The St. Thaïs of the title lived in the fourth century as a pampered courtesan, before converting to Christianity and retreating to an abbey in the desert. Pafnucy is the name given to the hermit sent to convert her only to find she was already a believer. According to the cynical version in the novel by Anatole France he then set about an uncompromisingly lecherous campaign to unconvert the woman whose beauty had bewitched him, not letting up even on her deathbed. Thus he was one of the first dirty old men in history; presumably he’s the same character Rafael Corkidi made Pafnucio Santo (1977) about.
It’s an odd choice of subject for a film from communist-era Poland. If there’s any moral appropriate to that particular society it’s hard to pick it out, and Caligula-style orgiastics, while fashionable in the West, were hardly encouraged. Maybe it’s an odd choice for me to watch as well, but I can clear that one up easily enough: I saw a picture of star Dorota Kwiatkowska bathing in asses’ milk, and I like watching beautiful women bathing in asses’ milk. So there.
The opening is stark, with the ascetic Pafnucy (Jerzy Kryszak) praying amongst dilapidated desert temples. Right away we have an unfortunate credibility problem: he looks like the It’s Man from Monty Python. In fact with his cadaverous features and golf-ball eyes he’s better than the It’s Man, but in point of fairness we’ll try to put that aside. In a series of decreasingly austere and grubby stages the action moves to Roman-occupied Alexandria, and our hero has his first bath. But in the interests of decency he politely asks the topless handmaidens to leave before he undresses – what a guy!
At an outdoor party amongst fragrant greenery Pafnucy first encounters the beautiful Thaïs, and never forgets her. The subsequent images contrast the poverty and martyrdom of life for the masses with the luxuriant lifestyle of the courtesan. One scene is particularly memorable; Thaïs leads a Dionysian orgy, sacrificing a lamb with a dagger as the women revellers frenziedly tear at each other’s clothes and bodies with blood-soaked hands. I’ve watched a lot of scenes in the same vein, but I don’t think I’ve seen a pagan revel done more intensely than this. Another long scene is of a Roman banquet, a sort of toned-down version of the one in D’Amato’s Caligula: The Untold Story, gladiators and all (though mercifully absent the horse).
Inevitably the film is a clash of styles. There’s just a hint of the filmed opera about it. Pafnucy is often shown in the shadows, looking on like we viewers, brooding, fantasising. Plenty of naked flesh is on show, though the treatment remains fairly tasteful. Dorota Kwiatkowska sometimes looks like she’s in a bubble-bath commercial, leaving more explicit views to the extras. Even here, when the camera has the chance to zoom in Franco-style on female pudenda, it “makes its excuses and leaves” as the News of the World used to say. Glimpses of nudity come across as a delightful bonus, rather than seeming like the intensive aversion therapy of a work by D’Amato and his ilk. Recommended as a not-too-shamefully indulgent piece of spicy entertainment.
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 3/5
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