Pier Paolo Pasolini was once quoted as saying, "If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief." Although there are those who would defend this statement as a declaration of Pasolini's Christianity (or at least, his possible Christianity), there is little doubt--from other statements and works of art--that Pasolini was more or less an atheist. Thankfully, Pasolini's atheism was not enough to diminish the power of his nostalgia. Pasolini: An Atheist, Marxist, and Gay rights activist, was nostalgic for true belief--the kind that has the ability to stir up passions that shatter all one's preconceived notions and leave her once and forever changed. The kind of belief that comes with the Christ. This is what Teorema (1968) is about.
A Marxist, Pasolini was no doubt aware of the doctrine of alienation. Alienation, in Marxist studies, is the inevitable result of a capitalist mode of production. In a capitalist society, one's labour does not belong to them--because they have sold it for a wage to the capitalist. Thus, the worker becomes alienated from her work. When she is at work her time no longer belongs to her, but to the capitalist. This is what makes us feel like cogs in the machine. This is the typical characterization of alienation one hears when studying Marx. However, this is an oversimplification of the notion of alienation. In a capitalist society, alienation applies not only to work, but rather, alienation is the fundamental nature of capitalism. Everyone who partakes in the capitalist system of exchange is, by its own fundamental nature, engaging in the alienation of their whole being. One becomes alienated from every aspect of herself--her body, her philosophies, her relationships--the entirety of her being becomes characterized by this alienation. This alienation is not a phenomenon found solely in the proletariat, in a capitalist society even the bourgeoisie are condemned to alienation. As Marx wrote:
"The less you eat, drink and read books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save-the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor dust will devour-your capital. The less you are, the more you have; the less you express your own life, the greater is your alienated life-the greater is the store of your estranged being" (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, 1884).
Pasolini's Teorema is about this alienation, the separation of self from self, and the way true passion can shatter the bonds that alienation creates.
The story is simple. A stranger arrives at the mansion of a bourgeoisie family. The family agrees to host him as a guest. The stranger then seduces every member of the family. The maid. The mother. The father. The son. And the daughter. Each one experiencing an awakening in response to the entrance of passion into their life. Then--the stranger leaves, leaving a wake of devastation in the family's realization that they must return to their estranged, passionless lives.
There are many conflicting theories as to who exactly "the stranger" is in Teorema. Some say he is just that--a stranger. Others are convinced he must be a metaphor for something greater: passion itself, or even God. Pasolini has said that it is possible the stranger be a metaphor for God. Being first and foremost a poet however, his films--arguably better understood as poems--are not to be limited to one interpretation. "The stranger" is best understood as an expansive metaphor standing for any and all the things that awaken passion and belief in our lives (God, Love, Sex, Philosophy, True Understanding, etc.). Arguably more important than the stranger himself is the family's response to his presence. In receiving the stranger the family is experiencing a breaking in the bonds of alienation. The family members' intercourse with the stranger is the reclamation of the self through passion. Of course, there are again multiple interpretations of this passion--that it is the unconditional love of God, or that it is just the awakening of the body through lust. Regardless, the result is the same, love is the ultimate negation of the capitalist paradigm of alienation. It is the utmost rejection of alienation. The act of this negation is described by the father to the stranger, "You must have come here to destroy," he says, "The destruction you've caused in me couldn't be more complete. You've simply destroyed the image I've always had of myself." The father's alienated self has been destroyed, and his body is reclaimed through his passion directed at the stranger.
It is no wonder that Pasolini made what is considered by many to be the best film ever made about the Savior (The Gospel According to St. Matthew), for it appears his nostalgia gave him an understanding that few others have grasped. It is an understanding of the meaning of Christ when he spoke: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple"(Luke 14:26, ESV). It is not a a literal hatred of the self and family, but rather, it is a rejection of all roles and classifications determined by societal systems (in Pasolini's case, by capitalism). One must hate the image of her own life in a capitalist society in order to love, because the image of the self is the ultimate alienation, the alienation of self from self. The destruction of that image is the reclamation of the true self, the reclamation of the body. True love, true passion, is the ultimate opposition to capitalism because it forces one outside the system of alienation. Teorema shows us this awakening.