Monday, August 31, 2015


Mario Monicelli, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Mauro Bolognini, Steno, Pino Zac, Franco Rossi, 1968
Starring: Totò, Franco Franchi, Ugo D'Alessio, Regina Seiffert

After Ro.Go.Pa.G and The Witches, also produced by Dino de Laurentiis, this is the third anthology film Pasolini took part in. While he’s not typically remembered as a director of comedies, he made a fair few, most of them either anthology films and/or starring the great Italian comedian Totò. This includes “La ricotta” from Ro.Go.Pa.G, the feature-length Uccellacci e Uccellini with Totò, and “The Earth as Seen From the Moon” from The Witches, also with Totò. “Che cosa sono le nuvole?”, his segment in Capriccio all’italiana, is the last of these and the last film Totò appeared in; it was actually released after the actor’s death.

Crowded with segments despite its 95-minute running time, there are six segments divided between six directors. Mario Monicelli, director of Big Deal on Madonna Street, helmed “La Bambinaia” aka “The Nanny,” about a nanny who tells unsettling stories to the children she has been hired to mind. The second segment, “Il mostro della domenica” aka “The Monster of Sunday,” was directed by the prolific Steno (An American in Rome, Execution Squad). He frequently worked with Totò, who appears here as a grumpy old man stuck in his bourgeois ways, determined to get revenge against the young people he hates.

The third segment, “Perché?” aka “Why?”, was directed by Mauro Bolognini, who also directed an adaptation of one of Pasolini’s novels. In “Perché?”, frustration comes to a head as a couple is stuck in traffic in the middle of Rome and the wife encourages her husband to get them out of it by whatever means necessary. The fourth episode is Pasolini’s “Che cosa sono le nuvole?” aka “What are Clouds?”, which I’ll examine in depth shortly. The last two segments include Pino Zac and Franco Rossi’s (who also worked on The Witches but was uncredited here) “Viaggio di lavoro,” where the Queen of England’s trip to Africa goes horribly wrong, and Mauro Bolognini’s second entry, “La Gelosia” aka “Jealousy,” another story about a troubled husband and wife.

I’m not going to lie. At this point, I’m already pretty burned out by European anthology films, which is perhaps odd because I absolutely love British horror anthology efforts like Tales from the Crypt and Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors. For whatever reason, they were all the craze on the European art house scene in the ‘60s, including films like Love at Twenty (1961), The Seven Deadly Sins (1962), The Most Beautiful Swindlers (1963), Six in Paris (1964), The Oldest Profession (1964), and my favorite, Spirits of the Dead (1969), an Edgar Allen Poe themed anthology featuring works by Fellini, Louis Malle, and Roger Vadim.

Pasolini’s “What are Clouds?” is undisputedly the best film in Capriccio all’italiana. A group of puppets (actually real-life actors like Totò, Laura Betti, Ninetto Davoli, and Franco Franchi) are involved in an adaptation of Othello, Shakespeare’s tragedy about a husband’s paranoia and violent jealousy taken to extremes. While waiting between acts, they discuss the events unfolding on stage. For example, though the puppet played by Ninetto Davoli (one of Pasolini’s regulars) has been cast as Othello, he recognizes him to be a flawed and negative character and he’s upset that he has to repeat this performance over and over.

The best moments of “What are Clouds?” are echoed in Pasolini’s other comedies: the presence of Totò (here playing puppet Iago with hilarious results), and a healthy blend of comedy and intellectual material. Criterion released Mamma Roma with Pasolini’s short “La ricotta” as a special feature and I would love to see Uccellacci e uccellini  released on Blu-ray with the other comedies shorts accompanying. Though I loved the short, I can’t recommend Capriccio all’italiana. It frustrated that there is no unifying theme and British horror definitely spoiled me with their customary use of a framing device: a central story in which different characters tell their own stories, which make up the short films, and at the end, the characters are reunited and experience the conclusion together. I don’t believe this is available on DVD for English-speaking audiences and it’s also a job to track down online.

Thursday, August 27, 2015


Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968
Starring: Terence Stamp, Laura Betti, Silvana Mangano, Massimo Girotti

“You seduced me, God, and I let myself be seduced.”

A bourgeois Italian family receive a visit from a mysterious stranger. He proceeds to seduce and have sex with all the members of the family -- the religious maid, the somewhat effeminate son, the repressed mother, the shy daughter, and eventually the uptight, businessman father. He speaks very little, gives himself to them completely, and asks for nothing in return. Then he disappears, throwing them all into a state of spiritual upheaval and emotional chaos. Each member of the family is profoundly changed and they have remarkably different reactions to his sudden absence. The daughter becomes catatonic, the son takes up painting, the mother becomes a sex addict, and the maid returns to her village and begins performing miracles. The father, most interestingly of all, becomes a sexual prowler who has some sort of religious epiphany and strips off all of his clothes in a train station.

Teorema (aka Theorem) is a weird little film that fits in with the mid-period of Pasolini’s career in the sense that he was past the early religious allegories set in Roman slums (Accattone, Mamma Roma, La ricotta), past the Marxist-leaning documentaries (La rabbia, Comizi d’amore), and almost finished with his mythic period (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Oedipus Rex, while Medea would a year after Teorema). This period of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s — before the Trilogy of Life and his final film, the death-obsessed Salò — Pasolini made a number of allegorical parables that define the sort of post-Marx, post-Freud, postwar world that defines his body of cinema in general.

Like Pasolini’s early works, religious and/or sacred themes are continued here — the family’s servant (Laura Betti) is profoundly religious and tries to commit suicide because of the desire she feels for the guest. He rescues and comforts her, giving in to her sexual needs in the process. An echo of Pasolini’s simple yet idealized Italian villager (or slum citizen), she leaves the family’s mansion at the end of the film and returns home to her village, where she performs miracles. The father (Massimo Girotto) has a similar experience and becomes a new twist on Pasolini’s frequently used messiah character, who are both prophets and sacrificial lambs.

Through the father’s character, this is also a blatantly Marxist parable. A wealthy, successful businessman, he gives away his extensive factories — signing them over to his workers — in the beginning of the film. Though the film treats the entire family unit as a sort of collective protagonist, it is essentially a story about their attempts to transition after the father’s retirement, after his active abandonment of the capitalist machine. The film has little dialogue, so the father’s decision is not addressed in depth, but he claims to be sick and compares himself to Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy’s novel about an ambitious capitalist ladder-climber who has an accident and finds himself inexplicably terminal. He realizes the divide between what he describes as authentic and artificial life, a concept at the heart of many of Pasolini's films.

Teorema is also Pasolini’s first film with an abundance of sex and nudity, though neither are used in a gratuitous way. Like Salò, naked flesh and sexuality are tied into themes of mortality and the horror of bourgeois life. All of the members of the family are ashamed of their own sexuality, but unable to resist their attraction to the guest, who openly, almost innocently returns their affection. The brief sex scenes culminate in one of the best and most honest depictions of sexual repression and human vulnerability in cinema. While in Salò sex is about power, dominance, and violence, rather than sensuality, here it is a rite of communion. The visitor’s sexual acts serve to set each of the family members free from their bourgeois prison, but this isn’t entirely positive or care free — Pasolini in no sense gives the idea that the film has a happy ending. The visitor could be seen as God or the Devil, or merely as a force of profound change — a living epiphany.

The nameless guest is played by British actor Terence Stamp, who was at the height of his acting powers around this time. His career began just a few years earlier with Billy Budd (1962) and became increasingly more interesting with The Collector (1965), Modesty Blaise (1966), and Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), though I find his two Italian appearances — in Teorema and Fellini’s masterly Toby Dammit (1968) — to be the most fascinating. I should also add that Terence Stamp is one of the most beautiful men I've ever seen. I could probably watch him peeling potatoes for two hours and be happy.

Highly allegorical, Teorema will not be for everyone. It will either profoundly move you or bore you into incomprehension. The minimal dialogue and plot that is at once simple and complex might be too much (or not enough) for a lot of people. Aside from the sexual content being criticized by the Catholic Church, Teorema received mostly positive critical reception. It's a special and rewarding film. You can find it on Blu-ray from BFI, though I’d love to see it released in the giant Pasolini box set of my dreams alongside Pasolini’s own novel, published after the film was released.

In this movie, everyone willingly kneels before Zod. (Sorry Pasolini.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1967
Starring: Silvana Mangano, Franco Citti, Alida Valli, Carmelo Bene, Julian Beck, Luciano Bartoli

Pasolini’s adaptation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex follows a young couple in Italy in the years before the war. They have a child, but the husband is jealous and has a servant take the baby boy to the desert to kill him. Unable to go through with the task, the boy is abandoned in the brush. The film transitions to an ancient, mythic time, where the baby is found in Corinth and adopted by the joyous King Polybus and his wife, Queen Merope. They name him Oedipus and he grows into an energetic young man. After a playmate taunts him about his parentage, he goes to the oracle of Apollo and learns there’s a prophecy saying he will kill his father and marry his mother. Dejected and miserable, he refuses to go home, setting in motion a chain of tragic events.

A bridge between The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Pasolini’s later films like The Decameron, Oedipus Rex is marked by a dramatic visual sense and use of color that would continue throughout the second half of Pasolini’s career. It also provides an interesting precursor to Salò, as the film is consumed with anger about the actions of previous generations, those that began WWII. Like many of Pasolini’s works, this can be seen as a meditation on the effects of WWII and the postwar world. The film’s opening takes place in modern day — the 1920s — with Oedipus’s father, Laius, garbed in military uniform, the kind worn by men who would soon before part of the fascist movement.

This choice belies one of the film’s deeper themes: Pasolini’s investigation of his own complicated relationship with his mother and his father. While he had a very close relationship with his mother, who he lived with for his entire life and who was even cast as Jesus’s mother in The Gospel According to St. Matthew. His father, on the other hand, was an Italian soldier not unlike Laius. With a gambling problem and an arrest record, he was in and out of the young Pasolini’s life and ultimately abandoned his son. Anxiety about fathers being usurped by their sons is a common theme in Greek myth. For example one of the founding myths is that Zeus, the father of the gods, rises up against his own father, the Titan Cronus, who has consumed all his children and imprisoned them within his stomach. 

Crimes against the family are also often at the heart of Greek tragic myths — Zeus’s murder of his father is only heroic because the foundation myth is about the gods overthrowing the Titans, while the story of Orestes (who murdered his mother after she murdered his father after he murdered their daughter) is perhaps the most famous of the Greek tragedies. These crimes against blood are directly related to a concept of plague and miasma that follows an offense against the gods, where a lands animals and humans suffer and die, disease spreads, and wells dry up. With this element, Pasolini both references postwar turmoil and gives a nod to his earlier, more fervent Marxism with the citizens’ plea for Oedipus to solve their plight — with the high priest character played by Pasolini himself.

Many of these myths are initially caused by one character’s hubris, excellent conveyed by Franco Citti who had a similar role in Pasolini’s first film, Accattone. While the Greek gods are always punishing people for excessive pride and hubris, Pasolini also captures how maddeningly cynical this is. Oedipus only leaves home because of the prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother — mistakenly believing that Polybus (an endearing Ahmed Belhachmi) and Merope (a beautiful, pre-Suspiria Alida Valli) are his biological parents — but it is this exodus that causes him to accidentally kill his father Laius (Luciano Bartoli) and set in motion a chain of events. Like so many tragic tales, this irritatingly boils down to a failure of communication — the events arguably could have been avoided if Oedipus went home and had a talk with his adopted parents — but Oedipus Rex captures a profounder sense of damning irony and nihilistic fate.

Oedipus Rex is essentially one of Pasolini’s more neglected masterpieces. It captures a sense of awe and wonder, while also effectively being a neorealist sword and sandal film. The Moroccan setting is almost a character in and of itself, while Pasolini captures spectacular performances from some professional actors (including the enigmatic Silvana Mangano in one of her best roles despite a disturbing lack of eyebrows) and nonprofessionals alike. There is dreamlike, surreal sense thanks to the costumes and nonsequitors and Pasolini finds a perfect balance between stark intellectualism and a certain comic campiness that doesn’t take away from the film’s impact but perhaps contributes to it.

The film comes highly recommended, though you should pick up the UK Masters of Cinema DVD/Blu-ray over the US-friendly Water Bearer Films’ DVD. It makes a fascinating double feature with either The Gospel According to St. Anthony or the later, similarly-themed Medea. It is worthy of far more acclaim and should be counted among Pasolini’s masterpieces.

Monday, August 24, 2015


Mauro Bolognini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Franco Rossi, 1967
Starring: Silvana Mangano, Totò, Ninetto Davoli, Clint Eastwood, Alberto Sordi, Massimo Girotti

After Ro.Go.Pa.G. and the controversy surrounding Pasolini’s heretic short film, “La ricotta,” he dove back anthology films a few years later with The Witches. The beautiful Silvana Mangano, wife of producer Dino de Laurentiis who organized the anthology, stars in each of the film’s five segments. I feel like I should warn you now that there aren’t actually any witches in the film (much to my great disappointment). Like Ro.Go.Pa.G., the different segments were helmed by well-known directors, including Luchino Visconti, Franco Rossi, Pasolini, Mauro Bolognini, and Vittorio De Sica. Surprisingly, the shorts vary considerably in length, which means that the film moves at a decent clip at never feels sluggish, as is sometimes the case with anthology films trying to make each segment equal to its fellows. 

Luchino Visconti’s The Witch Burnt Alive
This lengthy first short stars Mangano as a famous actress who takes a day off from her busy shooting and publicity schedule to travel to an old friend’s wintertime resort. Her friend is throwing a party for a wealthy, middle aged group and the actress is somewhat ostracized. Obsessed with her elaborate beauty routine and the paparazzi waiting outside, the actress is bordering on hysteria. The women are jealous and judgmental of her, while most of the men want to have sex with her. Ultimately she faints and falls ill and it is revealed she is pregnant. She sulks off after a fight over the telephone with her controlling husband. 

This film has a lot of potential and an unnerving tone, but doesn’t quite get off the ground. I think it actually would have been more enjoyable as a feature-length work. It is unclear if the actress is just vain and selfish, or if she is really fragile, overworked, and at the breaking point. Visconti suggests the women’s predatory nature — they remove the actress’s hat, wig, false eyelashes, and some of her makeup when she passes out — and the actress almost has an affair with her friend’s husband, but these scenes don’t go to the extremes that they perhaps should. Mangano would go on to better work with Visconti in films like Death in Venice and Conversation Piece. Keep your eyes peeled for a naughty cameo from a very young Helmut Berger.

Mauro Bolognini’s Civic Sense
In this quick short, Mangano plays a rushed woman held up in traffic because of an accident. The driver of a truck has been injured, but she offers to take him to the hospital so that he doesn’t have to wait for an ambulance. The confused, concussed, bleeding man asks her nonsensical questions, but wonders about her frenzied driving and becomes concerned when she passes a series of hospitals. Ultimately she arrives at her destination and drops him off by the side of the road, where he collapses. Bolognini is lesser known that some of the greats on The Witches’ directorial roster, but he helmed The Big Night (1959) with a script from Pasolini and The Inheritance (1976). This quick episode is amusing but is sort of an afterthought compared to the other segments.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Earth As Seen From The Moon
The comic crown jewel of the anthology is this film that reunites Pasolini with comic legend Totò, Pasolini’s ex-lover and close friend Ninetto Davoli, and composer Ennio Morricone. This whimsical film follows a vibrantly red-haired father and son as they search for a new “mama” after their matriarch has passed away. After a number of false starts, they encounter the beautiful Assurdina, a mute and deaf woman with greenish hair and a generous spirit, who agrees to join the little family. She fixes up their tiny shack, but accidentally dies when her new husband cooks up a scheme to earn them enough money to buy a house.

Similar to Pasolini’s previous absurdist fairy tale, The Hawks and Sparrows, which also starred Ninetto and Davoli, this is both funnier and more absurd. It lacks the pedantic moral element of the former film and is a funny, endearing romp that pokes fun at the human quest for advancement. I think this is the best of the five films and Mangano also at her most compelling and this was the start of a multi-film collaboration between she and Pasolini that includes many of his mid-period films like Oedipus Rex and Teorema. And if you think death by slipping on a banana peel is hilarious, then this is definitely the film for you.

Franco Rossi’s The Sicilian Woman
This penultimate segment from Franco Rosso, a lesser known director who made a number of anthology films and The Counterfeiters (1953), is another brief but amusing glimpse at Mangano. She plays a scorned woman who admits to her father after much cajoling that a man flirted with her and then rebuffed her. In response, he father kills the man and his entire family, while a hysterical Mangano protests his deeds. I enjoyed this one a lot more than Civic Sense, but its sole purpose is really to serve as a palate-cleanser between Pasolini’s film and the final episode.

Vittorio De Sica’s An Evening Like the Others
This might actually be tied with The Earth As Seen From The Moon as my favorite film in the anthology. Mangano stars as a bored house wife who is frustrated that her successful businessman husband is always tired or distracted. While doing the dishes after dinner, she begins to fantasize about how things could be different — she sees him in a number of roles, such as lover, jealous husband, and villain. Though he promises her he will work at renewing their romance, he falls asleep and snores loudly. This wonderful short effortlessly shifts between fantasy and reality and feels very much like a musical without songs as it graduates into more and more elaborate fantasies. There’s a wonderful ending sequence where the wife, trying to prove to her husband on a grand scale how sexy she can be, performs in a stadium full of hundreds and strips away layers and layers of ball gowns. 

Allegedly the reason why The Witches is so obscure is because United Artists purchased the film and kept it out of theaters because the actor who co-starred as the boring husband — Clint Eastwood — was on the rise to fame as an action star in the US. I’m not entirely sure why, because he’s both funny and charming in the role and it’s definitely nice to see another side of Italy’s favorite American gunslinger. The above picture of Mangano as some sort of sci-fi villainess is from one of the wife's fantasies and is such a tease that I wish some of the segments had been more horror/cult-focused.

Overall I would recommend The Witches thanks to the segments from Pasolini and De Sica. Certainly anyone with a passion for the weird trend of European art house anthologies, Mangano, Pasolini, De Sica, Visconti, and Clint Eastwood will find a lot to enjoy in this pleasant way to pass two hours. Luckily United Artists have relaxed their death grip and you can find the film on DVD.

Thursday, August 20, 2015


Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1966
Starring: Totò, Ninetto Davoli

Totò and his son Ninetto travel around the Roman countryside, having adventures until they meet with a wise crow. He tells them the story of two friars, Ciccillo and Ninetto, who are tasked by St. Francis to teach a message of love to the nearby hawks and sparrows. A frustrating task, they manage to communicate to the two bird species separately, but can’t convince them to love each other. After the crow is finished his story, he tags along on Totò and Ninetto’s journey through the country, where they have run ins with some violent men, a poor family, actors, and more.

Literally meaning Ugly Birds and Little Birds, this difficult comic parable was allegedly Pasolini’s own favorite among his films, but will likely divide viewers. This is essentially a tale of inherently innocent, naive characters caught up between Marxist (as represented by the crow) and Christian ideals. Nearly all of Pasolini’s early films — Accattone, Mamma Roma, La ricotta, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, and even the documentary Love Meetings — reflects this debate and contains religious themes. The Hawks and Sparrows would serve as something of a warm, humorous farewell to that as Pasolini moved on to more mythic films after this. Like those early works, this is also one of his last films where the majority of the characters are poor or working class, another theme that obsessed Pasolini’s early years.

There are a number of things that I genuinely loved about Hawks and Sparrows. For starters, there’s an excellent, whimsical score from Ennio Morricone, which includes the film’s hilarious opening song. Vocalist Domenico Modugno sings the credits — including all the names of everyone involved — as they roll across the screen. While the humor is a little difficult — in the sense that I think some of it is topical and language-based — the first half of the film is funny and endearing with some physical comedy that seems to be borrowed from Chaplin. It’s hard to even look at Totò, one of Italy’s most beloved comic actors, and not be absolutely warmed down to my toes. He has a fabulous presence in everything I’ve seen and he’s great here.

His son is played by Ninetto Davoli, a teenage non-professional actor in his first-ever role. He’s also surprisingly strong in the film and went on to be the great love of Pasolini’s life. Though they only had a sexual relationship for a few years and Davoli eventually got married, he was Pasolini’s frequent companion until the director’s death nine years later. Maybe it’s just Totò’s finesse, but they have wonderful chemistry together — and also with the stuffy, pedantic crow. The latter actually turns out to be a delightful character and I wish I saw more of that in life action films (sans the CGI, please). Totò and Ninetto also appear in the framing story and the tale of two frustrated monks, who are the film’s most charming characters.

In a strange way, it reminded me of a much more whimsical version of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s surreal Fando and Lis (1968), which concerns a couple on a series of terrifying, humorous, and erotic adventures. Both films have an episodic feel — The Hawks and Sparrows follows the father and son past encounters like a field of young men dancing, a woman giving birth, the father demanding money from a very poor woman, and through a field where they’re shot at — and both have very Dantesque references to Hell and existential torment. 

But like Salò, the film’s intellectualism is self-conscious and it sometimes gets in the way. I can’t really decide if this is something I should recommend or not — you’ll love it, hate it, or maybe have no idea what’s going on — but if a moral parable in the form of an intellectual, absurdist comedy sounds up your alley, then definitely pick up the Masters of Cinema DVD. And if you think you can resist Totò, then you haven’t seen him in action yet. Like Leonard Nimoy, he’s the pretend grandfather that everyone wishes they had.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964
Starring: Enrique Irazoqui, Margherita Caruso, Susanna Pasolini

“I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.” — Pier Paolo Pasolini

Closely following the Gospel of Matthew, Pasolini relates the life of Jesus Christ from his birth, childhood in Israel, and the early years of his teachings. The stern young man relates moral lessons through parables, traveling throughout the countryside. The film is divided into two parts and in the first half he preaches, finds apostles, and performs miracles. In the second half, his controversial teachings eventually reach the local Jewish elders, who plot against him and have him arrested, tried by Pontius Pilate, and crucified, which he had earlier foretold would occur. 

This Italian-French coproduction is perhaps a surprising work for Pasolini — an intellectual, Marxist, homosexual, and atheist — but it can be seen as the natural conclusion to his early Catholic themes in films like Accattone, Mamma Roma, and La ricotta. If all three of those early works follow a poor, Christ-like figure who is ultimately destroyed by the bourgeois world, The Gospel According to St. Matthew examines the biblical Christ directly. It tells us perhaps as much about Pasolini as it does about the historical religious figure, who is here depicted with a sense of gravity, presence, and austerity. Christ is is no longer a passive spiritual icon but a fervent, determined revolutionary figure. This is essentially a Marxist parable about a righteously angry poor man who wanders the land preaching against greed, corruption, and wealth.

I have to admit that I came to this film with some doubts and personal resistance — like Pasolini, I’ve spent most of my life as an atheist, though I was raised by a Catholic family. Unlike Pasolini, I have no “nostalgia for belief,” though I do have an appreciation for the sacred, the divine, and the unexplainable. I have to admit that I don’t find the biblical Christ to be an overwhelmingly interesting figure, but Pasolini takes a fascinating approach. Once I was able to get past the religious themes and look at this as a new work, it’s not really that far from the magical realism of someone like Jodorowsky — albeit more restrained. Though Christ performs miracles — he heals a facially disfigured man, walks on water, and transforms loaves into fishes — these events are presented at face value and met with little fanfare. An early scene showing the massacre of the babies is probably the most disturbing and surreal. It was primarily shot from a distance to depict screaming mothers and their dead babies flying through the air.

There is very little dialogue, most of which is lifted from the fairly straightforward Gospel of Matthew. The proceedings have a Brechtian sense of distance and alienation and the film is populated with strangely flat and alien characters that give The Gospel According to St. Matthew an allegorical feeling — though there are some scenes where Christ treats his followers with warmth and affection and Pasolini accomplishes much with dialogue-free close ups of faces. The only really sentimental moments surround Mary, both as a radiant young mother concerned for her child and later as a beatific old woman, played by Pasolini’s own mother, Susanna, with whom he had an incredibly close relationship. 

One of his most overtly poetic films, this was inspired more by Renaissance art than any clear sense of religion. The incredibly powerful cinematography from Tonino Delli Colli is among the film’s high points, as is the unusual soundtrack with selections from Bach and Jewish religious chants to soulful popular music, such as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” The cinema verite elements are enhanced by some very careful editing. For example, some of Christ’s preaching has a documentary feel and the facial close ups of his preaching the Sermon on the Mount are incredibly claustrophobic.

 As was his custom, Pasolin used non-professional actors from the area where he shot the film — not at all in the Middle East, but in the Mediterranean countryside of Southern Italy — a location he discovered while shooting his previous film, the documentary, Love Meetings. Played by Spanish student Enrique Irazoqui, Jesus is a little Gothic-looking with his black cloak, dark under-eye circles, an abundance of facial hair (though he isn’t quite bearded), and an air of brooding. Other cast members included writers and intellectuals like Enzo Siciliano, Alfonso Gatto, and Natalia Ginzburg.

Allegedly, Pasolini had the idea to make this film thanks to a trip to Assisi in the early ‘60s. He went there at the Pope’s invitation to meet with a panel of non-religious artists and writers that the Pope personally organized. Stuck in a hotel room, Pasolini read all four gospels and decided to make a film — arguably the last project anyone at the time would have expected from him — and he eventually won the support of the Church. Though Pope John XXIII died a year prior to the film's release, Pasolini dedicated it to his memory.

This award-winning film is certainly no walk in the park, but it’s a rewarding, moving experience. There is something non-spiritual and non-sentimental about this rendition that ultimately allowed me to enjoy it far more than I thought possible. It would be an interesting exercise at some point to compare it to other works about leftist revolutionary personalities. The figure of the brave outcast and the defiant outsider is a constant not only throughout Pasolini’s work, but in some of my favorite films and I think if you approach The Gospel According to St. Matthew with that perspective, you’ll get a lot more out of the film. Sadly, there are no great region one releases, and the UK Masters of Cinema Blu-ray is absolutely the finest available so far.

Monday, August 17, 2015


Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1965
Starring: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Alberto Moravia, Giuseppe Ungaretti

In 1963, Pasolini directed his first documentary, La rabbia, a political examination of what is wrong with the postwar world. While it’s a worthwhile experiment, I can’t help but prefer this follow up, which I think shows Pasolini at his most endearing. He hit the streets and interviewed dozens of citizens all over Italy about their views on sex, marriage, love, divorce, prostitution, homosexuality, and related topics. Pasolini himself appears in crowds of curious onlookers to calmly ask a series of relatively controversial questions. He prods where necessary — asking further questions, confronting contradictions, or seeking clarification about the answers he receives — but is never openly judgmental about the quite varied responses.

He is, however, judgmental when he leaves the crowds. These interviews are contrasted with some brief analytic discussions between Pasolini and his friends, Italian intellectuals like Alberto Moravia (novelist and writer of The Conformist, which Pasolini’s protege and frequent assistant director Bernardo Bertolucci would soon adapt), psychologist Cesare Musatti, and poet Giuseppe Ungaretti. I can’t help but wonder if Pasolini began with his conclusions or came to them gradually over the course of the interviews. Love Meetings essentially expresses the belief that Italy in general is made up of conservatives and people who are ignorant, have a strong desire to stay that way, and who don’t want to see any change in their country.

Pasolini’s interview subjects represent a wide range of Italian citizens — young, old, soldiers, prostitutes, middle class, poor, conservative, and more liberal — though it seems he was limited by who he found in open public squares, which are by and large the primary settings for the different interviews. Primarily younger people are willing to speak with him and it certainly feels like many Italian voices are absent, though he was obviously going for the mood of the general public. Because he’s conducting the interviews in public, in crowds, and on film, it’s not only about what Italians think of sex, but what they think they’re allowed to say in front of their peers. Conformity is a major theme.

The subjugation of women is another common topic and he asks a number of men and women — including girls, young ladies, mothers, and older women — what they think of the country’s treatment of women. Most seem to agree that men are given more freedom and many express the opinion that that’s the way it should be. Italy’s famous divide between virgin, mother, whore is discussed, with some of the younger women admitting that they want the same sexual freedom men have. Divorce is another important element of this theme. While some younger people admit that divorce is a necessary right that allows couples that don’t get along to separate, others think it would allow women to do whatever they want and that murder and violence is preferable to this loss of feminine honor — a truly appalling moment.

“The problem of sex” is frequently discussed but never defined, leaving things a bit murky for much of the proceedings. In part of the interviews, it seems to be perversion or homosexuality and these latter scenes where he asks about homosexuality are painful. Totally unaware that their interviewer is gay, people give responses ranging from sympathy to revulsion. Obviously Pasolini confronted these issues every day — and it didn’t stop him from living his life as mostly un-closeted — but it would have been interesting to see his face during this segment of the documentary. He also asks a number of young couples if they think marriage will solve sexual “problems,” which I assume to mean the desire for sex outside of love. Many of them say yes, though a fair number acknowledge that sex is independent of love or marriage.

Despite the more frustrating elements, such as blatant prejudice and misogyny, a rampant lack of sexual education, and the mass desire to remain silent, the subjects of Love Meetings are also frequently warm and humorous. Pasolini is particularly sweet with the children in the opening scenes; he asks them where babies come from and the responses are hilarious. He also gets some surprising answers from an army squadron, who he asks about Italian machismo. Male sexuality is often discussed as being negative — bestial and unwholesome — but inevitable, which is why prostitution and other sex work is necessary.

Overall Love Meetings is a fascinating 90-minutes that flies by. Pick up the DVD from Water Bearer films and I think you’ll be shocked how relevant the documentary remains. It’s oddly similar to recent Youtube short films and news segments asking citizens (often children) about such sexual subjects as gay marriage and transgendered people. It’s also a fascinating contrast to Kinsey’s report, as his interviews were all held in private and the subjects remained anonymous, while Pasolini is equally as concerned with individual and group responses. There are a number of scenes where subjects censor themselves by muting out a sentence or two of their responses, presumably after Pasolini completed the film, and it would be fascinating to have these scenes restored.

Friday, August 14, 2015


Pier Paolo Pasolini, Giovanni Guareschi, 1963
Starring: Giorgio Bassani, Renato Guttuso, Gigi Artuso

Pasolini’s first documentary is this fascinating project, La rabbia, or Rage, which is a two-part essay on modern life, split with his political opposite, Giovanni Guareschi. Pasolini was known to be a controversial leftist and Marxist, expelled from the Communist Party and demonized because of his homosexuality. He regularly lambasted the Church, though his most frequent target was capitalism and its effects in the post-Industrial Revolution, which he saw as exploitative and incredibly destructive. He glorified the past, rural life, and the working poor, all of which beliefs are reflected in La rabbia, though this is an interesting look at his thoughts on other countries and cultures.

Pasolini’s views are contrasted with those of Guareschi, known to be equally controversial and brilliant in their day, though obviously outside of Italy, Pasolini is remembered while Guareschi is not. A journalist, cartoonist, and satirist by trade, his two enduring creations are characters in an ongoing series of stories: Don Camillo, a hard-headed priest (based on a real-life partisan who was imprisoned in concentration camps), and Peppone, an equally hard-headed Communist mayor in a rural town in northern Italy. Like Pasolini, Guareschi was frequently set apart from those in the right wing that shared his political beliefs, so he’s something of a fitting counterweight to Pasolini.

Conceived by producer Gastone Ferranti, who worked with Pasolini from Accattone and the early days of his career, the two intellectuals attempt to answer why human life is full of discontent, anguish, and fear. Both directors rely on footage from WWII to the ‘60s, including shots of revolution, murder, regal coronations, war, beauty pageants, and protests. A mix of cartoons and still photographs are included, though it is mostly a fascinating collection of newsreels and older archival footage, which includes clips of everyone from Charles de Gaulle and Eisenhower to Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, and several popes. One of my biggest disappointments is that you don’t hear directly from Pasolini (whose speaking voice I love) or Guareschi; their words are read by narrators. Painter Renato Guttuso and writer Giorgio Bassani (The Garden of the Finzi Continis) read Pasolini’s responses, while Gigi Artuso, and Carlo Romano are responsible for Guareschi’s half.

Pasolini’s responses are a mixture of social commentary and poetry and are pretty typical for anyone who knows his political leanings. He explains how capitalism (and American democracy) is the world’s true villain, because it inherently subjugates all civilizations and peoples. His section is actually incredibly nihilistic and depressing and — as many of his works — remains relevant today. He discusses revolution, the glorification of peasant culture and the pre-Industrial past, and Marilyn Monroe’s death and the disappearance of beauty, among many other things. Much is made of racial conflicts, refugees, prison camps, and if you feel removed from the bulk of the 20th century, this is definitely worth watching. Pasolini occasionally slips into the pedantic, but this is a nice visual look at some of his philosophical and critic writing.

Guareschi’s section is more hopeful, but far more problematic. Some of Guareschi’s observations were fascinating, particularly idea that the world is doomed because of the foundations built at the end of WWII. He remarks that new countries and cultures were built on revenge and describes it as an evil that while the Nazis were punished and many executed, the perpetrators of Katyn (a stand-in for Soviet atrocities in general) and the two atomic bomb drops in Hiroshima and Nagasaki sat on the judges’ benches. This is perhaps an obvious observation, but one I’ve never thought of quite in those terms (and I’ve been writing a lot about WWII in the last year, thanks to the book I’m working on). In hindsight, it’s easy to see the villains and victors of the war, but I think this insight of Guareschi’s is a reminder that it’s worthwhile to view things from a different perspective.

Ultimately, both arguments are flawed — Pasolini is worshipping at the altar of Marxism, while Guareschi on one hand abhors the actions during WWII but then justifies later atrocities against Algeria, as well as the Vietnam war. Overall though, I think the concept of La rabbia is a brilliant one and is something we could desperately use now, in a time (at least in the US) where the left and right will likely need another world war to even have a civil conversation. The film’s production history is also fascinating, Pasolini’s section was cut from 100 minutes to about 50 minutes in order to make more room for Guareschi. In 2008, Giuseppe Bertolucci (the brother of Pasolini’s protege Bernardo and also a filmmaker in his own right) spearheaded the restoration project. This version premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, though I’m not sure it’s available for home viewing.

The best way to see La rabbia is through Raro Video’s special edition DVD release. I sing their praises pretty frequently on this blog, but they’ve done a fantastic job with this release. Put out in 2011, it includes trailers, Pasolini’s short film The Walls of Sana’a, and a wonderful feature length documentary on La rabbia that explains the different versions of the film and includes some great insight on Pasolini and Guareschi from their close collaborators. Guareschi’s segment, which had all but disappeared in the decades after the film’s release, does suffer from racism and dates the film pretty solidly, but it’s fascinating to see the two pieces side by side. Nothing like this is really produced today, but in a way I’d love to see a similar experiment as a series of brilliant Youtube videos. The idea of collecting and curating historical content and providing context and commentary is a dying art, but an important one, and I think the only person who does anything like this is Zizek. Pasolini, as always, was ahead of his time.

Thursday, August 13, 2015


Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ugo Gregoretti, 1963
Starring: Orson Welles, Laura Betti, Rosanna Schiaffino, Gianrico Tedeschi, Ugo Tognazzi, Edmonda Aldini

Also known as RoGoPaG, this art hours anthology film is named after the abbreviated names of its directors: Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pasolini, and Ugo Gregoretti. With the catch phrase, “Let’s Wash Our Brains,” this satirical, political exercise combines one established director — Rossellini — with the three newcomers. It’s an interesting slice of the early ‘60s and also has some excellent moments of comedy, even if it is flawed at times and has some troubling sexual politics. Pasolini’s film, one of the longest entries in the anthology, is the crown jewel of the piece and remains the reason that Ro.Go.Pa.G. is still relevant.

Roberto Rossellini’s Illibatezza
Rossellini’s Chastity follows an attractive flight attendant (played by the producer’s wife, Rosanna Schiaffino), who receives some annoying attention from a male passenger when they both land in Bangkok. She makes 8mm videos for her fiancé in her spare time and tries to escape the passenger’s attention, though he follows her everywhere. She gives herself a blonde bimbo makeover and adopts a new, sexually aggressive persona, which gets rid of him in the end. While the sex comedy would become a staple of Italian cinema and many of Rossellini’s earlier films have (at least implied) sexual content, seeing an erotic farce by way of the master of neorealism is jarring at best and flagrantly misogynistic at worst.

It’s standard fare to imagine someone (of course it’s a drunk American here) harassing a beautiful stewardess, Rossellini sort of contradicts himself. The man throws himself at Anna, the stewardess, drunkenly groping her and even trying to rape her. When she wears more provocative clothing, dyes her hair blonde, and comes on to him, he disgustedly calls himself a fool and her a whore and rapidly falls out of love with her. What? Anna’s need to film everything (which she ships to her boyfriend who then watches them back home) could have been a fascinating addition to this tale, but feel like a wasted opportunity.

Jean-Luc Godard’s Il nuovo mondo
Godard’s The New World is the only segment made by a Frenchman and is perhaps fittingly set in Paris. A young married couple tries to adjust to life after the explosion of an atomic bomb over Paris. Though there is no noticeable physical damage, the citizens, including the young wife, Alexandra, begin to act strangely and a riff appears in the once happy marriage. Sort of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) by way of Godard, I really enjoyed this sci-fi twist on the French New Wave, but I’m sure a lot of viewers will find it pretentious. 

The husband (Jean-Marc Bory) spends a lot of time alone in hotel rooms talking to himself, brooding gallicly, and copying down his disturbing observations in a notebook. This is a pleasant reminder of Godard’s dystopian sci-fi triumph Alphaville (1965), which followed a few years later. And like almost all of Godard’s films from that period, the central dramatic tension in Il nuovo mondo is a disintegrating relationship between a man and a woman — a topic he would revisit more profoundly the same year with Le mepris aka Contempt

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s La ricotta
Ricotta is easily the centerpiece of this film and was so controversial that Pasolini was taken to court for his troubles. This hilarious, irreverent work is perhaps the culmination of what Pasolini meant when he said that cinema is a language in and of itself. Here he follows a filmmaker (brilliantly played by Orson Welles; I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for their conversations), who is directing a movie about the crucifixion. Pasolini focuses on one of the bit players, a man playing a thief who will hang on one of the crosses next to Christ, and his struggles with food. He gives his daily rations to his family and steals a second helping. A dog eats this while he’s filming a scene, so he sells the dog to buy himself a huge helping of ricotta cheese and bread. He gorges himself and then dies — while again filming up on the cross.

Pasolini cleverly mocks so many things in such a short amount of time, including himself. He makes fun of his use of classical art as a way to set up shots, and his Marxism; the director calls a reporter a conformist and read from a book version of Pasolini’s Mamma Roma. Deftly capturing both the grotesque and carnivalesque in a way not seen in his previous films (Accattone and Mamma Roma) the film switches back and forth between black and white and color — the latter when the film within a film is in action — and has an almost inappropriately jazzy score. There are some very “Yakkity Sax”-like fast-paced moments that I couldn’t help laughing at where Stracci runs down the road to a sped-up harpsichord ditty. But Pasolini also reminds us that we’re laughing at the expense of a starving man desperate to find food after providing for his family.

As all of Pasolini’s early works, this film examines Italian’s disenfranchised, poor urban and rural populations. Through the character of Stracci (Mario Cipriani), he mocks the exploitative nature of both capitalism and religion. As it would again appear in his later films, food becomes emblematic of humanity — in particular, the ill effects of human suffering and human greed. Stracci basically dies of a stomach ache when he has consumed too much bread and cheese and, like the male protagonists of Accattone and Mamma Roma, he becomes something of a martyr, tied to a literal cross. This is a fascinating bridge between the controversial street drama of Accattone and the mythic, sacred subject matter of one of his immediate follow up films, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964).

Ugo Gregoretti’s Il pollo ruspante
Ugo Gregoretti’s Free Range Chicken is the least of the shorts, primarily because it’s the least subtle. This too literal satire about the evils of capitalism looks particularly awkward after Pasolini’s masterpiece. It contrasts the spending addiction of a bourgeois family — who are suckered into buying a house, toys, an unnecessarily large meal — while a professor with a robot-like voice lectures about how capitalism is ultimately an exploitative system. After their numerous purchases and silly social posturing meant to make them look impressive to complete strangers, they die in a car crash. 

Director Ugo Gregoretti’s name is almost completely unknown to modern audiences. Though he made a few feature-length films and returned to the anthology medium (with Godard, Claude Chabrol, Roman Polanski, and Hiromichi Horikawa) for The World’s Most Beautiful Swindlers (1964), he primarily directed shorts, documentaries, and TV movies. Though Il pollo ruspante is not an entirely successful effort, it still has it’s interesting moments and I’d like to see some of Gregoretti’s TV work on day.

Ro.Go.Pa.G. remains a curio, something really only of interest to diehard fans of European art house cinema, but I think it’s worth a watch. Pasolini’s segment comes highly recommended and you can find it as an extra on the Criterion Mamma Roma disc. The complete film is available in an average, but kind of disappointing Pasolini box set with some of his other early films and one of his early novels, or in the fantastic Masters of Cinema Blu-ray of Ro.Go.Pa.G.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962
Starring: Anna Magnani, Ettore Garofolo, Franco Citti

The wedding of a former pimp, Carmine, is somewhat disrupted by the appearance of his former prostitute, Mamma Roma. She makes jokes, laughs loudly, and taunts both bride and groom. Later, she retires from prostitution to begin an above-board business as a fruit vendor, because her teenage son Ettore has come to live with her and she’s determined to give him a better life. But he would rather spend time with young criminals and a pretty, promiscuous girl, and Mamma Roma can’t help but spoil him. Despite her best laid plans, Ettore becomes involved in crime himself, just as her former pimp comes calling.

Pasolini’s second feature, which he also wrote, feels very much like an extension of his first film, Accattone, about a young pimp who must fend for himself after his girlfriend — really his cash cow — is injured. Both films are set in the Roman slums, an area known as the borgate. These settlements on the outskirts of Rome were originally a social experiment that began with the banishment of Rome’s poor during the fascist years and led to an equally nauseous but more charitable sounding public housing project during the postwar financial boom. Like Accattone, Mamma Roma is a documentary-style, neorealist look at this community and its rogues gallery of pimps, prostitutes, and petty thieves.

That controversial union of the sacred and the profane is continued here with Pasolini at his most overwrought and theatrical. While Accattone (the film’s titular protagonist) becomes something of a martyred, sacrificial figure and subtly weaves in religious imagery, despite the fact that Pasolini was an atheist, Mamma Roma is a sort of ungainly look at the Madonna and child — if they were a former prostitute and fledging thief. Larger-than-life actress Anna Magnani was one of the few stars Pasolini worked with, typically favoring non-professionals in his films. In interviews, he spoke about the fact that he was ultimately disappointed with her portrayal, but it’s hard to know when flaws belong to an actor, to a film’s director, or to its script. 

Regardless of any issues, Magnani grabbed the role with both hands and exudes sensuality, determination, and a sort of warm crassness that makes her undeniably likable. As a young woman, she made her fame in Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) as a pregnant woman who is tragically killed and Pasolini seems to consciously evoke that past character. It’s almost as if he images what would have happened to her a slightly more sinister world. She has an enormous, wonderful laugh and a generous, seemingly open-eyed attitude towards life (and appetites), but she seems strangely naive when it comes to Ettore, her son. She wants to artificially propel them both into the middle classes and hopes to find a respectable, easy career for her son.

But as a priest tells her, “You can’t get something from nothing,” and this is one of the many moments where her plans begin to go astray. Everything she does to procure betterment for Accattone is based in crime and coercion. When the priest doesn’t quickly and easily give her what she wants, she seeks assistants from pimps and prostitutes, who readily agree to do her bidding. Despite her generosity and warm-heartedness, she is also a liar and constantly reinvents herself. This doesn’t so much give her an immoral quality as it does a mythic one; the different stories she tells throughout the film are all different possible versions of Ettore’s origins. Pasolini utterly ignores Ettore’s history, including the identities of his father (who is likely her pimp) or his adoptive parents, though both Ettore and Mamma Roma state that he was forced to grow up on his own.

Mamma Roma’s main problem is actually that mother and son are reunited too late. He’s already a teenager when she decides to abandon her old life for a respectable new one and make good. Like Accattone, Ettore has a marked disdain for respectable life — though this could also be the simple disinterest of a teenage boy. He falls in love with a Bruna — Silvana Corsini reprises her role from Accattone as a young whore — and will do anything to give her cheap jewelry and claim her attentions. Bruna is used as an unsettling foreshadowing device, as her personality, her wealth of black hair, and her striking beauty is something like a young Mamma Roma. The jewelry she covets are symbols of death, including charms of a porcelain skull and silver gun, though Ettore gives her a Madonna and Child medallion. At one point she is miserable because her young son — who she had as a teenager and out of wedlock — is ill, a fate that will also befall Ettore.

Aside from the jewelry, Pasolini steadily introduces religious and death imagery and it’s easy to figure out that either Ettore, Mamma Roma, or both will die. The film’s opening is a jarring recreation of The Last Supper, where Mamma Roma’s former pimp, Carmine (played by Accattone himself, Franco Citti), is getting married to an innocent young girl. Mamma Roma makes a spectacle of herself by playing with pigs, singing taunts to the new couple, and laughing so loudly that another guest suggests she is going to choke. In a twist on the Oedipal there, her first intimate interaction with Ettore is to make him dance a tango with her, while listening to an old romantic song she says was sung by his father. She then notices that their apartment looks out over a cemetery.

The most gratuitous imagery occurs when Ettore is sick and dying in prison. The young man is died to his bed, presumably to protect against seizures, and shot at such an angle to imitate Mantegna's Lamentation over the Dead Christ. The film begins to unravel at this ending, in no small part because Pasolini doesn’t seem to know what to do with Mamma Roma herself. Ettore’s illness, which coincides with the theft of a patient’s radio from a hospital, seems like a deus ex machina, rather than an inevitable ending like the tragedy in Accattone. Mamma Roma’s hysterics — she tries to throw herself out a window — feel as empty and theatrical as Accattone’s own suicidal gesture, when he threatens to throw himself off a bridge. Both failed acts only when a crowd is conveniently standing around to prevent them.

I’m sure in some way Pasolini’s own incredibly close relationship with his mother — who he would cast in later films, much like Fassbinder — plays into this and there is a disturbing autobiographical element. Like Ettore, Pasolini grew up in the countryside, rather than a city, and moved around quite a lot. Though Pasolini’s mother was a constant presence — unlike his absent father — there is a sense that he raised himself. To turn the table on myself, perhaps I have trouble with this film because of my relationship with my own mother (which was either abusive or indifferent and is now completely nonexistent).

This second look at poverty and crime leading to death and martyrdom is not among my personal favorite of Pasolini’s films, but it’s still a powerful work. The strong central performances by Magnani, Citti, and Ettore Garofolo, who Pasolini apparently discovered in a restaurant, are compelling. The cinematography from Tonino Delli Colli, one of Pasolini’s regular collaborators, is incredibly as always. The film definitely comes recommended, particularly the Criterion two-disc DVD release, which includes a number of excellent special features.

Monday, August 10, 2015


Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1961
Starring: Franco Citti, Franca Pasut, Silvana Corsini

A lazy pimp in a Roman slum, named Vittorio but called Accattone, is dismayed when his girlfriend/prostitute Maddalena is injured and can no longer work. He’s not upset on Maddalena’s behalf, but because he won’t have anyone to support him and must find another way to make money — or starve. She is beaten by friends of her former pimp, who she informed on, and considers talking to the police about Accattone when he abandons her. He’s violently turned away by the mother of his children, when he meets Stella, an innocent young girl who falls for him. He tries to force her into prostitution, but realizes that he may not want to mar her innocence after all.

Pasolini’s debut film came relatively late — a year before he turned 40 — but unlike most major filmmakers, he already had an established career as a novelist, intellectual, teacher, script writer, and linguist. He not only directed but also wrote Accattone, which is thematically similar to his early novels, Ragazzi di vita and Una vita violenta. His old friend and dialogue assistant on those novels, Sergio Citti, assisted with Accattone’s script and his brother, Franco Citti, was cast in the lead role. In some ways, this first film borrows from neorealism: Pasolini used primarily non-professional actors, shot at the locations that inspired many of his works, and gave the film a documentary feel.

But there is also far more involved in this film, though it seem deceptively simple at first. There some very original camera work from Tonino Delli Colli, who also shot Salò and Pasolini’s later Trilogy of Life, and who worked with everyone from Polanski to Fellini. In addition to Citti and Delli Colli, it’s easy to see how Pasolini was beginning to form a loose team of some robust talent here that he would repeatedly work with over the years. Director Bernardo Bertolucci, whose father helped Pasolini get published, worked here as an assistant director and would effectively become Pasolini’s protege in the following years.

The setting of the slum, which was so central to Pasolini’s early creative output, is seen here in its most idealized form. The film is populated with pimps, prostitutes, and stereotypical Italian men — full of machismo — who have fallen on hard times but seem to revel in crime, poverty, selfishness, vice, and above all, laziness. There is no doubt that Pasolini romanticized this world, which he regularly visited even if he was not entirely a native. He remained ensconced in a world of post-bourgeois leftist intellectuals, though he would drive his expensive silver car into the poor neighborhood, primarily to cruise for sex. This is certainly a troubling, exploitative aspect of Pasolini’s obsession with the Italy’s poor and working classes. In a way, it reminds me of Christopher Isherwood’s memoir, Christopher and His Kind, where he writes about the sexual exploitation that occurred in ‘20s and ‘30s Berlin. Lower class Germany boys, many of whom were heterosexual, exchanged sex for money with upper class businessmen, writers, artists, and raconteurs who came to enjoy the city’s window of frenzied liberalism.

Admittedly Pasolini’s view of Roman poverty was more complex. While he treated the slums as a playground, he also used it to hone his world view. He developed a deeply internalized myth of pre-Industrial, rural harmony. He (and many others) felt that the economic miracle — a postwar boom experienced in many countries after WWII — was responsible for an entirely new kind of misery. The parallels he would later draw between capitalism and the death factory of Auschwitz in Salò can be glimpsed here. When Accattone attempts to find a job, the only honest option is hard labor. After a few hours of work he says, "Are we in Buchenwald here?”

In a sense, Pasolini has more in common with Fassbinder and Genet than he does with Fellini or Rossellini. He uses this world of crime, poverty, starvation, filth, and sexual exploitation to find an almost pre-religious, atheistic sense of wonder and the sacred. This deceptively simple, seemingly apolitical and amoral film is actually awash with religious imagery — something that would prove incredibly controversial and land Pasolini in court. The score is made up of Johann Sebastian Bach’s devotional music, an early instance of Pasolini blending the sacred and the profane. Accattone himself is a sacrificial figure, a sort of modern day stand-in for Christ and his religious dream sequence is one of the finest in all of cinema. 

The use of names is also intensely symbolic; Accattone rejects the name he was born with, Vittorio, and insists that others call him Accattone, a slang term meaning “beggar.” Maddalena, the name of his first girlfriend cum prostitute, is an Italian version of Magdalene (as in Mary Magdalene) and Stella, the name of the woman who redeems Accattone, means “star.” A third prostitute, the only independent one of the group, is called Amore (“love”).

Though Pasolini considered attending film school, the freshness of his vision was perhaps only possible because he did not and Accattone is informed as much as art and literature as it is by cinema. There are numerous references to Dante and hell — though he celebrates this urban peasant culture, he acknowledges that it is a sort of inferno. The characters are not drowning in a lake of fire, but in a pit of mud, a theme Pasolini would return to throughout his career. Accattone and his brother-in-law have a particularly erotic, animalistic fight in the dirt and emerge from a cloud of dust. Later, a drunk Accattone tries to throw himself off a bridge and then covers his face with mud.

This overwhelming sense of existential despair is what keeps his character sympathetic. He steals from and manipulates everyone — his friends, his own child — and convinces women to prostituting themselves to support him. A figure of tragic rebellion, Accattone’s rejection of bourgeois culture is absolute (at least until he falls in love, which dooms him). He’s at once a fool and an outcast and Pasolini is careful not to paint him as a villain, even while constantly revealing his flaws. He actually comes across as passive and weak; he simply is not a good pimp or thug, he just views work — the back-breaking labor required of the poor — to be beneath human dignity. 

This great injustice offsets the film’s very complicated sexual politics. Though Pasolini refuses to condemn Accattone, he makes it that women bear the brunt of this barbaric treatment. Maddalena’s beating is a sadistic, meaningless act, payment for talking to the police. When they leave her in an abandoned part of town, it’s somehow worse than the beating itself. Her hysterical desperation is hard to watch, as she attempts to hold on the car while it speeds away. The law abiding residents of the area are desperately poor have too many children, so they are certainly no better off. When Accattone fails with legal work and insists that Stella should stay home and not work as a prostitute, he resorts to theft. He helps steal a truckload of salami, introducing food themes that would reappear in La ricotta and Saló. 

Accattone’s involvement in crime leads to a carefree escape from the police on a scooter that results in his death when he’s hit by a car. Every critic on the planet has made much of this moment, which eerily seems to foreshadow Pasolini’s own death 14 years later. But it’s far more fascinating as an example of his use of the sacred. Awash with brilliant contradictions like Pasolini himself, Accattone is a startling debut and sets the stage for an always controversial, unpredictable career. The film comes highly recommended, though you’re likely to feel bowled over by the time the credits roll. 

The restored Masters of Cinema Blu-ray is far and away the best home release version of this film and includes Pasolini’s early documentary, Love Meetings as a special feature, as well as some other goodies, such as an audio commentary. This is a region B/2 only release. For those without multi region Blu-ray players, there’s a much inferior DVD from Water Bearer Films, which includes a strangely judgmental 30-minute documentary, Pier Paolo Pasolini: A Film Maker's Life, made while Pasolini was still alive.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975)

Though he’s generally remembered as a film director, Pier Paolo Pasolini was one of Italy’s most important intellectuals and writers, with work spanning poetry, novels, essays, criticism, philosophy, art history, playwriting and directing, painting, journalism, acting, and linguistics. Born in Bologna in 1922, he went through his teenage and adult years during WWI and it is impossible to entirely separate his creative output from these years, when he had some of his most formidable experiences. Pasolini was drafted into service just before Armistice (june 22, 1940) and captured by the Nazis just before the end of the war. He escaped and fled to Casarsa, the countryside in northeastern Italy near Trieste and the Slovenian border.

Casarsa is located in a region called Friuli Venezia Giulia, the country’s most northeastern region and one that was particularly special to Pasolini. Though he moved around constantly as a child — life with his gambling, soldering father was unstable and his mother soon raised him on her own — Casarsa became a haven to Pasolini. He hid out there in 1945, dodging bombs and partisan activity, mourned the death of his brother, and fell in love with the Friulian language (which looks to me like a combination of Italian and Slovakian). He co-founded the Friulian Language Academy that year, wrote poems in Friulian, and sought to teach and preserve it.

Pasolini’s early, yet passionate love of the region introduces a theme that would follow him throughout his career. He believed there was something innocent and beautiful in the working classes, particularly people who lived simple rural lives, and devoted much of his artistic career to telling stories about them. Though he considered himself an atheist, he felt there was something inherently sacred in nature, human life, and sexuality, a sacredness only corrupted by the machinery of capitalism. Though Pasolini was left-wing, he (like intellectuals of his day to varying degrees) has a complicated, ever-changing relationship with the Communist Party. Unlike many other intellectuals and leftists from the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, Pasolini believed that the communist movement in general and the Marxist student “revolutions” of the late '60s in particular were destined to fail because they were too bourgeois, too middle class.

But at the same time, Pasolini was an active intellectual and made middle class wages (and soon much more) as a teacher. He graduated from the University of Bologna’s Literature College, was an active member of cinema and literary clubs, wrote poetry and journalistic articles, and was already an outspoken leftist. In the late ‘40s, all that changed when he fell in love for the first time — with one of his male students — and was soon charged with corrupting a minor, which resulted in him losing his job.

As a result, in 1950 he and his mother moved to a poor Roman neighborhood, where he got another teaching job and forged relationships with Italian writers of the day. In the mid-‘50s, he published a book of poetry and his first novel, Ragazzi di vita (Boys of Life). By 1957, he entered the film world as a writer and dialogue coach, and by 1961 he directed his first film, Accattone. An early associate of Fellini’s, Pasolini could be seen as a fading remnant of neorealism, but in reality he profoundly changed the movement, adding a bleak spin all his own. His voice was at once confident and passionate, but also measured, elegant, and expressed a certain reservedness that marked many of his relationships, as well as his public face.

Unlike many of his contemporaries — Fassbinder and Godard come to mind — Pasolini was a walking contradiction, living a bold, controversial life, but with a head immersed in history, tradition, and religion. While criticizing the Catholic church (and religion in general), he thought of medieval Europe as a pre-capitalist idyll, the ancestor of his beloved Roman slums. Most of his films lack the punk aesthetic of someone like Fassbinder — he frequently adapted classic literary texts and his camera worshipped stately actresses as often as it did young delinquents — but he was also taken to court for obscenity more than 30 times throughout his career. He thought of cinema as a language all its own, one suited to exploring the relationship between sex and death, the sacred and the banal, and, above all, the inherent cruelty of modern life.

Walter Benjamin’s much quoted paragraph on Klee’s painting, Angelus Novus, in the essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History” reminds me of Pasolini. Benjamin wrote of an “angel of history,” saying: “His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”

Murdered when he was only 53, many of his films seem to predict his own death and he eerily spoke of it occasionally with interviewers. Pasolini had an insatiable spirit and traveled extensively throughout the world. He is said to have gone out cruising most nights and it was initially believed that he was killed by a young hustler. In November of 1975, a few months after completing the devastating Salò, Pasolini was viciously beaten and run over with his own car (a costly and easily recognizable silver Alfa Romeo), and then left to die by the side of the road in Ostia, a beach town near Rome. The young man believed to have killed him confessed, later recanted, and the case was reopened in 2005. It seems unlikely that one boy could be responsible and it’s been speculated that everyone from the mob to the church, blackmailers, and anticommunists could be responsible.

Despite — or because of — this tragic arc, Pasolini remains one of the world’s great postwar intellectuals and creative talents. Alongside Rainer Werner Fassbinder, another postwar genius Pasolini has much in common with, he’s my favorite director. I hope I do his memory justice with this in-depth series of articles about his career and I hope you watch along with me.

His films:

Accattone (1961)
Pasolini’s first film is a continuation of the themes in his early novels like Ragazzi di vita (1956) and Una vita violenta (1959) and is an introduction to some of the thematic constants throughout his career. He chose a controversial story and cast nonprofessional actors in this tale of a pimp whose prostitute is injured, forcing him to attempt to make a living on his own, which fails miserably. Pasolini transforms urban grime and the dying peasant culture of postwar Italian slums into a place where poverty and crime are a mix of the sacred and the profane and act as a kind of conduit to innocence and purity. This is the genesis of Pasolini’s second, grimmer form of neorealism.

Set in the same world as Accattone, this second film concerns a former prostitute struggling to make a living selling vegetables with her teenage son. Pasolini shocked filmgoers by casting beloved Italian actress Anna Magnani (in addition to a cast of nonprofessional actors), while also referencing the film that made her famous, Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945). The mother-son relationship that is central to the film mirrors Pasolini's own intense bond with his mother, who he lived with most of his life and who he occasionally cast in his films. Mamma Roma is also an early example of the director’s interest in religious, particularly Christian themes, though it seems incongruous with Pasolini’s atheism.

Mamma Roma may have been marked by protests, outrage, and controversy, but “La ricotta,” Pasolini’s inclusion in the anthology film Ro.Go.Pa.G. (alongside directors Rossellini, Godard, and Ugo Gregoretti), landed him a stint in court for an obscenity charge. In Pasolini’s entry, Orson Welles stars as a director making a film about Christ’s death and crucifixion. A bit actor gives his food rations to his family but finds he is hungry and steals something to eat just before his scene — where he plays a criminal crucified next to Christ — leading to a grotesque comedy of errors.

Though Pasolini would go on to make a number of documentary films, his first is Rage, a two-part project organized by producer Gastone Ferranti. In the first segment, Pasolini speaks about the reasons for fear, anger, and conflicts within society from his left wing, albeit unique point of view. In the second half of this controversial work, right wing journalist and cartoonist Giovannino Guareschi answers the same questions. This is a fascinating look at the world views of two of Italy’s most important thinkers of the ‘60s, men who were incredibly controversial during their lifetimes.

Pasolini’s second documentary, made the following year, is a politicized look at love and sex in 1960s Italy. Like a sort of bizarre, intellectual precursor to Sex and the City, Pasolini interviews citizens from a wide spectrum of Italian life on several subjects related to sex — childbirth, divorce, prostitution, equality, and so on. The film essentially concludes that Italians have conservative attitudes about sex. While this is one of his lesser seen films, it fits in with the larger themes present throughout his work and is fascinating in its own right.

This adaptation of the Gospel of Matthew, which looks at the life of Christ, was unexpected and shocking to audiences and intellectuals of the day. It’s a relatively straightforward story without the director’s typically controversial elements. Pasolini, who had previously visited Assisi at the Pope’s behest in 1962 for a discussion on art, only said of this neorealist devotional film that he had a “nostalgia for belief” despite his atheism. He did cast contemporary intellectuals (and his own mother as the mother of Christ) in the film and later claimed it was a reaction against Marxism.

This whimsical comedy was equally unexpected and is the first of Pasolini’s films to star, Ninetto Davoli, the teenage boy he fell in love with a few years prior. Though Davoli would go on to marry and have a family, he remained by Pasolini’s side for the rest of the director’s life. Here Ninetto stars alongside Totò, the famed Italian comedian, in a folklore-inspired story about the journey of a boy and his father through the Roman countryside — and through history, where they learn about St. Francis’s attempts to preach a message of love to the birds.

This second anthology film that Pasolini participated in also includes shorts by Luchino Visconti, Franco Rossi, Mauro Bolognini, and Vittorio De Sica, and all five star Silvana Mangano. In Pasolini’s entry, “The Earth as Seen from the Moon,” a poor man remarries and tries to get his new wife to fake an accident for profit, which ends tragically. This is one of his lesser seen films, particularly for American audiences. Due to an appearance from a young Clint Eastwood, United Artists bought the film in order to suppress it.

Pasolini moved from urban slums, religious themes, and comedy to this classic Greek tragedy, the first in a series of important literary adaptations that would continue throughout his career. Set in pre-war Italy, this follows an infant who is abandoned in the desert and rescued by a king and queen. He learns he is doomed to kill his father and marry his mother, so he abandons his adopted royal parents and sets on a tragic journey. This mythic, absolutely gorgeous film is yet another example of Pasolini’s impressive range as a director.

Totò appeared in his two final roles in this comedy anthology split between Mauro Bolognini (The Big Night, based on one of Pasolini's novels), Mario Monicelli (Big Deal on Madonna Street), Pasolini, Steno (Execution Squad), Pino Zac (Il cavaliere inesistente), and Franco Rossi (Turn the Other Cheek, Smog). Pasolini’s film, What are Clouds?, is by far the best of the bunch and features a group of puppets (played by real-life actors including Totò and Laura Betti) in the midst of a production of Othello. Between acts, the puppets philosophically question what’s happening on stage.

British star Terence Stamp stars in this political allegory about a factory owner and his family who are visited one day by a beautiful stranger. “The Visitor,” as he is known, seduces each one of them in turn, which has unpredictable and disastrous consequences. This erotic fable is an early glimpse at the sexually explicit direction Pasolini’s films would take in the next decade. This unsettling, brilliant work is among Pasolini’s most abstruse, but also his most overtly political.

Pasolini’s last anthology film includes short works by Marco Bellocchio (The Conviction), Pasolini’s protege Bernardo Bertolucci, Godard, Carlo Lizzani (Requiescant and Il gobbo with Pasolini), and Elda Tattoli (she also acted in Bellochio’s China is Near). In Pasolini’s strange tale, “The Sequence of the Paper Flower,” an innocent young boy leads a life of goodness — which is contrasted by the world’s evil deeds during WWII — and the boy is ultimately punished for his happiness and ignorance.

This difficult, avant-garde film presents two parallels stories. In a volcanic wasteland, a young man played by one of my favorite European cult actors, Pierre Clémenti, becomes a cannibal and is eventually executed for his troubles. In postwar Germany, during the economic miracle, a businessman focuses on a relationship with his rival, while his adult son seeks company in a pigsty rather than by his fiancee’s side. The violence, chaos, and social breakdown introduced in this poetic work is something of a foreshadowing of the atrocities in Salò.

Pasolini returned to Greek tragedy for this adaptation of Euripides’ Medea. Opera singer and Pasolini’s friend Maria Callas appeared in her only acting role as Medea, the young woman who helps Jason steal the Golden Fleece from her own father. In love with Jason, she gives him her loyalty, runs away from home, and they marry… but Jason’s feelings are not quite as dependable and his change of heart leads to violence and the ultimate vengeance. Callas and the scenery are both breathtaking and Pasolini wasn’t afraid to explore the tale’s bloodier moments.

Pasolini’s career began a new chapter entirely when he adapted nine of Boccaccio’s 14th century stories written in the aftermath of the Black Death in this first film in a soon-to-be series dubbed the Trilogy of Life. Though all the stories are inherently morality tales, Pasolini infused the film with modern political context, his own thoughts on the hypocrisy of the Catholic church, a ribald sense of humor, and plenty of sexually explicit content that ushered in a wave of imitators in European erotic cinema.

This second entry in the Trilogy of Life is an adaptation of Chaucer’s famous tales. Violent, erotic, and comical, Pasolini celebrated Chaucer’s love of life and sex, as well as his hatred of church hypocrisy in eight stories out of the more than 20 that Chaucer included in his collection. Darker and more complex than The Decameron, this film is more over-the-top than even Chaucer’s original work. Pasolini himself puts in an appearance as Chaucer and one of his favorite stars, Laura Betti, shows up as the infamous Wife of Bath.

The last film in Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life is this erotic adaptation of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. A man falls in love with a beautiful young slave, though she gets kidnapped and winds up on her own adventure, where she disguises herself as a man and becomes king. While her lover searches for her, she hears the stories of other travelers. A blend of fantasy, comedy, romance, and sex, this is one of Pasolini’s warmest films and one of the most enjoyable explorations of human sexuality in ‘70s cinema.

Pasolini’s last film was, in my opinion, his masterwork. A reimagining of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom set in Mussolini’s fascist Republic of Salò, the film follows four libertines who kidnap a group of teenagers, imprison them in an isolated chateau, and proceed to rape and torture them. This bleak, nihilistc work is one of the most brutal films ever made, but it’s also a challenging intellectual exercise, richly layered with literary and philosophical references. Hauntingly, this meditation on death and violence was the last film Pasolini made before he was murdered.

Throughout his career, Pasolini also made a number of documentary shorts of varying lengths. I’d like to take a look at these as a whole, including things like Sopralluoghi in Palestina per il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964), Pasolini intervista: Ezra Pound (1967), Appunti per un film sull'India (1968), Le mura di Sana'a (1971), Notes Towards an African Orestes (1970), Appunti per un romanzo dell’immondezza (1970), and 12 dicembre (1972). The majority of these are fascinating travelogues that reveal the director’s restless mind.

Pasolini actually got his start in cinema as a screenwriter on Mario Soldati’s The River Girl (1954) and went on to cowrite Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957) shortly after. Many of the films he penned are difficult to find, even in bootleg form, and I’m certainly a bit hampered by my limited knowledge of Italian, so I won't be reviewing these this time around, but keep a look out for titles like The Big Night (1959), which was directed by Mauro Bolognini with a script from Pasolini and is based on his own novel; A Violent Life (1962), directed by Paolo Heusch (Werewolf in a Girls' Dormitory) and Brunello Rondi (Fellini’s regular script writer on films like La Dolce Vita, 8½, and Juliet of the Spirits), which was based on Pasolini’s 1959 novel, Una vita violentaThe Grim Reaper (1962), aka La commare secca, directed by Pasolini’s protege, Bernardo Bertolucci; and Requiescant (1967), a spaghetti western that had some uncredited script work from Pasolini who also costarred in the film. 

For more on one of the world’s greatest — and most tragic — directors, pick up one of the many books on this wonderful man. You could fill a few shelves with works by or on Pasolini, but I recommend a number of his own books to start: Heretical Empiricism, Selected Poetry, his novels A Violent Life, The Boys, and the unfinished Petrolio, The Divine Mimesis, collected short stories and nonfiction in Stories From the City of God, collected essays in In Danger, or his Letters. If you’re only interested in his films, check out, Angelo Pennoni and Angelo Novi’s Pier Paolo Pasolini: My Cinema. I’m currently reading and enjoying Barth David Schwartz’s biography Pasolini Requiem.

If you want to get a little more academic, pick up Patrick Rumble’s Allegories of Contamination: Pier Paolo Pasolini's Trilogy of Life (the first book on Pasolini I owned), Armando Maggi’s The Resurrection of the Body: Pier Paolo Pasolini from Saint Paul to Sade, Stefania Benini’s Pasolini: The Sacred Flesh, or Colleen Ryan-Scheutz’s Sex,The Self and the Sacred: Women in the Cinema of Pier Paolo Pasolini. I’m also dying to read Stupendous, Miserable City: Pasolini's Rome by John David Rhodes before the series comes to a close.

Viva Pasolini!