Piers Paolo Pasolin’s 1972 adaptation of Geoffrey Chaucer’s medieval classic poem The Canterbury Tales remains to be one of the few (if any) adaptations of Chaucer’s most realized work, and perhaps the truest. It’s a wild series of bawdy tales, featuring some of the finest tales from The Canterbury Tales, including “The Merchant’s Tale,” “The Miller’s Tale,” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” among others. Pasolini even includes the unfinished tale “The Cook’s Tale” in his film I racconti di Canterbury (I’ll just call it The Canterbury Tales), and takes a bizarre turn with it, using it as an opportunity to satirize Chaplin and the bravado and pretensions of American cinema.
“The Cook’s Tale” is a bit weak as satire of American cinema in the context of satire of medieval life, but it’s still really entertaining, exerting the bawdy humour and rich medieval flavour that made Chaucer’s work so worthwhile. Pasolini’s world is rampant with crude humour and sexual elements, to such an extent that his rendition of The Canterbury Tales is almost pornographic. That’s not a bad thing though, as most of the tales in Chaucer’s poem were ripe with sexuality and sexual undertones. His conception of Hell is certainly one of the most creative and raunchy interpretations of Hell. I won’t give too much away, but it’s interesting to see where these friars really come from. His adaptation of “The Miller’s Tale” is probably the most complete and accurate tale taken from the source material, and is absolutely wonderful to watch.
That being said, the transition from poem to film is considerably difficult, as the satire of Chaucer is so firmly rooted in the text. Some of the tales, such as “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” manage to retain their entertainment value, but often become overblown in their execution. I realize that the Wife of Bath likes to talk, but I don’t want to hear her screaming and yelling every five seconds.
As well, it would’ve been better to have heard the characters of The Canterbury Tales speak in the Chaucerian vernacular. Italy has a lovely language, but it takes away from the relationship between the characters and their medieval English society when they’re chatting in Italian. Pasolini also deals with his own sexual identity in the film. A homosexual man is burnt at the stake for indulging in sodomy, and the Devil whispers in the ears of onlookers as the man burns to death in a public spectacle.
However, The Canterbury Tales is still a great film, and should be watched by everyone who enjoyed reading the raunchier tales of Chaucer’s poem. It stays strong because it is entertaining and faithful with certain tales, and viewers will never forget the grand finale. This is part of Pasolini’s “Trilogy of Life,” apparently, with Il Decameron and Il fiore delle mille e una notte (Arabian Nights) serving as the other films of the trilogy. It’s an incredibly difficult film to find, as it is now out of print, but it’s totally worth the search. Whether you end up buying a highly priced used copy or downloading it from an obscure source, you won’t be disappointed.