The Unicorn Scale: Teorema

By Muhammad Modibo Shareef

November 27, 2021



Photo credit: Image/Euro International Film

Pier Paolo Pasolini, the late Italian auteur, was a renaissance man in every sense. He was a gifted filmmaker, novelist, and poet. By depicting the harsh realities of the world, Pasolini challenged conventional thinking and the status quo. His Marxist views and sympathy for the working-class people fueled Pasolini's decision to show and humanize sex workers and other individuals deemed unworthy by society. Pasolini masterfully used images of Catholicism, eroticism, and violence throughout his films, and his artistic signature made him a pariah in the eyes of religious and conservative figures.

Pasolini's allegorical film, Teorema (1968), exemplifies his brilliant ability to blend two components that often seem contradictory: sexuality and religion. However, Pasolini uses a potent bisexual element as a vehicle to question (and dethrone) the bourgeoisie of 20th century Italy. Please be warned that SPOILERS are ahead, and if you are unfamiliar with our grading system, check out the original page here.

Teorema tells the story of an upper-class Milanese family whose lives turn upside down by the arrival of a mysterious man (Terence Stamp). Before "the visitor" shows up, the family receives a letter saying "arriving tomorrow," which gives the audience an idea that a divine force is coming. The inexplicable but magnetic man who shows up charms the entire household and ends up having sex with every resident. Lucia (Silvana Mangano), the sexually frustrated mother, Paolo (Massimo Girotti), the conflicted father, Odetta (Anne Wiazemsky), the innocent, naive daughter, Pietro (Andrés José Cruz Soublette), the quirky son, and even Emilia (Laura Betti), the religious maid all have sex with the visitor during the first half of the film.

The Visitor sitting with his legs spread reading a book and smoking a cigarette outside.
Image/Euro International Film

Surprisingly, the visitor's sexual escapades do not cause an uproar that one might expect at first; each household member benefited from the sexual affair with the visitor. For example, Odetta, the daughter, overcomes her irrational fear of men. Also, the maid begins to talk after having sex with the man, which betrays the mute impression she gives the audience at the beginning of the film. However, it is the visitor's abrupt departure that causes turmoil.

Each family member confesses about their perceived shortcomings to the visitor when he announces that he is leaving. Pasolini uses this aspect of the film to examine the superficial superiority of the bourgeoisie. Hence, Teorema does a phenomenal job at using bisexuality, religion, and class to allow the film to take an unflinching look at the imperfect lives of the elite.

What I Liked:

There are many things to appreciate about Pasolini's Teorema. The stellar cast, the Freudian approach, and the vigorous religious themes make the film a unique but complex visual tour. However, I deeply admire how Teorema uses sexuality to inspect the human condition without making sex the main focus. Before the visitor arrives, we witness the family's wealthy but dull existence in postwar Italy.

The Visitor reading something with Prieto in his room. Prieto has his hand around The visitor's shoulder.
Image/Euro International Film

Paolo, the patriarch, is an affluent factory owner whose enormous Milanese estate isn't enough to ease his tormented soul. In reality, the father's status and wealth were the only things holding his psyche together before meeting the visitor. Paolo's words towards the visitor are very telling. During a car ride, he states that "there's this sort of confusion inside me." Later on, he talks about how his relationship with the visitor amplified the lack of clarity in his life:

"The destruction you've caused in me couldn't be more complete. You've simply destroyed the idea I've always had of myself. Now I see absolutely nothing capable of giving me back my identity."

Somehow, the father realizes the facade of his life upon having sex with the visitor, which is ironic because he embodies ideal masculine characteristics: wealthy, powerful, and influential. After the visitor leaves, Paolo goes through a crisis that leads him to give his factory to his workers, and the film ends with him stripping naked in the wild and screaming in anguish.

Lucia, the mother, goes through a similar self-examination as her husband. The film depicts her as a prototype housewife of a prosperous family. Lucia is stunningly beautiful, mildly assertive, but unsatisfied. Like Paolo, she opens up about her existential doubts after having sex with the visitor.

"I realize now that I've never had any real interest in anything... I don't know how I lived with such emptiness, yet I did... Now I see: you filled my life with real and total interest. So by leaving, you're not destroying anything that was there before, except my chaste bourgeois reputation. Who cares about that?"

Lucia talking to The Visitor while he sits in a chair smoking a cigarette. Lucia has a concerned look on her face.
Image/Euro International Film

Later in the film, after the visitor leaves, Lucia drives around and picks up multiple men to have sex with to replicate the satisfaction that she got from the visitor.

The way Pasolini uses a bisexual figure to examine the faults and empty existence of the elite is the gem of the film. He does it so well that the audience is not distracted by the sexual aspect of the film. Instead, Teorema draws us into the interior lives of the family, who only appear to be perfect on the surface.

What I Didn’t Like:

My only issue with Teorema is the very thing I love most about the film: its ambiguity. Because some conversations and actions of the characters are vague, the audience has a lot of responsibility for interpreting Pasolini's meaning and vision. Why did the maid attempt suicide before the visitor saved her? How come the daughter's right hand remained closed when she was in a catatonic state? The film certainly requires you to watch it more than once, which is also a testament to its unorthodox direction.

Close up of Odette looking at the camera with a serious expression. She is in her home.
Image/Euro International Film

The Rating:

Although bisexuality is not the focus of Teorema, Pasolini's film deserves three and a half unicorns because it uses it as an effective tool to examine critical questions about life.

3.5 unicorn head emojis with purple mane.


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