Pier Paolo Pasolini

Dennis Harvey August 16, 2007

An intensely controversial as well as prolific figure, Pier Paolo Pasolini was many things: Poet, novelist, stage and film director, journalist, Marxist, leading intellectual theorist, “admitted” homosexual, incessant critic of church and state who nonetheless also made films praised by the same Vatican which elsewhere called him a blasphemer. He hobnobbed with Maria Callas and street hustlers.

Watching the movies that are now his most familiar legacy, it’s impossible to separate content from his complicated off-screen life. Would one be half so interesting without the other? Thirty-odd years after his death, it’s still debatable whether he was ever a great filmmaker. But no one doubts he’s a great public figure whose personality continues to absorb viewers who read his films like celluloid autobiography.

S.F.‘s Italian Cultural Institute
is launching an extensive if not quite exhaustive retrospective of Pasolini’s features, stretching to early October.

Even if you’ve already seen most of these titles separately before, it’s still a surprise to see them in one place. The list veers eccentrically from gritty neo-realism to classical Greek tragedy, lusty costume epics to surrealist parables, deliberately “obscene” provocation to … well, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” which even the Pope liked.

Unlike his peers in the great Italian art cinema of the ’60s — Visconti, Fellini, Bertolucci, Antonioni — Pasolini was never much of a stylist. Indeed, his films could be downright crude and clumsy, particularly in visual terms — even though painting was among his umpteen expressive outlets. But then beauty always seemed distant amongst the reasons he made art.

In a life rife with contradictions and rebellions, not least is the fact that his father was a gambling-debt-jailed Army officer famous for at one point saving the life of Il Duce himself, Mussolini. Gee thanks, Dad!

Born in 1922, Pier Paolo was a literary prodigy early on, had passing obsessions with religion and soccer, published his first poetry collection in 1941 to acclaim. Disillusioned by Italy’s wartime cultural-political climate, he abandoned ruling Fascists for the Community Party — though it expelled some years later him over police charges of lewd conduct. He survived WW2 after a brief drafted Army stint and briefer capture by German troops (he escaped).

Diverse, troublesome efforts to find his place in postwar Italy came into focus with the 1955 publication of first novel Boys of Life, a raw portrait of rudderless youth in the poorest echelons of Roman society. It was a scandalous success condemned by those who preferred to ignore such social ills — launching Pasolini’s image as a rabble-rouser frequently denounced and gossiped about by conservatives. (If he’d lived, he would no doubt have been just as unpopular with Berlusconi’s regime.)

Such notoriety — and apparent familiarity with the “criminal classes” — helped him get hired as a dialogue advisor on Fellini’s 1957 classic “Nights of Cabiria,” with Giulietta Masina as a good-hearted streetwalker. He graduated to the director’s chair with 1961’s “Accatone,” the first film in the Istituto’s series. Similar to “Boys of Life,” “Accatone” (roughly translating as “panhandler”) was a then-shockingly frank portrait of young men in the crime-ridden, impoverished outskirts of Rome.

Again, his efforts won both prizes and furious denunciations. It is worth noting that, in years when Italy was a far more devout, conservative nation than now, Pasolini was several times arrested, tried and/or sued for obscenity. Not to mention giving “offence to the Italian state.”

That latter charge was levied against his episode in the omnibus “RoGoPaG” (1963), in which Orson Welles played an insensitive helmer exploiting impoverished locals for his passion-of-the-Christ epic. The prior year Pasolini’s second directorial feature, “Mamma Roma” — underappreciated in the U.S. until its re-release a while back — proved one of his most fully realized and enjoyable, giving the formidable Anna Magnani a superb showcase as another salty, soulful prostitute.

The next Instituto revivals are two seldom-seen 1963 efforts: Pasolini’s half of “Love and Anger,” in which he and conservative Giovanni Guareschi offered respective semi-documentary takes on modern social problems; and his own “Love Meetings,” comprising interviews with real Italians on that eternal Catholic bugaboo, Sex.

The same Church must have expected the worst when Pasolini made “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” starring amateurs (including his own mum as Virgin Mary). Yet this stripped-down life of Christ was utterly faithful to the Gospel, and its potent simplicity won tremendous international praise (including three Oscar nominations.) Even more surprisingly, the International Catholic Film Office lauded his controversial 1968 “Teorema,” recognizing the spiritual message beneath a lurid surface that had an ethereal intruder (Terence Stamp) seducing virtually all members — female and male — of a Milan factory owner’s household.

Amidst these critical and popular successes, Pasolini continued to challenge himself and audiences. 1966’s “The Hawks and the Sparrows” is a Buñuel-esque exercise in grotesque comic surrealism; 1969’s “Pigpen” an outrageous two-part assault on “good taste” that couldn’t find U.S. distribution until 1974 (and was dismissed as disgusting even then). That same year, he followed his 1967 update of “Oedipus Rex” with a more faithful take on Euripedes, starring close friend Maria Callas in her only film-riveting in the nonsinging role of spurned “Medea.” This “event” movie won little enthusiasm at the time (including as SF International’s opening-nighter), but merits reevaluation.

Pasolini then embarked on something disconcertingly broad in appeal: A trilogy of lavish, bawdy takes on multinational folkloric lit encompassing “The Decameron,” “Canterbury Tales,” and “Arabian Nights.” (Only the first is being shown by the Institute.) These aren’t very good movies. They galumph where they should playfully gambol, despite all nudity and production expense. PPP was many things — but he wasn’t a natural entertainer, let alone purveyor of soft-core erotica.

As if to scrub away that failed compromise with a steel brush, his last film was 1975’s “Salo” (not in the Institute series). Transporting the Marquis de Sade’s horrific catalogue of fictive abuses by amoral powermongers against kidnapped innocents to a Fascist-era setting, this movie was considered so pornographically toxic it excited as much must-see international arthouse exposure as general condemnation.

For years I was actually afraid to see it, having found the original 18th-century tome truly evil. Finally I did and … well, the book is still more disturbing. Its relentless laundry list of humiliations, rapes, mutilations and murders has a clinical detachment that still shivers timbers. (Not until “American Psycho” did a book again seem so truly obscene — in the sense of an author excessively enjoying sadism from a standpoint of snide, conscienceless race/class superiority.) Pasolini’s “Salo” is ugly and unpleasant. But he’s commenting on the abuse of power, which is always going to be less powerful than any statement by those who would actually, gladly abuse it.

By the time it came out, “Salo” had another reason to be considered “sick.” He had been killed — beaten then run over several times by his own car — purportedly by a 17-year-old hustler who at first claimed violent reaction to Pier Paulo’s sexual advances. He then retracted, saying he’d been blackmailed into “confession” by anonymous men who’d threatened his family and called the murder victim a “filthy Communist.”

Conspiracy theories flourished, bolstered by rumors of (some confirmed) police misconduct, Secret Service interference, extortion, political pressure, even Mafia involvement. The case is still theoretically unsolved. Given the labyrinthine nature of Italian justice, don’t expect any clarifying resolution soon.

Contrasts are always instructive. Pasolini’s death (assassination?) might always remain an enigma. But if he’d lived here, could he possibly have made such provocative far-left-to-anarchic statements in (fairly) popular media? Would anyone have watched, let alone funded them? Segments of the Italian population loathed him — yet he was still valued as an important dissenting voice.

In this 40th anniversary year for the Summer of Love, Sixties progressive values feel more defeated than ever. The word “intellectual” (as well as “liberal,” “feminist,” et al.) is a dismissive slur. Where are our Pasolinis? They’re not just buried — they were never much alive in the popular imagination to begin with. Pasolini was a scandal. But he was also a freedom-of-expression lesson we’d be hard-pressed to learn from now.