Alike in Their Way: (Un)happy Families in ‘Teorema’ and ‘Visitor Q’

Teorema Visitor Q

Sometimes, Takashi Miike’s bizarre Visitor Q (Bijitâ Q, 2001) is described as being a remake of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 film Teorema. Whether or not that’s true is debatable; the third act of Teorema is what makes me think that the two films don’t line up quite so neatly, but the pair have a certain kind of narrative in common, and, more importantly, share enigmatic central figures that both directors use in order to explore, and destroy, the idea of the family.

At a first glance, Teorema seems like a film that would foreground the political; it’s opening scene involves a worker being asked if the middle classes will ever create a kind of global bourgeoisie, and the climax features a kind of stripping away of the signifiers of capitalist identity. But instead, Pasolini uses the ideas that surround wealthy families as a way to explore silence, sadness and the ways in which people lose touch with their identities. Portrayed by Terence Stamp, The Visitor reveals things to each member of the family that he seduces. In Miike’s variation on the story, Q (Kazushi Watanabe) — the eponymous visitor — acts in a similar way; his actions bring a sense of order to the chaotic lives of those around him.

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Laura Betti and Terence Stamp in Teorema

The families in Teorema and Visitor Q are, to put it bluntly, unhappy. Pasolini’s film is filled with an inescapable silence — dialogue in the film is so spare that it was used in a tag line: “There are only 923 words spoken in [Teorema] — but it says everything!” So many images in the film present characters in solitude, alone amongst vast or well-decorated locations. Even when The Visitor first arrives, the family reacts to him in ways that highlight their loneliness. There’s something striking about the way people look at the camera in Teorema; it foregrounds their gaze, and the things they desire, especially when they’re looking at Stamp’s character. Even The Visitor is shown as lonely; when others desire him, Pasolini often shows them looking and him being looked at, most starkly in the first seduction The Visitor is involved in with Emilia (Laura Betti) — the servant who works in the house. The Visitor is something of a blank slate, allowing those around him to project fantasies, not only of what they want him to be, but of how they need to be themselves.

In Visitor Q, the title character is presented as less of a sexual figure, and a more as a kind of lodestar, someone around whom the dysfunctional can gravitate, in order for them to find something approaching peace. The idea of privacy — and the loneliness that comes with it — which permeates so much of Teorema is entirely inverted in Visitor Q . Instead, Miike’s film relishes in the chaos of a world where everyone’s lives are out in the open, from the documentarian father to the filmed sexual exploits of his daughter to the mere fact that there are so many holes in the walls of the family home. In Visitor Q, it’s almost impossible to feel safe. And only in those rare moments of solitude is there a sense of the sadness of the lives that these characters lead. But Q tries to help these people understand themselves. This might be most (in)famous in the film’s many lactation sequences, which Miike shows as a way for Keiko Yamazaki/Mother (Shungiku Uchida) to discover her maternal sense of self. While this is, for want of better phrasing, a striking image, it has a certain conservative streak that’s surprising coming from a director like Miike; an association of the female with traditional images and ideas around motherhood, which creates a tension between the version of her that’s awoken through Q and the version of her that’s seen throughout the rest of the film — a victim of abuse from her son.

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Visitor Q Movie Film

The mothers in Visitor Q and Teorema follow a similar trajectory; after their experiences with their respective strangers, both women try to get in touch with the new versions of themselves through sexual encounters. In Pasolini’s film, Lucia (Silvana Mangano) goes to bed with men who remind her of The Visitor. Whereas in Visitor Q, the Mother goes to bed with men who ask to be whipped, allowing her to engage in a role-reversal of the victimhood she experiences from her son. This is the more interesting version of the Mother’s post-Q characterisation, with her actions giving her a chance to reclaim her identity (in a way that’s unique and perverse to Miike). The idea of reclamation in Teorema is something that exists in a more abstract way; The Visitor awakens something in the family that can’t be regained through purely physical means. The Visitor himself is sometimes shown as the kind of being that might transcend the physical; often, he’s lit in a way that makes him seem angelic. This idea is particularly interesting in Teorema given the extent to which it acknowledges the existence of a higher power: religious miracles happen in a scene that’s pivotal to the film’s climax.

The final acts of the two films reveal the ways in which they differ when it comes to the unhappiness, and happiness, that can be found within the confines of family. In Visitor Q, Takuya Yamazaki/The Son (Jun Mutô) says to Q “You came to destroy it, didn’t you? Thank you.” And the idea of death and destruction reigns supreme in the final act of Visitor Q, from the cringe comedy of the film’s rigor mortis sex scene to the fact that the family home is destroyed by fireworks, an unsubtle but still effective metaphor. In contrast to this, Teorema’s final act is one that’s built more around rebuilding — accepting what’s been destroyed and trying to create something new from the ashes of it. This is done in literal acts of creation from Pietro, the son (Andrés José Cruz Soublette), who finds himself taking to painting in the wake of his encounter with The Visitor. Paolo, the father (Massimo Girotti) seems the most impacted by his encounter; a man who has fallen ill and seemingly lost touch with himself. In the wake of being with The Visitor, he gives away his factory to the workers — another way in which Pasolini flirts with the political aspects of identity — and strips himself of all of his clothes, wandering naked through the wilderness and finally releasing the emotions that he’s stopped allowing himself to feel.

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Massimo Girotti in Teorema

While Teorema and Visitor Q share a common DNA, what’s most striking is the way each film uses The Stranger. Both figures bring with them a kind of new order, as if they were missing puzzle pieces for the families that they integrate themselves into. In both films, it takes an outsider — one who seems divine to Pasolini, and chaotic to Miike — to reveal the darkness that’s overwhelmed the two families. It’s striking in Visitor Q when the Mother describes herself as being “just a normal woman.” It’s the idea of normality itself that’s perverted in Miike’s film, which is why the institution of the family seems to be the root of so much darkness and unhappiness. It’s no wonder that the Son in Visitor Q is happy to see his house, and the ideas that it represents, be razed to the ground. With it gone, maybe something new can be built on its foundations.

Sam Moore (@Sam_Moore1994) is a writer, artist and editor. Their writing on the intersections of culture, queerness and politics has been published by The Los Angeles Review of Books, i-D, Little White Lies and other places both in print and online.