Sunday, January 11, 2009

Review: Virgin Territory

I've always thought that there's room out there for some filmmaker to have an entire career doing nothing but adaptations of individual stories from Boccaccio's Decameron. Virgin Territory may be a lot of things, but the beginning of such a career it ain't.

For those who don't know, Boccaccio's Decameron is one of the most entertaining of the great medieval literary works. It is set near Florence during the plague of 1348. Seven young women and three young men decide to leave the city to escape the plague, and go to a country home for ten days. There, with little else to do, they decide to entertain one another by each telling a story every day. 10 stories + 10 days = 100 stories in total, hence the name of The Decameron.

Of course, there weren't really ten young people telling these stories; that's just the frame for Boccaccio to present his hundred tales. Not surprisingly, some of the tales aren't very memorable*, but many are masterpieces, and taken as a whole, very few medieval texts are as much fun as The Decameron. If the fake-group-telling-tales frame sounds like the Canterbury Tales to you, that's because Chaucer stole the idea from Boccaccio, then further developed the characters in the frame story.

The Decameron is one of the most popular texts I teach in world and medieval lit classes. Many a student has purchased a used, unabridged copy** for her own reading pleasure after having read a handful of tales from our world lit anthology.

Virgin Territory, on the other hand, is a total mess. The various working titles of the film are unsurprising, since it seems like the filmmakers came to work every day with a different idea about the kind of movie they were making. Just the various English language titles:
  • Angels and Virgins
  • Chasing Temptation
  • Decameron: Angels & Virgins
  • Guilty Pleasures
  • Decameron Pie
  • Medieval Pie
The last two titles will give you an idea of the unfortunate direction they were working in for a while -- a kind of American Pie set in the Middle Ages. Now, I'm not against sex and comedy in a Decameron adaptation, since the the book has lots of hilarious fablieaux ... but they ought to be good, not stupid. Fortunately, the film is in no way faithful to Boccaccio, so the soiling of his name will be limited.

The frame story is gone. There is a cheesy voice-over narration by a fake priest, but unless you're making a film that's an homage to the 40s***, that's always a bad choice. The main plot is that a young woman, promised in marriage to a Russian nobleman, has her parents taken by the plague while he is en route to meet her for the marriage. A local proto-mafiosi, who was apparently put in the story because Hollywood-types hear "Italy" and think "Mafia," tries to force her to marry him instead. She and her friends flee to her country estate where the marriage to the Russian count is supposed to take place, and in the course of the journey, she falls in love with some other guy, a young gambler who the aforementioned proto-mafiosi wants dead.

Now it starts to get really stupid. For some reason, the young woman is able to get there faster than everyone else, and decides that she should hang out in a nearby convent. The rest of the cast apparently takes days (riding at full gallop the whole way for the proto-mafia crew) to take the same trip. The gardener at the convent has just died, and because he was deaf and mute, he had been used by the nuns as their sex toy. The young gambler then takes his place, also pretending to be a deaf-mute, and spends most of the rest of the film servicing the nuns (by the way, this is an adaptation of the first story on the third day). The young noblewoman who is hiding out there, though disgusted by his actions, falls madly in love with him, and will end up marrying him at the end of the film.

The rest of the movie makes no dang sense whatsoever. Some of the folks are captured by slavers, there is a comic-erotic cow-milking seduction scene, one young woman somehow ends up separated from the group and seduces the Russian count, and in the end the bad guy falls into a well and all the good guys all end up getting married.**** Even some good guys who had never met (like the feebleminded uncle and the milkmaid) somehow manage to have fallen in love at the end.

Apparently, this film was supposed to be a comedy. I suppose it is a comedy in dramatic structure, but in no other way. Do not expect to laugh.

I would encourage any descendants of Boccaccio to sue the filmmakers for defamation of character. If I ever meet Hayden Christensen or Mischa Barton face-to-face, I fully intend to bludgeon them to unconsciousness with a nice, thick hard-bound volume of The Decameron. Tim Roth gets a pass for his past work, but I will certainly give him a stern talking to.

*Hey, YOU try writing a hundred stories and having all of them turn out great!
** The first 89 copies showing on ABE Books are just a dollar. You'll pay more for shipping!
***Er, the 1940s, not the 1340s.
****This can hardly be called a spoiler, since everything is so thoroughly-telegraphed that there is no chance ever of being surprised by anything that occurs.


  1. Thank you, Dr. Nokes, for saving the rest of us from having to see this. We note and appreciate your sacrifice.

  2. Grrrr ... had to delete some commercial spam comments.