A charismatic stranger comes to stay with a bourgeois Italian family and transforms the lives of the father, mother, son, daughter and maid through a series of sexual encounters and enigmatic discussions.
Critics have fallen over themselves attempting to dissect this scathing spirito-political parable. They debated whether Terence Stamp's stranger was divine or demonic and whether the family was blessed or cursed by his intervention. Some saw the film as a typical ‘60s demand for liberation from the constraints of capitalist tyranny, while others thought it a blasphemous parody of the Messianic myth. The church didn't know what to believe, with the International Catholic Film Office giving Pier Paolo Pasolini an award, while the Vatican denounced him. The Italian authorities were no less conflicted, as they sanctioned the film's release after Pasolini was acquitted of obscenity charges.
Even the Marxists complained that Pasolini had exhibited
a certain compassion' for the detested middle-classes, even though the director had stated thatthe point of the film is roughly this: a member of the bourgeoisie, whatever he does, is always wrong'.
Pasolini had envisaged Theorem as a verse tragedy for the stage and had initially conceived the stranger as a kind of fertility god. But he eventually proclaimed him to be
a generically ultra-terrestrial and metaphysical apparition', who could equally be the Devil or a mixture of God and Devil. However, his identity mattered less than the fact that he wasauthentic and unstoppable'. He's certainly that, as he forces the father to give away his business and head naked into the wilderness, drives the mother into a promiscuous search for his image, turns the son into a self-loathing artist, leaves the daughter in a catatonic trance and prompts the peasant maid to return to her roots and begin performing miracles.
Theorem clearly seems to adhere to Luis Buñuel's contention that spiritual growth and political consciousness are dependent on sexual freedom. But it's also faithful to its title in that it posits an answer to the question `would a bourgeois household implode if it encountered a force from outside its experience?' Thus, this is a revision of the Edenic fable, with the family realising its shame as a serpentine tempter exposes the reality of its consumerist paradise and forces it to confront its true nature.
Whichever of the various interpretations you ascribe to this socio-political parody, the quality is undeniable.