“It is only at our moment of death that our life, to that point undecipherable, ambiguous, suspended, acquires a meaning.” So said Pier Paolo Pasolini in a 1967 interview. However, 38 years on from the never-fully-solved mystery of his murder, Pasolini’s work remains all of those things: a complex fusion of conflicting passions and irreconcilable allegiances.
Compared to the dreamlike fantasies of Federico Fellini or the modernistic ennui of Michelangelo Antonioni, his esoteric blend of poetry and politics, myth and history, passion and ideology, is harder to define yet equally impossible to ignore.
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Pasolini chose not to resolve his insecurities but rather to embrace their incongruity. He was part Catholic, part atheist and avowed Marxist ideologue; an openly (but sometimes self-hating) gay man who looked to traditional Italian values for inspiration and comfort; a defiant leftist who once in the late 60s spoke out against left-wing student protests (instead sympathising with the ‘real’ working-class police). It’s no surprise that he is remembered as one of the most distinctive and innovative Italian postwar filmmakers.
Before approaching film in his 40s, Pasolini had been a poet, novelist, journalist, painter, playwright, actor, and one of the most dissenting public voices in Italian politics and culture. He captured Italians at a crucial juncture in their cultural history. The ‘economic miracle’ of the 50s and 60s was rapidly replacing a rural economy with consumer capitalism, and represented what he saw as moral corruption masquerading as freedom.
Like Bernardo Bertolucci, Pasolini began under the influence of classic Italian neorealism. Pasolini’s first film, Accattone (1961) – often cited as the last neorealist film – returns to the petty criminal underworld of the Roman ‘borgate’ (suburbs) that he explored in his previous novels. However, despite sharing certain superficial similarities with classical neorealism (such as non-professional actors, on-location shooting and handheld camerawork), Pasolini found a squalid lyricism that celebrated the radical opposition of the criminal sub-proletariat to the growing culture of mass media and material living.
The protagonist Vittorio – who prefers to be called ‘Accattone’ (literally ‘beggar’ but colloquially ‘deadbeat’ or ‘grifter’) – is a Christ-like anti-hero. Just as Christ once associated himself with the lowest vagrants of society, Accattone too finds his place among thieves and prostitutes. In the abjection of the defeated, Pasolini sees a ‘natural sacredness’ – images of the sublime in the dirt – and uses the symbols of Christian iconography to capture them. Like in the films of Robert Bresson, such as A Man Escaped (1956) and Pickpocket (1959), the sacred can only enter when there is a void to receive it.
This persistent commingling of the sacred and the profane evokes a spiritual realm inspired by what Pasolini called “a desperate vitality” and “a love of reality”. Pasolini viewed the cinema as writing with reality, which – when manipulated for the purposes of self-expression – would yield a cinema of poetry. All the intellectual ‘baggage’ in his films – relating to the social, the political and the cultural – was always underpinned by a project to reinvent the aesthetics of cinema.
After 1962’s Mamma Roma, starring Anna Magnani as the titular, tragic ex-prostitute – another exploration of the Roman borgate that Pasolini later admitted was the only time he had repeated himself – he wrote and directed a version of The Gospel According to Matthew (1964).
Shot in southern Italy with a brilliantly chosen non-professional cast, Pasolini transcended the conventional grammar of film in miraculous monochrome and adventurously combined classical music by Bach with songs by soulful blues artist Odetta. Pasolini’s Jesus (played by a Catalan student who resembles figures from Renaissance painting) is a fiercely political creation, whose attacks on hypocrisy and social justice are both revolutionary and reverential.
Pasolini deployed a roving camera with zoom lenses to photograph the faces and bodies of real people in real landscapes, displaying an almost Christ-like empathy towards all of God’s creations and making the historical past seem an earthy, lived-in present. His restrained depiction of the miracles and the crucifixion contrasted with the sentimental pictorialism of Hollywood offerings such as Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961).
However, as in the work of directors like Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Ingmar Bergman and Terrence Malick, there is something altogether grander and more universal working within and around the context of theology.
In his later work, Pasolini distanced himself from theology – reflecting later that his Gospel contained moments of “disgusting pietism” – and moved towards the death of ideology and exotic escapism. Hawks and Sparrows (1966), Theorem (1968) and Pigsty (1969) represented his growing disillusionment towards any possible social alternative to a revolutionary future.
Between 1971 and 1974, Pasolini directed The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights – three bawdy adaptations of medieval works, branded collectively as The Trilogy of Life, which celebrate the primal sensation of the sexual act.
Pasolini died, aged 53, just weeks before the premiere of what would be his last film, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), an unrelentingly cruel adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s catalogue of degradation and torture which Pasolini intended as a caustic commentary on the brutality of fascism. He’d been run over, supposedly by a 17-year-old hustler (who later recanted his confession), leaving Antonioni to remark that he’d become “a victim of his own characters”. The new, capitalist Italy – as Pasolini had indeed predicted – devours its disobedient children.