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!

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