Teorema (Theorem): Pasolini’s Ambiguous, Allegorical Critique of the Bourgeoisie, Starring Terence Stamp and Sylvana Mangano

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s sixth film, Teorema (aka Theorem) is an ambiguous, deconstructive tale of one bourgeois family.

The first time Pasolini worked with professional actors, he cast major stars, such as Brit Terence Stamp, and Italian Laura Betti, Silvana Mangano, and Massimo Girotti.

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Film poster

The themes of this cerebral tale include the timelessness of divinity and the spiritual corruption of the bourgeoisie.

An upper-class Milanese family is introduced to, and then abandoned by, a divine force.

A mysterious figure (Stamp, perfectly cast) known only as “The Visitor,” appears in the lives of a typical bourgeois Italian family at their Milanese estate.

The enigmatic stranger soon 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.

In due course, he prevents the passionate maid from committing suicide with a gas hose, tenderly consoling her.

He then befriends and sleeps with the frightened son, soothing his doubts and anxiety and endowing him with confidence.

He becomes emotionally intimate with the overprotected daughter, removing her childish innocence about men; he seduces the bored and dissatisfied mother, giving her sexual joy and fulfillment; he cares for and comforts the despondent and suffering father, who has fallen ill.

Things change, when the herald announces that the stranger will soon leave the household, as suddenly and mysteriously as he had arrived.

In the void of the stranger’s absence, each family member is forced to confront what was previously concealed by the trappings of their limited bourgeois life.

The maid returns to the rural village where she was born and is seen to perform miracles; ultimately, she immolates herself by having her body buried in dirt while shedding ecstatic tears of regeneration. The mother seeks sexual encounters with young men; the son leaves the family home to become an artist; the daughter sinks into a catatonic state; and the father strips himself of all material effects, handing his factory over to its workers, removing his clothes at a railway station and wandering naked into the wilderness, where he finally screams in primal rage and despair.

On its release, the religious right and the Vatican criticized the sexual content in the film. But others considered the film “ambiguous” and even “visionary.” The film won a special award at the Venice Film Festival from the International Catholic Film Office, only for the award to be withdrawn later when the Vatican protested.

Scholars view the film differently due to its ambiguity. Most do not discuss Pasolini’s cinematographic techniques but his philosophical arguments. Viano argues that Pasolini intended to be theoretical because he wished to be recognized as “film theorist.”

Teorema means theorem in Italian. Its Greek root is theorema, meaning simultaneously “spectacle”, “intuition,” and “theorem”. Viano sees the film as “spectatorship” because each family member gazes at the guest sexually. Others deny this as unlikely, since the Greek word denotes the object of spectatorship, rather than the actual act of spectatorship, which would be theoresis.

Narrative Structure:

Not surprisingly, as the term theorem is considered to be mathematical, the film contains a programmatic narrative structure.

It begins with documentary-like images and then moves on to the opening credit with dark volcanic desert, a home party scene, cuts of the factory in sepia tone, introduction of each family member in silence and sepia tone, and, then, the guest sitting in the back yard in color.

The middle section is divided into three: “seductions,” “confessions,” and “transformations.” The psychological development of each character is the same, they all go through “seductions”, “confessions” and “transformations.” They all fall into sexual desire for the guest, and they all have sex with him. When the guest leaves, they all, except the maid, confess to him how they feel about themselves.

In the final section, after he leaves, they lose their previous identities. The maid goes back to her village and performs miracles while subsisting on nettles, but he asks to be buried alive. The daughter falls into a catatonic state. The son maniacally paints his desire for the guest. The mother picks up for sex young men who resemble the guest. The father strips naked in the middle of the train station.

Critical Status:

Nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Fest, Laura Betti won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress for her role in the film.

The film presents a commentary on bourgeois society and the increased value of consumerism. In the beginning, the reporter asks a worker at Paolo’s factory if he thinks there will be no bourgeois in the future. 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. Merely watching the interview of the workers does not tell why factory owner Paolo, gave away the factory.

In his biography, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Enzo Siciliano assumes that Pasolini expresses his struggle of being homosexual. On the other hand, Viano believes that Pasolini’s emphasis is not on homosexuality but rather on sexuality in general, because the guest has sex with each family member.

Italian critic Morandini claimed that “the theorem is demonstrated: the incapacity of modern -bourgeois- man to perceive, listen to, absorb and live the sacred. Only Emilia the servant, from a peasant family, discovers it and, after the ‘miracle’ of levitation, will return to the ground with holy smell.

Ideologically, it’s another film by Pasolini, influenced by Marx, Freud, Jung and Marcuse.

Pasolini later expanded this film into a novel with the same name.

Giorgio Battistelli composed an opera based on the film. In 2009, Dutch theatre company ‘Toneelgroep Amsterdam’ performed a play version of this movie.

On October 4, 2005, Koch-Lorber Films released the DVD of Teorema in the U.S.

On February 18, 2020, The Criterion Collection released a Blu-ray and DVD of Teorema.


Terence Stamp as The Visitor
Laura Betti as Emilia (the maid)
Silvana Mangano as Lucia (the mother)
Massimo Girotti as Paolo (the father)
Anne Wiazemsky as Odetta (the daughter)
Andrés José Cruz Soublette as Pietro (the son)
Ninetto Davoli as Angelino (the postman)


Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini
Produced by Manolo Bolognini,Franco Rossellini
Written by Pier Paolo Pasolini
Music by Ennio Morricone
Cinematography Giuseppe Ruzzolini
Edited by Nino Baragli

Production company: Aetos Produzioni Cinematografiche

Distributed by Euro International Film

Release date: Sep 4, 1968 (Venice); Sep 7, 1968 (Italy)

Running time: 98 minutes