garden, like Terence Stamp?
̶ I did.
̶ And did you always wear white?
̶ No. But I wore the equivalent: black.
̶ And did you become an actor in others’ erotic scenarios?
̶ Yes. I let them use me. I was simply there, passive until it was time to perform.
̶ Mysteriously present in their intimacy?
̶ And afterwards, after making love, were they transformed?
̶ They were. They couldn’t go on living as they’d lived before.
̶ My father had no love to give me. We never got along. What he really wanted was a son. Looking back, I see I became a tomboy just because I was trying to get closer to him.
Her kohl-rimmed eyes intensify her boundless trust in me. I’m not wearing white, but I feel like Terence Stamp in Teorema.
̶̶ Not once did he ever hug me. When I would put my arms around him, he would pull a face and tremble in horror.
̶ You’re an idiot, Sprague, and you have to write your book as the idiot you are.
̶ Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?
̶ No. More like your beloved Terence Stamp in Teorema.
̶ I see.
̶ It’s who you are, Sprague. You’re one of a kind.
The waiter took us for brother and sister, Iskra and I. Her hair’s as black as mine, her eyes as green. Guess that allowed him to overlook my southern complexion and her Slavic pallor, her youth and my youthfulness. She’s doing a PhD in plant science at Sofia University (mutant seedlings with aberrant circadian rhythms). Spent two years at Sheffield University. Speaks English with a Yorkshire accent! We met in the Botanic Garden. She was sitting on a bench, crying. I sat down beside her. Didn’t say anything, just reached out my hand. She took it. (I wasn’t wearing white, but that’s how it happened.) When we parted five days later, it was a strange goodbye.
Have you noticed Akiko’s been eyeing you? Is she struck by your beauty, intrigued by your demeanour, as you sit on the sofa beside me, legs flexed, stockinged feet on the footrest? I like her allure, her high cheekbones and free-flowing hair. I like the contrast of her loose cardigan and stretch-knit top, the subtlety of black on black. I like her black ankle boots, her black skinny jeans, her black eyes and black hair. But I’m not in a black mood. In fact, I’m feeling as luminously white as Terence Stamp in Teorema. Is that why innocence and honesty, in the conversation that followed, dispensed with the armour of irony?
In Sprague’s list of his ten favourite films that he gives Marietta as she leaves him, Teorema is number 5.
The environs of Milan, a wealthy family in a mansion: Paolo and Lucia, husband and wife; Odetta and Pietro, the children (respectively in their late- and mid-teens); Emilia, the silent, middle-aged maid. Into their household comes ‘the Visitior’, a beautiful young man. Like a moth to the flame, each member of the family is attracted to the mysterious guest; enigmatic, their desire wells up and seeks him to satisfy it.
First, Emilia. Observing the visitor reading in the garden, she feels her attraction to him and is overcome by a feeling of transgression. (How do we know this? In Teorema, the silence of the images is as eloquent as the actors’ body language.) She runs inside, stands before a mirror surrounded by pictures of the saints, and takes off her earrings. Back outside, raking up the leaves, she is again overcome by the visitor’s presence; as she stares at him, tears flow from her eyes. She runs into the kitchen and begins to gas herself at the stove. The Visitor rushes to her rescue, gets her to her bedroom, and—at her invitation—makes love to her.
Next, the son. Unable to restrain his desire, he draws back the bedsheets as the Visitor sleeps, waking him. Acutely embarrassed, he apologizes. The Visitor joins him in his bed.
Next, the wife. Disrobed, she lies back and awaits the Visitor. Returning from a walk in the forest, he is touched by her embarrassment before him. With the same tenderness he’d shown the maid and the son, he makes love to her.
Next, the daughter. Relaxing in the garden, she runs inside and returns with a camera to photograph the Visitor. She then takes him by the hand, leads him inside to her bedroom, and shows him her photo album. In their bubble of intimacy she bares her breasts to him. We imagine the rest.
Finally, the husband. Bed-stricken by his troubling desire, he recovers after some care by the Visitor. They drive out into the country. The husband mentions his moral concerns, and the confusion he feels. Stopping for a drink, they box playfully. Further out in the country, the Visitor lies down in the winter vegetation by a body of water. The husband approaches. We imagine the rest.
The angel-postman who’d announced the Visitor’s arrival returns with a letter announcing it’s time for him to depart. Husband, wife, daughter, son, maid: Each conveys to the Visitor (the maid by lavishing kisses on his hands) the fact that he has made a radical break in their life, making it impossible for them to be as they were before.
The Visitor leaves. Emilia becomes a mystic, touched by miracles, and is buried alive at her own request. Odetta becomes catatonic, the caress she’d given the Visitor sealed in her fist as she lies rigid on her bed. Pietro becomes an artist, and discovers the truth of that condition. Lucia cruises the streets of Milan in search of young men; as they make love to her, she only misses the Visitor more. Paolo, having given his factory to his workers, roams naked upon volcanic slopes, the ash on the wind making a cloud of his cry.
Free of morality, beyond good and evil, the Visitor restores desire. Neither fool nor saint, he is the stranger who allows our self to be less false, our efforts to end in a better failure. But when he leaves we’re on our own. Individualized. Alone.
This is the theorem of Teorema. As demonstrated by Pasolini, it makes for a brilliant film. And a fine companion piece to that other Pasolini masterpiece, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew.
Teorema was the first film in which Pasolini began to show women as sexual subjects who were on a par with men in terms of desire and agency. Granted, in Oedipus the King, Jocasta often appears in the bedroom and is often on the verge of having sex, but these encounters are mostly prompted by Oedipus. However, in Teorema, the woman are not dependent or passive in this respect. When the Guest descends upon their household, the women therein respond to their impulses and satisfy their own physical desires. They do not reflect, respond to, or comply on command with the sexual longings of the men around them. The mother, Lucia, stands apart from the other mothers in Pasolini’s filmography because she never embraces her maternal role. And because the main theme of Teorema is the sex-sacred nexus embodied by the Guest, it seems more appropriate to consider Lucia in terms of her carnal sins and show how these illicit acts connote the refusal of norms within the context of her family crisis and broader sphere of the community. Although Lucia speaks much less than the sinners that follow, her one monologue marks a decisively liberating and self-preserving entry into the symbolic.
Lucia represents the modern woman of her time, but one repressed and crippled by a lack of self-awareness and a lack of social freedom. Throughout the film, she appears the same: trim and well dressed, with stylish hair and make-up. She entertains on occasion and appears to have no formal occupation. While not a corrupt figure in and of herself, she is clearly a co-opted member of her society, weakened and conditioned by her privileged status. Ordinarily, these traits would not signal a genuine existence, but Lucia is also taciturn and reserved, and it is her withheld, semi-frightened, and mysterious nature that allows us to consider her in light of Pasolini’s investigation of authenticity. The notion of Lucia’s underlying innocence is further enhanced by the fact that Silvana Mangano plays this role. As was the case in Oedipus the King (1967) and The Decameron (1971), the actress refers to Susanna Pasolini and, hence, the origins of Pasolini’s life, poetics, and political ideals.
Lucia is the first female figure in Pasolini’s cinema to initiate sex out of wedlock for reasons other than prostitution. And it is by violating the moral codes of marriage that she takes steps towards a more genuine understanding of herself and her role in society. Pasolini develops the notion of Lucia’s hidden virtue through a few symbolic actions, all of which revolve around sex. In fact, they constitute the only times she fully expresses her subjectivity. ‘To be a subject or “I” at all.’ Elisabeth Grosz affirms, ‘the subject must take up a sexualized position, identifying with the attributes socially designated as appropriate for men or women.’ However, as Lucia takes up her sexualized position, she defies the attributes prescribed by society. With the exception of the fact that she keeps to the heterosexual paradigms governing sexual relations, Lucia openly rejects her role as dutiful wife by refusing conjugal sex and asserts her ‘self’ as the subject of extramarital affairs – first with the Guest, and then with a number of surrogates.
Lucia’s discovery of her true identity is a process that at first manifests itself in the form of sexual desire and then culminates in sexual intercourse with the Guest. Nevertheless, both stages of Lucia’s encounter require her to engage with the symbolic through language. Her first contact with verbal language does not materialize through speech (production or externalization of the symbolic) per se, but, rather, through reading (reception or internalization of the symbolic). Specifically. she reads the sensual and symbolic poetry of Rimbaud. Having seen the Guest read this book earlier in the film, we assume it is his. So, the fact that Lucia reads it as a prelude to sex signals her will to ‘read’ or ‘learn’ the Guest as if he were a gospel or a guide, and to assimilate him like knowledge. From his book, Lucia passes to the Guest’s clothes and reads them, too, as a system of signs. Carefully arranged on the floor and furniture as if his invisible body were in them, the garments inspire Lucia to shed her inhibitions (quite literally her clothes) and offer herself to the visitor. She flirtatiously tosses her dress over the balcony to attract his attention (he is outdoors), and when he joins her on the balcony of the family hut, where she waits, naked, he leans over her with the sun beaming from behind and responsively consummates their union.
When, soon after this encounter, the Guest announces that he must go, Lucia, like the other family members, enters into crisis. Profoundly aware of her empty past and equally concerned about the future, Lucia accesses the symbolic to express her grief. In the following candid and cathartic exegesis, Lucia sums up her life as a lack of real interests, or a lack of genuine desires and subjectivity:
I realize now that I have never had any real interest in anything. I don’t mean big interests, but not even little natural interests like that of my husband for his factory, of my son for his schoolwork, or of Odetta for the family. I have had nothing. And I don’t understand how I could have lived in such emptiness, and yet I did. If once I had a bit of instinctive love for life, it dried up, like a garden that no one visits. In reality, that emptiness was filled with false and poor values, from a horrendous accumulation of wrong ideas. Now I see it. You filled my life with a total, real interest. So, by leaving, you are not destroying anything that was part of me before, other than the reputation of being a chaste bourgeois. But by leaving, you destroy instead all that you yourself gave me, love amidst the emptiness of my life.
In her monologue, Lucia defines herself in terms of a nothingness; nowhere is this more evident than in the simple phrase ‘Io nulla’. Even if this ‘I nothing’ refers to her lack of sincere interests compared with her husband and children, the juxtaposition of these two notions – the self and non-being – have a contradictory effect. For if she can say ‘I’ she must be a subject and therefore exist. At the same time, if her saying ‘I’ means ‘taking up a sexualized position’ and ‘identifying with the attributes socially designated as appropriate for women,’ then her existence, Pasolini suggests, is a non-existence. Yet, at some level, Lucia is relieved to see this void and finally know the truth. It is as if by reducing herself to nothing, she can identify the genuine seed of her selfhood, and, from within this very emptiness or state of non-being, can then recover a genuine dimension in her life. The Guest incites this self-reflection and makes Lucia cognizant of her first ‘real’ interest, that is, the ‘Other’, the mysterious, the sacred. For Pasolini, this new awareness was more valid and powerful than all the entrepreneurial, intellectual, or social interests of the other family members combined. Her challenge will be preserving this new state once the Guest (the primary motor for it) is gone.
The film Teorema is immediately preceded by the book. By means of this doubling Pasolini was able to distil ideas into scenes without sacrificing his goal of a linguistic and philosophical cinema. The book is not so much a script as a descriptive exegesis which provides the architecture of the film along with poetic interludes on the setting and the social forces at work on the five characters (who are visited by the Guest). The last section of the book is actually the film’s opening shot: in advance of the story, a group of industrial workers is asked how they would react if the owners gave them the factory. Would this not be a buy-out of their conscience as proletarians, a cooptation that would negate any chance of revolution? The interview is intercut with scenes of a desert and the film’s epigraph from Exodus (XIII, 18): ‘God led the people a roundabout way through the desert’. The sequence is not otherwise justified or explained until the film’s end when the protagonist, a bourgeois captain of industry, does give his factory to the workers and walks off naked and presumably insane across an allegorical desert of perdition. Only then does the linguistic report of the opening receive its philosophical confirmation, in the pairing of economic and psycho-sexual repressions. The former is encoded in Marxist terms: the industrialist, by exploiting and commodifying the workers, grows alienated and falls victim to his own ‘false consciousness’. The latter is Freudian, a defense mechanism in which undesirable instinctual demands are expelled and kept from the conscious mind; in the extreme case of the father, the violent return of the repressed leads to an abandonment of society in its every aspect. In him the two repressions converge absolutely, just as the opening and concluding shots (contiguous in the book Teorema) form a memorative circle by which to allegorically interpret the ‘theorem.’
Who then is the Guest? He is neither God nor the devil. He is not a priapic principle and he is not Pasolini. Nor is he the ‘theorem’. Instead he is a daimonic messenger, a figure of the sacred and metaphysical who is exactly as mutable as the psyches of those he encounters. In his presence the Guest reveals social and sexual repressions which, after his departure, further reveal the arch-repression of bourgeois society: the repression of the sacred.
If the film’s goal is to present a series of case studies of persons provoked by sex or love into a form of self-knowledge, the conclusions are various, with an obvious symmetry between the father, who has lost his self, and Emilia, who is sanctified. That Emilia (whose name is that of Pasolini’s native region) is typical of her class is evident when another maid named Emilia replaces her in the house. She meanwhile has begun a Christ-like transformation, returning to her peasant home to undertake a period of ascesis and purification, eating nettles, conducting miracles, levitating over the farm buildings, then walking to a construction site where she asks to be buried, not to die: ‘I came to cry, not to die,’ she states as her tears form a miraculous fountain. In this scene the director seems to be citing his own ‘Il pianto della scavatrice’ (1956), the longest poem of his classic book, Le ceneri di Gramsci, in which a steam-shovel allegorically weeps in support of the Roman proletariat. Emilia’s final arrival at the urban periphery, and not beyond, is appropriate to her mission and nurtures the same hopes of liberation.
Andrea Zanzotto has written of Teorema, ‘In this work there is a perfect balance between expressive factors and referential elements that are put together in a theorem destined to remain up in the air, as regards a possible demonstration, but open on infinite corollaries’. This idea of open-endedness is typical of metaphorical thinking, and to the use of enthymemes and abductions one finds in allegory; the proof is not in the attainment of certainty, but in the realization that the ‘parable’ in question is, in Zanzotto’s words, ‘religious, metaphysical, but also, and perhaps more strongly, historical-existential’. The whole emphasis of the work is to suggest, not confirm. The Guest will not return, but the sacred and daimonic presence may, to guide the remaining family members to their resolution.