Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969
Starring: Pierre Clémenti, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Marco Ferreri, Franco Citti
“We have decided to devour you for your disobedience.”
A quiet man wanders a foreboding, volcanic landscape, willing to go to any lengths for survival. He attacks a soldier and cannibalizes the body. Later, he teams up with another man and they attack a wagon carrying female slaves. Eventually he is arrested and executed. Before dying, he states, "I killed my father, I ate human flesh and I quiver with joy." Meanwhile, in postwar Germany, a powerful industrialist, Herr Klotz, is trying to convince his son Julian to marry a young woman. But Julian’s dark secret is that he’d rather spend time with the family pigs, which his father’s nemesis, Herdhitze, discovers. The two industrialists team up — Klotz blackmails Herdhitze to keep the latter’s Nazi activities quiet — and dispose of Julian.
One of Pasolini’s most difficult films, but also one of his greatest triumphs, Porcile is at the center of a fascinated web that connects the director’s cinema as a whole. It strikes a fine balance between the mythic works like Oedipus Rex, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, and Medea. Like Oedipus Rex, it is concerned with polluted lands, patricide, and crimes against the family. Like the later Salò, this is one of Pasolini’s few films overtly about the devastating effects of WWII, and also like that last, greatest of his films, it is comprised of a mix of storytelling and highly intellectual language. This is closely related to the bourgeois satire found in Teorema, but here Pasolini exchanges sex and religious epiphany for violence and discussions of the Holocaust.
I’ve read that his satire of the bourgeois industrialists in Porcile is too heavy handed, but if you assume that Pasolini always knew what he was doing — and was always in complete control — he provides a nasty, blackly comic tale of pervasion and murder. The contrast between the two stories is where the crux of Porcile lies. Pasolini’s choice to blend the two together may seem jarring at first; roughly every ten minutes or so he cuts back and forth between them with some obvious noise (black screens with a soundtrack scratch) at the end of each reel. Pasolini often spoke of “disinterested cinema” and included references to Brecht in Porcile. Brecht was a German playwright known for his “alienation effect,” a theatrical technique meant to distance audiences from a story’s sense of artifice and melodrama so that they could gain a deeper appreciation of political and allegorical themes at play. While Brecht sought for an experimental break with realist cinema, I believe that Pasolini also sought this kind of separation from neorealism at this point in his career.
But Porcile is not as experimental as it seems and provides two coherent stories. The parallel between the two is both incisive and terrifying, as Pasolini conflates a seemingly medieval tale of human sacrifice, pre-modern terror, cannibalism, and savagery with Germany’s economic miracle (known as the Wirtschaftswunder). Ultimately he shows us that little has changed with a chilling, casual discussion between Klotz and his right hand man. The latter states, “In various shipments the prisoners were driven into the gas chambers, naked. The crystals were placed in the pipe. The pipe was closed with a plug. The plug had a metal tube, which sprayed the crystals. The prisoners breathed for 30 seconds and fell to the floor, covered with excrement. The corpses arrived at the Institute still warm, their eyes wide, glistening.” This exposition is accompanied by harp music (Klotz, who has a very intentionally placed Hitler mustache, is literally playing the harp in this scene), while he goes on to explain the autopsy and dismemberment process. It seems Herdhitze, Klotz’s rival, developed quite a collection of the bodies of Holocaust victims and it is this discussion of getting rid of the doctor’s “prize collection” — the corpses — that inspires the men to get rid of the pig-loving son with Herdhitze’s assistance.
I haven’t written much about the parallels between Pasolini and the younger German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose career I covered in depth earlier this year, but the similarities are many. Two of Europe’s most towering cinematic intellects, both men made films deeply critical of life in postwar Europe. While Pasolini lived through the war, Fassbinder was born in its last year. Though fundamentally leftists, they were both ostracized by the political left (and right). They were highly controversial and often in the media spotlight in their own countries. They were prolific with output that included much more than directing. They were gay (loosely bisexual in Fassbinder’s case), had difficult relationships with their absent fathers, but close relationships with their mothers (who both men cast in their films), and they both died tragically young.
More than these personal similarities, their films contain overlapping themes: a rejection of realism and explorations of postwar trauma — while Fassbinder made many films (and one of the most incredible television series in history) directly about or with references to WWII, Pasolini will be forever remembered for Salò — combined with aggressive barbs directed at capitalism and bourgeois Europe; discussions of the family and sexuality; and a certain romantic idealism about crime, poverty, and prostitution. Many of their protagonists possess a sense of irresponsibility and a certain disregard for the rules; they also embody the German concept of Sehnsucht, a sense of profound longing or craving, a search for what is often indescribable.
This hungry, ravenous searching is literally embodied by Pierre Clementi’s angelic cannibal. Like Fassbinder, Pasolini was often dead-on with his casting and Clementi — one of Europe’s most underrated actors — carries his half of the film magnificently. For my money, he is the ultimate symbol of European art house cinema and I wish that Pasolini had worked with him more (and that Fassbinder had worked with him at all).
Porcile comes with the highest recommendation. You can find it on region one DVD, though I recommend the superior Masters of Cinema UK disc. Hopefully it will soon find a home on Blu-ray. I can’t understand why it doesn’t have a wider audience, and anyone weighing whether or not to watch (or re-watch) Salò would do well to dive in here first.