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At Tribeca: Wondrous Boccaccio: A Decameron for the Tuckered Out

04/20/2015 10:24 am ET | Updated Jun 20, 2015

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The Decameron by John William Waterhouse (1916)

Boccaccio's 14th century masterpiece has inspired artists for centuries, from Chaucer to Shakespeare and from Voltaire to Poe. His classic recounts how seven women and three men, who escaped from a plague-ravished Florence to the countryside, entertain themselves over two weeks, each telling 10 stories a piece.

Some of the tales are bawdy, some tragic, numerous are of greed, and many flow forth with tears and laughter only true love can elicit. Here's an unvarnished view of a battered world that's soon to be rejuvenated by the Renaissance, but not yet.

In 1971, the often notorious Pier Paolo Pasolini captured the genius of the work in his Decameron. Licentious, slightly blasphemous, and always vital, his take throws you directly into the tales without the framing device of the narrators. Instantly, you find yourself in the midst of the mayhem of the Middle Ages with its steamy throngs of folks trying to survive by ferreting out anyone walking by who is more imbecilic, more naïve, or more tipsy than they are.

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Working for the nuns in Pasolini's Decameron (1971)

For example, a simpleton, trying to buy a horse in the big city, overnight finds himself with a "sister" he never knew he had, nearly drowns in feces, is robbed of his coins and clothing, and winds up sealed in the stone coffin of a newly dead Church official. Then there's the priest who convinces a travelling companion that he can turn the gent's wife into a mare. He starts this process without forewarning the gullible creature that getting the mare's tail in place requires some rear entry maneuvers by the holy man upon the said wife. And shortly, we're introduced to an attractive young field worker who feigns he's deaf and dumb so he can get a job in a nunnery for a little hanky-panky. What he winds up with is more panky than he can hanky.

As for the casting, you never saw so many extras with poor dental work, and all are attired in well-worn togs. These folks truly inhabit an Italy that is believable from the get-go as the one representing Boccaccio's inspiration.

Now to Wondrous Boccaccio, the wobbly new offering from the octogenarian Taviani brothers, Paolo and Vittorio. Here's a leaden affair with some lovely visuals and colorful gowns that seem just picked up from the dry cleaners. One might want to cite the directors' age as a factor why these helmers of such classics as Padre Padrone (1977) and Good Morning Babylon (1987) have produced a film with such enervated pacing, lackluster staging, and listless editing, but just back in 2012, they gave us the stellar Cesar Must Die. That effort where genuine prisoners perform Julius Caesar is nigh perfect and never for a second lethargic. So forget blaming age.

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Ten storytellers escaping the Black Death in the Taviani brothers' Wondrous Boccaccio at the Tribeca Film Festival

Anyway, one tale that starts off well is that of an overtrustful oaf, who is convinced by his fellow workers that if he holds a certain black rock he will become invisible. The chap finds such a stone, and not knowing the whole village is in on the joke, believes he is imperceptible to the human eye, and accordingly goes about town stealing coins, breaking wares, and trying to touch a young girl's breasts. He's in ecstasy until he returns home, and his wife, not knowing of the prank, addresses her spouse as if she can see him. Furious, he brutally beats her, banging her against walls, and then sits down at the dinner table, not knowing his wife is about to bash his head in with the rock. Cut to the male narrator of the tale who thwacks his own head with a watermelon. There are no laughs because the violence as enacted beforehand disallows one to chuckle at this tale. A pure case of tone-deafness.

Another yarn has a father, who's incestuously in love with his daughter, ordering her paramour to be killed with dire results right out of Romeo and Juliet. Poorly enacted with an unconvincing buildup, there's also little convincing chemistry between the leads.

The same troubles almost upend a tale right out of O. Henry. A young impoverished gent, obsessively in love with a mother with a sick child, will do anything for her. And when she comes over to ask a favor, he has nothing to serve but his pet falcon. Oh, no! What if her favor involves this very falcon?

What's strange here is that the joy of Boccaccio's little sagas still seep through: his unbridled originality, his ability to skewer the foibles of humankind with a wicked joy, and his high veneration of both love and sex in equal measure. However, the Tavianis' renderings lack luster. Pasolini's shimmers still over four decades later.