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.

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