Where to begin with Pier Paolo Pasolini

Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…

Your next obsession: The earthy, confrontational cinema of Italian visionary Pasolini

Amy Simmons

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

Why this might not seem so easy

An audacious, controversial auteur, Pier Paolo Pasolini is celebrated the world over as a central figure of postwar Italian cinema, and recognised in his native land as one of the most vital artists and intellectuals of the 20th century.

Before his brutal murder in 1975, he’d become famous – and infamous – not only for his groundbreaking films and literary works but also for his criticism of capitalism, colonialism and western materialism. Transgressive, ambiguous and deeply personal, Pasolini’s confrontational but much-admired cinema survives as the bittersweet fruit of a hard-won and fiercely defended freedom.   

Emerging during the 1960s, Pasolini broke from his New Wave-inspired peers, drawing influence for his work from art, literature, folklore and music, while expressing an intense nostalgia for a pre-modern way of life. Likewise, he refined an extraordinary visual style to express this worldview using celluloid like the great masters used a fresco or canvas, attracting our attention to the expressive textures and materials of film.

From the defiantly earthy Passion play The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) to the chilling cruelty and despair of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), Pasolini’s cinema is perhaps best remembered today for its unbridled creativity and its uncompromising depictions of extreme violence and sexuality.

Greatly inspired by the neorealist filmmakers and writers of the 1940s, who insisted on political and cultural engagement, Pasolini looked deeply into Italy’s role in the spread of fascism and the ongoing impact of its ideas in postwar Europe. Consequently, with his gift for polemics and taste for scandal, the director was routinely hauled up on blasphemy and obscenity charges, inviting controversy from all sides of the political spectrum.

A lapsed Catholic and a lifelong Marxist who was expelled from the Communist party for being homosexual, Pasolini brazenly championed the disinherited and damned of his era, leaving behind a searing legacy that haunts the country more than 40 years after his grisly and still unsolved murder. The director’s sudden passing on 2 November 1975 at 53 years of age marked the end of an era in Italian cinema.

While Pasolini has no equivalent in the contemporary cinematic landscape, the director proved a key influence and pathfinder for many filmmakers across the world, including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Derek Jarman, Martin Scorsese, Gus Van Sant, Lars von Trier and Gaspar Noé.

Accattone (1961)

Accattone (1961)

The best place to start – Accattone

In a 1980 interview with Aldo Tassone, Bernardo Bertolucci famously recalled that working as the director’s assistant on Pasolini’s debut, Accattone (1961), was like witnessing the birth of cinema.

Equally affecting as character study and social document, this story of the life of a petty criminal, Vittorio ‘Accattone’ Cataldi (Franco Citti), reveals the director’s indebtedness to poetic neorealism with its episodic narrative, location shooting on city streets and use of non-professional actors. A brutally lyrical and unsentimental urban drama, the film carries along many of the themes that concerned Pasolini in his early fiction: the state of the slums in Rome, the goings on of prostitutes and pimps, and his growing disillusionment with a world dominated by consumerism and uniformity.

The Gospel According to Matthew (1964)

The Gospel According to Matthew (1964)

What to watch next

After 1962’s Mamma Roma, one of the lesser known but most approachable of the director’s films, which stars the indomitable Anna Magnani as the titular, tragic hooker, Pasolini wrote and directed The Gospel According to Matthew, which secured his reputation as a filmmaker, rather than simply a poet dabbling in cinema.

Using non-professional actors and shot in the lunar landscape of Matera in southern Italy with a visual style that drew from documentary and Renaissance painting alike, Pasolini abandons mythic grandeur in favour of a portrayal that highlights the political radicalism of Christ’s life. The film was dedicated to John XXIII, the first Pope to have opened up a discourse between Catholicism and Marxism. 

In his subsequent work, Pasolini distanced himself from theology and attempted to create his own version of a popular cinema, casting the comic star Totò in a handful of pictures, most notably Hawks and Sparrows (1966). The most playfully ‘New Wave’ of Pasolini films, the tale focuses on a poor father (Totò) and son (Ninetto Davoli) who take a road trip on foot. Here, the director’s ideological concerns stand out starkly, illustrated in a talking Marxist crow who waxes lyrical about religion, human nature, marginalised social groups and the death of communism.

Following the tepid response to these unusual comedies, Pasolini proclaimed allegiance to “unpopular cinema”, and turned to the fusing of myth and scathing depictions of the bourgeoisie that resulted in the tender, sensual and wholly unsparing Oedipus Rex (1967), the heavily symbolic Theorem (1968), starring Terence Stamp, and his much underappreciated Porcile (1969). 

Porcile (1969)

Porcile (1969)

After a decade of increasingly pessimistic films, Pasolini adopted a new outlook with his bawdy medieval adaptations, The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1974), collectively known as the Trilogy of Life. A radical and visceral celebration of humankind’s pleasures, devotions and freedoms, Pasolini uses Boccaccio, Chaucer and the Arabic cycle of 1001 Nights as a springboard for some deftly humorous stories. Yet the director’s newfound blithe spirit was not to last, and shortly after completing the trilogy Pasolini rejected the work, claiming that he had succumbed to knee-jerk liberalism. 

Where not to start

Still potent after 44 years, Pasolini’s utterly despairing final film, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, was released shortly after the director’s murder. An unrelentingly brutal adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s 18th-century masterwork of depravity, and structured around the four parts of Dante’s Inferno, the film was held up for years due to censorship issues and remains unrivalled in its power to provoke and horrify.

However, Salò gains enormous depth when seen as an anti-fascist parable, using humiliation, torture and rape as metaphors for right-wing authoritarianism during the Second World War. Whichever side one takes, the film stands as a controversial testament, however grim, to Pasolini’s genius and the potential power of cinema.

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