In 2005, Koch-Lorber Films released the film on DVD for the first time.
Terence Stamp plays a mysterious figure who appears in the lives of a typical bourgeois Italian family. He engages in sexual affairs with all members of the household: the devoutly religious maid, the sensitive son, the sexually repressed mother, the timid daughter and, finally, the tormented father. The stranger gives unstintingly of himself, asking nothing in return. Then one day he leaves, as suddenly and mysteriously as he came. Unable to endure the void in their lives, the mother becomes a nymphomaniac, the son an artist, the daughter a catatonic and the father a sexual prowler. The servant, on the other hand, appears in the last scene casually performing a miracle.
On its release, the religious right and the Vatican criticized the sexual content in the film. The Left considered the film “ambiguous” and “visionary.” The film won a special award at the Venice Film Festival from the International Catholic Film Office only to have it withdrawn later when the Vatican protested.
Scholars view the film differently due to the openness or ambiguity of the film. The author of A Certain Realism: Making Use of Pasolini’s Film Theory and Practice, Maurizio Viano, says that in order to understand the film there must be “adequate translation.” Most scholars' writing about the film does not discuss Pasolini’s cinematographic techniques but Pasolini’s philosophical arguments. Viano argues that Pasolini intended to be theoretical in this film because he wanted to be recognized as “a film theorist.”
Teorema means theorem in Italian. Its root comes from a Greek word theorema meaning “spectacle”, “intuition”, and “theorem.” Viano suggests that the film should be considered under the theory of spectatorship because each family member gazes at the guest and his loins.
As a term, theorem is also often considered as mathematical or formulaic. In this sense, the film also contains a programmatic structure. First of all, the film starts with documentary-like images. Then, it moves on to the opening credit with a dark volcanic desert, a home party scene, cuts of the factory in sepia tone, introduction of each family member in silence and sepia tone, then, the guest sitting in the back yard in color. The middle section is divided into three: “seductions”, “confessions” and “transformations”.
Not only is the film's structure formulaic, but so is the psychological development of each character. The way each character changes their state of mind is the same. They all fall into a sexual desire for the guest. They all have sex with him. When the guest leaves, they all, except the maid, confess to him how they feel about themselves. After he leaves, they lose the identity they had before. The daughter succumbs to a rigid psychosis. The son psychotically paints his desire for the guest. The mother picks up young men who resemble the guest and has sex with them. The father strips down in the middle of the train station. The maid goes back to her village and performs miracles but asks to be buried. They all go through “seductions,” “confessions” and “transformations.”
The common interpretation by scholars is that the film is a commentary on the bourgeois society and emergence of consumerism through the very beginning of the film. The reporter asks a worker of Paolo’s factory if he thinks there will be no Bourgeois in the future. Because of industrialization and the advancement of technology, working-class people are able to find employment. The more they find jobs, the less they face the class struggle. The more they earn money, the more they consume.
There is another way to look at the interview scene. In The Cinema of Economic Miracles: Visuality and Modernization in the Italian Art Film, Angelo Restivo assumes that Pasolini suggests that even documentary images, which depict facts, fail to show the truth. News can tell the audience only the surface of the events they broadcast. Only by watching the interview of the workers does not tell why Paolo, the owner of the factory gave away the factory. That might be one of the reasons the scene is set in the beginning of the film.
In his biographical work on Pasolini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Enzo Siciliano simply assumes that Pasolini expresses his struggle of being homosexual in the film. On the other hand, Viano believes that Pasolini’s emphasis is not on homosexuality but rather on sexuality in general because the guest equally has sex with each member of the household. Sexuality is considered as passion in Viano’s interpretation.
Most scholars are unable to identify who the guest is. Some say he is God. Some says he is a devil. Pasolini primarily tried to make the guest a god but he changed it to “something authentic and unstoppable.” If there is no viewer or no characters to react to the guest, there is no meaning to his existence. The idea can reflect to interpretations of any art work. Viewers are the creators of the meanings of artwork. Therefore, scholars interpret the film differently. It becomes another masterpiece because scholars add layers to the layers of meaning or message that Pasolini has created.
Restivo, Angelo. The Cinema of Economic Miracles:Visuality and Modernization in the Italian Arts Film. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2002.
Siciliano, Enzo. Pier Paolo Pasolini. New York: Random House, Inc., 1982.
Testa, Bart. "To Film a Gospel...and Advent of the Theoretical Stranger." Pier Paolo Pasolini: Contemporary Perspectives. Ed. Patrick Rumble and Bart Testa. Tronto: University of Tronto P Inc.,, 1994. 180-209.
Viano, Maurizio S. A Certain Realism:Making Use of Pasolini's Film Theory and Practice. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California P, 1993.