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Laramie Movie Scope:
The Canterbury Tales

Eight abbreviations of the 24 originals, nudity and scatology, a disappointment

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(1972; I racconti di Canterbury, dubbed from Italian into English) "Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote/ The droghte of March hath perced to the roote" are the opening lines to "The Prologue" of Geoffrey Chaucer's 14th-century frame narrative in Middle English, mostly in verse, as a group of travelers make their pilgrimage from Southwark to the shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, each telling two stories, as suggested by the host of the Tabard, in a competition to pass the time.

Similar in structure to The Decameron, Chaucer directs satirical barbs at English society and the church in particular. "'Tween a jest and a joke, many truths can be told." The middle film of his "Trilogy of Life," director/writer Pier Paolo Pasolini, taking the part of Chaucer, who never completed the entire cycle (if that had been his intention), provides eight abbreviated adaptations of the 24 originals, without clear context as to the narrator but with plenty of nudity and scatology. Ennio Morricone composed the score. On the whole it is a disappointment.

At the outset, "The Merchant's Tale" relates the naughty treachery of May (Josephine Chaplin), a youthful bride, with Damian, a youthful swain, when her lecherous old husband Sir January (Hugh Griffith) experiences a spell of blindness at the direction of King Pluto and his queen Proserpina.

Next after a poor fellow is caught buggering, he's taken to be burned alive inside an iron cage ("roasted on a griddle") amid a crowd of onlookers in the courtyard. Admitting to lacking a conscience, a rent collector rides with the Devil ("Let us swear to be brothers") to extort from an old woman 12 pence; but she curses the blackmailer by saying: "Let the Devil take him" along with her pitcher.

From "The Cook's Tale" an ebullient Chaplinesque character Perkin (Ninetto Davoli), whose father denounces the boy as the son of an Italian, thieves, gambles, and fornicates his way to the public stocks, laughing and singing all the way.

In "The Miller's Tale," a ribald farce, Nicholas (Dan Thomas), a scholar boarder, deceives John the carpenter into thinking another flood is about to swamp the world in order to cuckold the older man, getting his young wife Alison (Jenny Runacre) into bed while John's snoring in a tub suspended from the rafters. As the couple are copulating, Absalom (Peter Cain), a vain parish clerk, beseeches Alison at her window to give him a kiss; in the dark she offers her nether cheeks and a gust of foul air. When he returns a second time, Nicholas takes her place but pays a price.

Attired in red, the Wife from Bath (Laura Betti), following the death of her fourth husband, convinces Jenkin, a student at Oxford, to become her fifth husband, for she tells him he has bewitched her in a dream. Unfortunately her telling of a knight's quest for what women really want "more than anything else" - my favorite of all the stories - as a queen's punishment for his raping a maid, giving him a year and a day to discover it and return, is entirely pinched off.

Three youths in search of "Traitor Death" who stole their companion are directed by an aged man, whom they treat rudely, down a path to a tree where they discover a treasure. In this "The Pardoner's Tale," an exemplum, the two older fellows dispatch the youngest to procure bread and wine while they greedily plot murder upon his return, but in the meantime he pours poison into their wine bottles.

The finale has an angel beckoning to a friar at the bedside of a dying man, from whom he hopes to gain an inheritance, for a tour of Hell, images from Bosch and Bruegel, as an introduction to Dante's Inferno.

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Copyright © 2011 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Patrick Ivers can be reached via e-mail at nora's email address at juno. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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