Pasolini, during the filming of the desert scenes for Teorema.
“Who is that boy?”
At the beginning of Teorema (1968), a film by the Italian director, writer, poet, and leftist intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini, this question is asked. The subject of the question (played by Terence Stamp) is the visitor of an Italian bourgeois family, and at the moment it is raised, he has just entered the room of their house, where at the same time a party is taking place.
In the film, it is through him that each member of the household (the mother, father, son, daughter and maid) will experience a certain key moment, through a brief relationship, wherethrough each of them will come to a certain realization about their life. When, in the middle of the film, the visitor suddenly has to leave, the film shows us how each member of the household tries to cope with his absence, and this insight.
Pasolini, in his cleverness, manages to let the viewer experience a similar feeling, all while focusing on his views of society: The uncertainty in the relation between the film’s prologue and the main part of the film is resolved in the last scene, and beautifuly so.
Teorema film still: The father walks through nature after a rendezvous with the unnamed visitor.
A natural sacredness
Thematically, in these moments of realization, nature is used as a central theme, and throughout the film, shots of a desert are used as a motif. It is also a very visual film, and in it slowness, with little dialogue and scenes which flow in and out of one another, it displays a visual rhythm, a certain serenity, which invites the viewer in. In its ambiguity—it is a very open-ended film—it offers ample room for the viewer to put meaning into the work—and it is in this way that I consider it to be one of the finest art films. It is a film that keeps one mystified for weeks—and as such it made a most lasting impression on me.
Through its use of natural themes and its visual language, the film conveys a natural mysticism—reminiscent of Romanticism. As an example, it surely must not be a coincidence that the visitor is reading Rimbaud while sitting in the garden at some point. For Pasolini, nature had this timeless, miraculous, aspect.
Interested in this moment of realization which is connected to nature, I thought of a headpiece which would convey similar feelings. My first approach was to do something which would frame the face, thereby putting a focus on the eyes, mouth; like a veil as it appears in The Gospel According To St. Matthew, or as can be seen in portraits of Humanists such as Erasmus, or Petrarca—or the sight of someone, partly hidden behind a tree branch.
The author looking for materials
Pasolini’s use of anachronisms, as apparent in The Gospel According To Saint Matthew, seemed an interesting element to take on too. As an example, the Roman soldiers in the film appear as if stepped straight out of a renaissance painting, while in another scene Odetta’s live performance of Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child from 1960 is played in the background. Later on, records of pieces by Prokofiev, Mozart and Bach can also be heard, all clearly out of time. It marks, as far as I know, the first intentional use of anachronisms in cinema—and it works beautifully, as evident to anyone with eyes and ears.
As a person, Pasolini had many contradictory characteristics, being a marxist and atheist while working with religious themes, a homosexual who found inspiration, and perhaps a sense of consolation, in traditional Italian values. Instead of hiding the uncertainties that would come out of such contradictions, he decided to bring them to the center of his work, and in my opinion this is particularly interesting.
Related to the visual arts, he also experimented with drawing and painting, and in these experiments worked with non-ordinary materials, such as coffee, glue and tea, producing interesting sculptural effects.
As a loose interpretation, I translated this to thinking about the use of certain unnatural materials that surprisingly seemed to contain natural characteristics—concrete slabs which had dried in such a way that a leaflike structure was present on the surface, mortar, branches of trees and pieces of aluminium.
Similar to his (in form), my first experiments, trying to deal with the fragility of the concrete and mortar, consisted of an assemblage of these on a flat frame—to frame the face—itself made out of chicken wire, combined with a colour palette which was derived from the visual aspect of his work. But these went astray, both in form and content.
Deciding that I needed to shift my focus on the sublime aspect of these natural, mystical moments—in a scene in Teorema for example, the maid’s body is partly covered with soil; in another, the daughter repeats daily the steps that she once walked with the visitor through the garden of the house—it became apparent that the headpiece itself would need to induce such a moment.
The lattice structure and final design
Chipping off slim slabs from a block of two kinds of river clay with a metal spatula, I built up a flexible fabric of inflexible building blocks. By puncturing the clay before it dried with a needle, they could be tied together with thread to form a rectangular lattice structure, which I modified in specific places to follow the curvature of the face.
Pasolini talked of “this longing for life, this sense of exclusion, which does not lesson, but augments this love of life” as the mark that dominated his work. As such, a headpiece which can only be worn when laying down on the ground seemed fitting in its passiveness, while referencing natural elements, as discussed above.
Arranged on the bottom, as a pillow, are loose slabs of a slightly darker clay. Embedded in some of them, while starting at the eyes, following the curvature of the face, are pieces of aluminium, in which tears can be read.
Final headpiece (click for colour)