If You Liked ‘Saltburn,’ Check Out This Equally Wild Mystery

The Big Picture

  • With A-list names like Barry Keoghan, Jacob Elordi, and Rosamund Pike, Emerald Fennell’s
    has star power and shock value but ultimately lacks subversiveness.
  • Saltburn
    shares thematic connections with Pier Paolo Pasolini’s
    (1968) and
    the classic play by 17th century playwright/poet Molière.
  • Teorema
    remains ambiguous and politically charged, contrasting with
    , which pales in comparison due to its lack of ambiguity.

Saltburn, one of the most divisive and talked about movies of 2023, is a flawed but entertaining take on class conflict that relies heavily on its inarguable star power…as well as the shock factor of those scenes. Flawed as it is, Emerald Fennell’s movie has a fair amount going for it, namely its cast, including Barry Keoghan at his freakiest, an effortlessly charming Jacob Elordi, and Rosamund Pike bestowing her queenly grace upon all who bear witness to her. Maybe Saltburn doesn’t ever get quite as subversive as it likes, but at the very least, it finds many opportunities to do, shall we say, interesting things with bathtub drains, period blood, and graves in such a way that makes seeing these otherwise normal objects the same way as before nearly impossible. It’s also composed in a gloriously gif-able aesthetic that can (but shouldn’t) be dismissed as ostentatious. The performances range from good to excellent, and the script, while never saying as much as it seems to want to, is adepty crafted.

The twisty, psychological treachery of Saltburn might feel like familiar territory to fans of The Talented Mr. Ripley, and for good reason: in both films, a lusty, awkward outsider worms his way into the social circle of a charismatic elite, using betrayal and connivance to climb the ranks of the economic class ladder. The comparisons are inevitable, but too frequently is another film mentioned alongside Saltburn: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s magnificent Teorema. Shot in 1968, Teorema shares plenty of cinematic DNA with Saltburn. In it, a mysterious stranger appears before an upper-class Italian family, only to seduce each member and deconstruct their very worldview. Mysterious, allegorical, and sensual, Teorema makes for a perfect double feature with Saltburn, with plenty of narrative and thematic overlap connecting the two films.


Struggling to find his place at Oxford University, student Oliver Quick finds himself drawn into the world of the charming and aristocratic Felix Catton, who invites him to Saltburn, his eccentric family’s sprawling estate, for a summer never to be forgotten.

Release Date
November 17, 2023

Emerald Fennell

127 minutes

Main Genre

What Is Pasolini’s ‘Teorema’ About?

While not even close to the unflinching brutality of Pasolini’s most infamous film, Salò, Teorema was nonetheless comparatively controversial, with the Italian government banning the film upon its release. In Teorema, translated in English to Theorem, an unnamed stranger (Terence Stamp) suddenly appears at the manor of a wealthy Milanese family, his arrival foretold by a plain (and, to be honest, quite ominous) letter simply stating, « ARRIVING TOMORROW. » The Stranger is unquestionably accepted. He shares a room with the son Pietro (Andrés José Cruz Soublette). He sits outside in the picturesque yard, reading a novel and catching the tantalized eye of the pious maid Emilia (Laura Betti). Presumably ashamed of her immediate attraction to the house guest — or perhaps just succumbing to general despair — Emilia tries to kill herself with the gas hose from the oven. The Stranger saves her life and, as if in gratitude, Emilia offers him her body.

From here, the Stranger seduces one family member after another. He awakens the deep-rooted sexuality of the matriarch Lucia (Silvana Mangano), who eagerly awaits for him to make his move while stripped naked lying on the balcony. Pietro, in the pit of a massive identity crisis of self-doubt, is curious and allured by the Stranger’s confident masculinity. The two sleep together, and Pietro becomes dependent. Odetta (Anne Wiazemsky), the daughter, is similarly sexually awakened, though hers occurs at the cost of her schoolgirl innocence; in the first minutes of the movie, she’s taunted by a male schoolmate for keeping a picture of her father in her notebook. She hadn’t seen men in a sexual light, and the Stranger changes this in his seduction. The depressive, inconsolable father Paolo (Massimo Girotti), is awakened from his misery by the Stranger, and he’s now suddenly looking as jovial and youthful as he’s had so far. Then, to the family’s dismay, the Stranger announces his departure, and each member of the family is left merely to prod at the fading embers left behind by the man’s fiery sexual passion.

Which makes up roughly the first half of the film. In the second portion, each family member surrenders to their despair, awakened by the Stranger’s sudden departure. Lucia, her passion awakened by the Stranger’s unapologetic sexuality, takes to sleeping with random young men she picks up on the street. The daughter, suddenly aware of her own sexuality that lies in sharp contrast to her innocent worldview, falls into a state of comatose. The father and son face comparatively morose fates, while the maid disappears in pursuit of worldless ecclestiastical duties in a small Italian town. Soundtracked by a criminally underrated score by Ennio Morricone, Teorema is an absolutely eerie picture. It oozes discomfort in every frame. It’s careful never to reveal too much, instead using its mystery to its advantage.

How Does ‘Teorema’ Compare to ‘Saltburn’?

Late in its third act, Saltburn overplays its hand by giving Oliver (Barry Keoghan) a clumsily revealing monologue in which he tells a dying Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) that each tragedy occurring at Saltburn was entirely his doing. It’s like he’s a Bond villain, explaining to a character and, thus, the audience, his diabolical master plan. Not only does it completely eliminate any opportunity to maintain a tasteful ambiguity, but the ultimate reveal also shows Oliver to be entirely one-dimensional. He isn’t a tortured outsider who, at the whiff of wealth and luxury, manipulates his way deeper into the family while struggling with an unnaturally ferocious attachment to Felix (Jacob Elordi). He’s just a villainous schemer, a boygenius who picks off the Cattons one by one out of sheer spite and jealousy. It feels like an insult to the audience’s intelligence, an insistence that we wouldn’t get it without having it explained to us. Teorema, comparatively, is almost cryptic in its reluctance to explain anything. By the time its over, we’re given a fantastic ambiguous ending that leaves plenty to chew over.

Teorama is, by its own nature, an ambiguous picture that answers few to none of the questions it poses — at least not directly. For one, Stamp’s mysterious stranger is given no clear motive, nor is his identity made clear. He could be an angel or a demon, Christ himself, or a scheming Satan intent on bringing ruin. Each interpretation could be justified by evidence. It would seem that the bourgeoisie family is brought to ruin by the unflattering recognition that their lives are, without the sexual pleasure brought about by the Stranger, pathetic and empty. But it’s never stated objectively. Throughout Teorema, Pasolini maintains a certain distance from the family. We learn little to nothing about them, apart from what they confess to the stranger before his departure. The script is minimal by design — dialogue is largely forgone in favor of the probing, invasive camera capturing lengthy shots of the characters simply being.


Bring Jacob Elordi and Barry Keoghan Home With New ‘Saltburn’ Funko Pops

First the candle, now this.

There’s also the matter of explicit content. While Teorema is a sexual movie, especially for its time, there’s little in it that would be notably crass for a typical modern moviegoer. Pasolini’s camera fixes a lustful gaze on Stamp’s crotch more than a few times; it essentially sticks its face in it and lingers. It passes over his freshly-shed clothes as if smelling them. Absolutely treating the Stranger as an object of desire, the film on one hand reflects Pasolini’s own notorious queerness (the conservative Italian government held a disdain for his homosexuality, as well as his Communist sympathies), but more importantly reflects the family’s unanimous attraction to him. Where Saltburn‘s Oliver works his ass off to seduce half of the Catton family, Teorema‘s Stranger only needs to be present. Their repressed horniness will take care of the rest.

That Teorema is a comparatively tame picture to Saltburn in terms of content isn’t to suggest that it’s by consequence less furious. In fact, the fury and despair bestowed in the final half hour of Pasolini’s film surpasses anything in the entirety of Fennell’s. There’s no explicit slurping of bodily fluids or impromptu intercourse with a dead man’s freshly-dug grave, but Teorema ends with a scream of anguish as chilling as anything else. Pasolini, a political filmmaker who often dealt with the allegorical, has a clear intention with Teorema. He keeps his barrel pointed at the bourgeoise and the empty corruption inherent in their lifestyle. With Saltburn, Fennell’s intention seems unclear. It’s a damn entertaining film, but its politics not only get lost in the message, but are questionable to start with.

‘Teorema’ and ‘Saltburn’ Also Bear Similarities to a Classic French Play

Consciously or not, both Teorema and Saltburn share plenty of thematic and narrative connections to a classic play by 17th century playwright/poet Molière. In his own Tartuffe, a seemingly impoverished outsider is generously taken in by a wealthy family. Some family members and friends are suspicious: his intentions seem suspect at best. Nevertheless, the family continues to offer their hospitality, which Tartuffe graciously accepts, all the while planting seeds of control at nearly every opportunity.

He gains the affection and admiration of the patriarch Orgon (played by Molière in the original run), who insists that the stranger marry Orgon’s charming daughter Mariane. Later, when facing opposition from skeptical members of the family, Tartuffe succeeds in getting the son Damis banished from the house and subsequently attempts to seduce Orgon’s wife Elmire. His alleged need of a place to stay is eventually revealed to be a lie. He’d been a liar and a grifter all along. The play ends happily, with King Louis XIV miraculously intervening by having Tartuffe arrested after hearing of his injustices.

Tartuffe remains one of the most famous and influential classical French plays ever written. A film adaptation was made by German silent filmmaker F.W. Murnau in 1926, and a French version directed by Gérard Depardieu was released in the ’80s. A political parable about the danger of charismatic religious hypocrites, Tartuffe utilizes a plot that is entirely relevant. Saltburn and Teorema, whether intentionally or not, both modernize aspects of the play for their respective times. Whereas Molière employs a deux ex machina to bring about a happy ending, though, both Saltburn and Teorema push the story to a tragic end.

Equal parts Teorema, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Tartuffe, with a distinctive early 2000s flair, Saltburn makes a name for itself by putting some of the world’s hottest stars in some unforgettably raunchy moments and searing those images into its audience’s brains. It’s a picturesque romp through an unfathomably glamorous estate, but it never musters up the thematic prowess of Teorema. Even when it recovers from a nearly botched ending with a lengthy, ass-naked dance sequence performed by a very confident Keoghan (set, delightfully, to Sophie Ellis-Bextor‘s « Murder on the Dancefloor »), it can’t ever muster the same sort of subversion that Pasolini made look easy.

While there’s plenty of films to watch if Saltburn is your particular cup of bathwater, Teorema stands above all. Sure, it’s much quieter, cryptic, and politically furious, but that’s what makes it so great.

Teorema is available to stream on Criterion Channel in the U.S.

Watch on Criterion

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