Home #Hwoodtimes Pasolini’s THE CANTERBURY TALES: Sex. Humor and Religion in Chaucer’s Medieval England

Pasolini’s THE CANTERBURY TALES: Sex. Humor and Religion in Chaucer’s Medieval England

By Jim Gilles

Students named Alan (Patrick Duffet) and John (Eamann Howell) riding back to Oxford from wild night at the Miller’s mill.

Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 3/7/22 – On Saturday night March 5 at the Motion Picture Academy Museum was a screening of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Canterbury Tales (I racconti di Canterbury, Italy, 1972), the second anthology film by Pasolini in his “Triology of Life” Series and based on the late 14th century medieval narrative poem by Geoffrey Chaucer. Preceded by The Decameron (1971) and followed by the Arabian Nights (1974), Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales won the Golden Bear at the 22nd Berlin International Film Festival in 1974. With The Canterbury Tales he set his sights to the earthy Middle English of Chaucer. Behind the scenes, Pasolini broke up with his lover Ninetto Davoli and said in retrospect, he was not in the right frame of mind for this kind of silly, lighthearted trilogy. Yet it remains one of his most important films as Pasolini considered it among his most “ideological.” The film can be seen as an attack on the stiff sexual mores of both Chaucer and Pasolini’s times.

The Wife of Bath in illustrated Ellesmere MS of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Pasolini’s The Canterbury Tales includes 8 of the 24 tales written by Chaucer. In Pasolini’s rendition, they contain abundant nudity, sex, and slapstick humor. Some are taken directly from Chaucer and others alluded to in the original, but augmented by Pasolini. The film sometimes diverges from Chaucer. For example, “The Friar’s Tale” is significantly expanded upon: Where the Friar leads in with a general account of the archdeacon’s severity and the summoner’s corruption, Pasolini illustrates this with a specific incident which has no parallel in Chaucer. After men are caught having sex at a local inn, one is able to bribe his way out of trouble, but the other, poorer man is less fortunate: he is convicted of sodomy and sentenced to death. As a foretaste of Hell, he is burned alive inside an iron cage (“roasted on a griddle” in the words of one spectator) while vendors sell roasted foods to the spectators. Likewise, “The Cook’s Tale” which is 58 lines and unfinished by Chaucer is turned into a slapstick farce to give Ninetto Davoli a starring role.

Absolon (Peter Cain) with homosexual Martin serenading Alison in The Miller’s Tale

Prologue: The film credits roll as the traditional ballad Ould Piper plays over top, about an elderly piper from Ballymoney who dies and is sent to Hell where he annoys the Devil with his terrible singing. The characters from the later stories are introduced chattering to one another at the Tabard inn. Geoffrey Chaucer (played by Pasolini himself) enters through the gate and bumps into a heavy man covered in woad tattooing, injuring his nose. The Wife of Bath (Laura Betti) delivers long-winded monologues to disinterested listeners about her weaving skills and sexual prowess. The Pardoner (Derek Deadman) unsuccessfully attempts to sell what he claims are pieces of cloth from the sail of St. Peter’s boat and the Holy Virgin’s veil. Some other travelers enter the Tabard Inn and suggest they tell stories to make the journey more entertaining which leads into the main stories of the film. Chaucer opens his book and begins to write down their stories. The shots of Chaucer at work in his study are based on the painting of “Saint Jerome in His Study” (1472) by Antonello da Messina.

Pasolini directing the scene of the devils in Hell from The Summoner’s Tale

The Merchant’s Tale (First Tale): The elderly merchant Sir January (Hugh Griffith) decides to marry May (Josephine Chaplin), a young woman who has little interest in him. Atypical of a Pasolini film, he chose some of the finest British actors such as Hugh Griffith and Josephine Chaplin. This has probably the most famous cast of a Pasolini film. After they are married, the merchant suddenly becomes blind, and insists on constantly holding on to his wife’ wrist as consolation for the fact that he cannot see her. Meanwhile, Damian (Oscar Fochetti), a young man whom May has interest in decides to take advantage of the situation. May has a key to January’s personal garden made. While the two are walking in the private garden, May asks to eat mulberries from one of the trees. Taking advantage of her husband’s blindness, she meets with Damian inside of the tree, but is thwarted when the god Pluto (Giuseppe Arrigio), who has been watching over the couple in the garden, suddenly restores January’s sight. January briefly sees May and her lover together and is furious. Fortunately for May, the goddess Persepone (Elisabetta Genovese), who also happens to be in the same garden fills her head with decent excuses to calm her husband’s wrath. May convinces January that he has hallucinated and the two walk off together merrily.

Perkin (Ninetto Davoli) in bed with a prostitute and her client

The Friar’s Tale (Second Tale): A vendor witnesses a summoner who is spying on two different men committing sodomy. He catches both and turns them over to the authorities. While one man manages to escape persecution by bribing the authorities, the other is sentenced to burn on a “griddle”. During his execution, the vendor (Franco Citti) walks through the crowd selling griddle cakes. Afterwards, the vendor meets the summoner, who is unaware he was being followed. The two vow to be friends but the vendor reveals himself to be the Devil. The summoner does not care about this and says they will make great partners as they are both out for profit. The summoner then explains that he must collect money from a miserly old woman. When they meet the old woman, the summoner levies false charges against her and tells her that she must appear before the ecclesiastical court but says that if she pays him a bribe in the amount she owes, she will be excused. The old woman accuses him of lying, and curses him to be taken away by the Devil if he does not repent. She says the Devil can take him and the pitcher she owns which is her most valuable possession. The devil asks her if she truly means what she says and she assents. The summoner refuses to repent and the Devil proceeds to take him (and the pitcher) to hell as they are now his by divine right.

Pasolini with his lover, actor Ninetto Davoli

The Cook’s Tale (Third Tale): The travelers at the Tabard Inn have all fallen asleep save for Chaucer. He begins to jot down more of their tales starting with the Cook’s Tale. In this unfinished tale by Chaucer, Pasolini invented the majority of the story. Perkin (Ninetto Davoli), a Chaplin-esque fool who carries a cane and wears a hat resembling a bowler, steals food from bystanders and causes havoc. He is chased by the police who he escaped from by ducking out the way while they trip into the Thames River. Perkin crashes a wedding where he steals the attention of the bride and smashes a wedding cake into the face of the feckless husband. This enrages the father-in-law who throws him out.

Geoffrey Chaucer (Pier Paolo Pasolini) reading a tale from Boccaccio’s Decameron

Perkin goes home where he is scolded by his midget father. His mother is more sympathetic and steals food for him. She hopes he will find work tomorrow. Perkin next finds work polishing eggs. While his employer is away, Perkin is distracted by a group of men playing a dice game nearby, and joins them. He steals money from his employer to use but is soon discovered and fired. Perkin accompanies one of the men home, where he shares a bed with the man and his wife, who is a prostitute. That night, he dreams he is dancing with naked women in a similar manner to how the party guests were dancing at the wedding he had previously crashed. Two police officers who Perkin evaded earlier discover him there, and awaken him. Perkin is arrested and put in the stocks where he drunkenly sings The Ould Piper while bystanders and minstrels cheer and shout.

Sir January (Hugh Griffith) with his young bride May (Josephina Chaplin) in The Merchant’s Tale

The Miller’s Tale (Fourth Tale): Chaucer reads a funny story from The Decameron. His wife scolds him for wasting time so he sits down to write his own story, which is actually the Miller’s Tale. Nicholas (Dan Thomas), a young student lives next door to an overweight, elderly carpenter named John (Michael Balfour). He notices that John has left for Osney, so he goes next door to seduce his much younger wife Alison (Jenny Runacre), who secretly detests him. Absolon (Peter Cain), another youth, is also in love with Alison. He and his homosexual friend Martin go to Alison later and serenade her with the ballad The Gower Wassail. However, Alison’s husband has returned and Alison is much chagrined. In order to deceive the carpenter, Nicholas pretends to be in a holy trance. When the carpenter enters the room to see what is wrong Nicholas convinces him that a massive flood is about to occur, and claims that he, the carpenter, and Allison should all three wait in buckets tied to the ceiling rafters to escape drowning. The carpenter does as he says and they hide in the buckets. While the carpenter waits in his bucket, he drifts off to sleep. Nicholas and Alison come out of their buckets and sneak away to have sex.

Rich obese merchant friends of Sir January at the wedding in The Merchant’s Tale

Meanwhile, Absolon returns but Alison scolds him and tells him that she doesn’t love him. He accepts but asks only for a kiss. Allison answers him by inviting him to climb up to her window and then when he puckers his lips she sticks her buttocks out the window and farts in his face (a departure from the original, in which it is Nicholas, not Alison, who farts in his face). Absolon is offended and runs to a blacksmith’s shop where he borrows a hot poker, and then returns to the carpenter’s house and asks for another kiss. On this occasion, Nicholas goes to the window instead of Alison, and has his buttocks scalded. Nicholas then cries out for water, leading the carpenter to awaken and believe that the flood has arrived. The carpenter then cuts the rope holding his bucket in the air, and violently falls to the ground.

Damian (Oscar Fochetti) meets up with May (Josephine Chaplin) in a mulberry tree in The Merchant’s Tale

The Wife of Bath’s Prologue (Fifth Tale): In city of Bath, a middle-aged woman’s fourth husband falls ill during sex and dies soon after. The wife (Laura Betti) meets a young student named Jenkin (Tom Baker) and is instantly smitten by him after watching him bathing. Her friend who is lodging the student sets up for her to meet Jenkin alone during an ‘Obby’Oss (May Day) celebration that is coming up. At the celebration, she gets Jenkin alone and gives him a handjob. She tells him that he must marry her because she had a prophetic dream that he was trying to kill her and that she was covered in blood. Blood means gold. As soon as she buries her husband, she marries Jenkin in quick succession, literally running from her late husband’s funeral in one wing of a cathedral to her wedding in another wing. On their wedding night, the wife of Bath’s fifth husband reads to her from a book denouncing the evils of historical women such as Eve and Xanthippe. The wife of Bath demands that he not tell her about her own business, and destroys the book. Her husband pushes her away, and she falls onto her back and moans on the floor. She feigns injury and tells him that she is dying. She curses him for plotting to take her land and inheritance. When he leans over to comfort her, however, she bites his nose. This episode is derived from the prologue to the Wife of Bath’s Tale rather than the tale itself.

Franco Citti as the Devil in The Friar’s Tale

The Reeve’s Tale (Sixth Tale): In Cambridge, a manciple (food caterer) falls ill and is unable to perform his duties so two students named Alan (Patrick Duffet) and John (Eamann Howell) are tasked with performing them for him. They bring a sack of grain to a mill to be milled into flour. Simkin the Miller (Tiaziano Longo) tricks the youths by freeing their horse and switching their flour for bran while they chase after it. When they return with the horse, it is late in the evening, and the students ask to stay the night. The Miller agrees to let them stay, and the two share a pallet bed next to one shared by the Miller and his wife. During the night, Alan seduces Molly (Heather Johnson), the Miller’s daughter, being careful not to wake the Miller. John is angered by this as he is left alone and feels foolish. The Miller’s wife (Eileen King), meanwhile, gets up to urinate, and stumbles over the crib at the foot of her and the Miller’s pallet. John gets an idea and before she returns, he moves the crib to the foot of his own pallet, tricking the miller’s wife into sleeping with him instead of the Miller. Alan finishes having sex with Molly, and she confesses that she and father have stolen his flour. Alan then gets into bed with the Miller and tells him about his exploits with Molly, thinking that the Miller is his companion. The Miller then attacks the scholar, causing his wife and John to come to the scholar’s defense in the dark room and knock him out. The scholars then ride away with their flour as Molly forlornly says farewell.

Vender & Devil (Franco Citti) in bowler hat at the execution of the sodomist.

The Pardoner’s Tale (Seventh Tale): Chaucer sits down to write another story. He has a very focused look on his face. In Flanders, four young men spend their time carousing in a brothel that is full of prostitutes who specialize in kinky sex. One of the boys, Rufus (Robin Asquith), is drunk and yells at the other customers for their immorality before urinating on them. The next day, Rufus is killed by a thief. The other boys hear about this and misunderstand the news they are told. They believe Rufus was literally murdered by a man named Death. They agree to seek out Death for themselves and get revenge on him for murdering their friend. The youths then encounter an old man, who they accuse of conspiring with Death in order to kill the young, and demand at knifepoint that he tell them where Death is located. The old man (Anthony Webb) tells them to look around a nearby oak tree, where they find instead an abundance of treasure. While two of the youths wait by the treasure, a third – Dick the Sparrow (played by Edward Monteith) – leaves for town, returning later with three casks of wine, two of which he has poisoned. When he reaches the tree, the two youths drink the poisoned wine and stab their companion, then succumb to the poison. And so, all three meet Death.

The Wife of Bath (Laura Betti) marries Jenkin (Tom Baker) in the same cathedral immediately after her 4th husband’s funeral

The Summoner’s Tale (Eighth Tale): In the final tale, a gluttonous friar (John Francis Lane) tries to extract as many donations as possible from a bedridden parishioner. The parishioner then offers him his most valuable possession, provided he promises to distribute it equally among all the friars. The parishioner claims that this possession is located beneath his buttocks. When the friar reaches down to retrieve the item, the bedridden man farts into his hands. That night, an angel visits the friar and brings him to hell, where Satan expels hundreds of corrupt friars from his rectum. This segment with Satan defecating corrupt friars is actually from the Summoner’s prologue rather than the main tale. The depiction of Hell at the very end of the film is based on the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch, Giotto Bondone and Peter Bruegel, which served as visual references.

Pilgrims on their way to Canterbury in Pasolini’s The Canterbury Tales’

The film ends with the pilgrims arriving at Canterbury Cathedral, in which is the shrine of Thomas Beckett, the archbishop who was murdered in the cathedral in 1170. We see Chaucer (played by Pasolini) at home writing (in transl.) “Here ends the Canterbury Tales, told only for the pleasure of telling them. Amen”: a line original to the film. The film was shot in England, and all the dialogue was filmed in English, which Pasolini considered the primary language of the film. No live sound was recorded, and so English and Italian dialogue were both dubbed over the film afterwards. For written scenes in the movie, both Italian and English language shots were filmed.