Since my fascination with Italian writer, director, poet Pier Paolo Pasolini has grown at a steady pace from when I first discovered him some six odd years ago upon watching his final film, Salò (1975), and since at the beginning of April the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago started a film series titled Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Eyes of a Poet, in which they, in conjunction with Luce Cinecittà, Rome, Fondo Pier Paolo Pasonlini/Cineteca di Bologna, and The Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago, began presenting twelve films from the director, some of which are very hard to find copies of in the US, I decided to write about my reflections on the films of one of my favorite figures in the arts, if for nothing else to find out what draws me to his work and persona so much.
A great majority of these movies I’m seeing for the first time, others I’m skipping screenings because I don’t particularly like the films enough to see in theaters (Oedipus Rex (1967), Medea (1969), The Trilogy of Life – The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), Arabian Nights (1973)), and won’t be writing about them here. My girlfriend, who went to some of the showings with me, hadn’t seen anything by him before besides half of Arabian Nights (1973), so a few days before we went to see Accattone (1961) we watched one of my favorite movies by the director that wouldn’t be shown during the festival, Teorema (1968), which is why the reflections start with that film. This first installment will include five works by the director, and the next one will include only two or three, since I’ll probably have a lot to say about Salò (1975).
When I first saw this film over three years ago, I had previously only seen Salò (1975), and wasn’t sure what to expect out of the director. The only thing that I knew about him was that he made one of the most difficult movies I’ve ever had to sit through because of content, not boredom, and made the only movie that had me squinting my eyes away in reaction by the end of the film (but more on that later). Teorema (1968) showed me, in comparison, a more lighthearted side of him, as well as a clearer mythical drive. Overall, I think this film would be the best place to start with Pasolini because it shows most blatantly his precedence with desire and its related effects.
When the movie begins, we get street interviews about a man who gave his factory over to the workers, accompanied by an onslaught of communist jargon and implications being thrown at the former factory owner from journalists, and followed by sepia shots of each family member individually. The house guest is seen reading Rimbaud out on the lawn and turning into an object of affection and fascination for each family member including and beginning with the maid. The maid cleans up after him; the son has him in his room, sleeping next to him; the daughter pulls him along with her to a room where they look at old photos; the mother sets up a situation where he can stumble upon her while she’s nude; and the father goes out for a drive into the boonies where they trade playful boxing punches. But the focus isn’t on how easy it is for this guy to get laid, because after he leaves in the middle of the film we see how each family member deals with the repercussions of desire met and abandoned, not fully satisfied with its transience in fulfillment. By making a character that we have as many questions about as the characters do, Pasolini shows the ultimate draw of mystery and the unknown pleasures it activates in the human being by illuminating something the subject didn’t know he or she had. He also shows the sharp character transformations that occur when that object of desire, fantasy, mystery moves out of each individual life, and inspires madness in its many multiple forms.
Pasolini’s first film is a gritty underworld character study on Vittorio, a pimp who generally goes by the nickname Accattone. This switch to film after having made a career as a novelist, short story writer, and poet carries along many of the themes that concerned Pasolini in his early fiction – the state of the slums in Rome, the goings on of prostitutes and pimps, disillusion with the normal working world, and his main trope, desire.
Accattone can’t seem to escape the confines of his eternally impoverished life, nor his character. All of his sordid associates can guess his every move. From the very beginning he flirts with death, jumping off of a bridge into water just for the attention and as an outward sign of his strength. When the initial girl that he prostitutes winds up out of service thanks to his directing onto her the revenge other, more powerful pimps wanted to take out on him, Accattone is forced to find some way of getting money, staying alive. Eventually he finds a girl who doesn’t have the typical street scum attitude and he falls in love with her. But his love always carries with it a sort of reversed alchemical quality, in that everything he touches gets stained with his unfortunate aura. His friends guess that he’ll turn her into another prostitute, and they’re not wrong. One of the most remarkable aspects of the film is its sense of placing. When Accattone roams around the slums, the places he revisits have a nostalgic quality about them by being scenes we’ve quickly internalized upon their initial backdrop. The best sequence in the movie is Accattone’s dream toward the end of the film, in which he walks the banister between suicide and joining the pimps. When he decides to hop off and join the pimps, he finds they were dead anyway. In a very quick flash he finds himself in a suit along with all of his friends who are headed toward his funeral, a funeral he’s not allowed to enter. When he wakes up, he’s back to his normal self, and needs to go out and find work, which he claims was worse than giving himself a stroke. One of the very last lines he says to his co-worker, regarding his foot odor, is, “You stink more alive than dead,” which is the same general consideration he has for himself.
Mamma Roma (1962)
Not to downplay the greatness of Accattone (1961), but Pasolini’s second feature film, Mamma Roma (1962) is without a doubt a breakthrough for the director. It’s a tragicomedy that boasts a fantastic lead actress, Anna Magnani, who plays the titular character, an ex-prostitute who dreams of moving to Rome with her estranged son. However, her old pimp (played by Accattone actor Franco Citti) asks her to go back out on the street for about two weeks before heading off to Rome. Her plans are interrupted, and her son falls prey to the rural spirit of scum around town.
This film clearly introduces Pasolini’s penchant for Christian art. The first scene, the pimp Carmine’s wedding, resembles Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, where Mamma Roma gets drunk and exchanges flowery songs with the bride and groom, mocking her former pimp in all her newly acquired freedom. One technique Pasolini explores in this film is the long shot, which he uses in the nighttime scenes when Mamma Roma is back out on the street, recounting stories or complaining in sobs while different men or groups of men walk alongside her in the bright light backdrop. The thematic content of the movie is a progression of the things that already concerned the director in his earlier work, and with this film he scrapes away the surface of the grimy streets to find not only religious influences, but simultaneously Marxist ones. In one part of the film, after the mother and son do a rough tango dance to a specific song on a record, the son then takes the record to sell to some outdoor vendor so he can have money to buy a local floozy some jewelry, all with the intention to take her to their special spot for sex again. The mother remarked about the magic of the song on the record, and how meaningful it was to her, but the son needed to use the market as his means for accessing the fruition of his desire. The mother then doesn’t want him going around with a girl like that, so she convinces one of her better prostitute friends to sleep with her son, so as to redirect his desire to a healthier place. The mother and son continue to get along more and more, coming to an ultimate point when she uses her money saved up for the pimp to buy her son a motorcycle. But things start to fall apart, and take a drastic and immediate turn for the worse when he finds out about her hidden line of work.
The Gospel According to Matthew (1964)
In Momma Roma (1962) Pasolini began overtly flirting with religious material, and with this movie he dives right into the source itself. The biggest artistic leap with this movie is his jump in scenery. Although Pasolini still concerns himself with the poor, the lower class, the powerless (in earthly terms), the landscape shots expand beyond the scope of the previous movies.
This retelling of the story of Jesus is a pretty straightforward account, with very few additions or personal opinions seeping into the movie. One of the most noticeable characteristics of Pasolini’s Jesus is that he isn’t the lighthearted or softspoken peaceful being that he commonly gets misrepresented as. Pasolini portrays him as an unsmiling (except in one special scene in the movie), strict, stern, theoretically black and white leader. The film’s style still carries over the grittiness of the earlier movies, and the stoic feel leaves little room for comedy, but the artistry is still there, mainly in its rejection of referencing of Christian art. Unlike his harkening to recognizable religious iconography in Mamma Roma (1962), this movie tries to present the events without any added embellishments, which creates an atmosphere of dark, right to the point subject matter almost forced to be taken seriously. From the very first scene of the film there’s the unspoken tension between Mary and Joseph, as Mary’s face is the first image, going back between her and Joseph, eventually revealing her pregnant state, and Joseph’s incredulous determination to go sulk by himself. Out of all the Jesus movies I’ve seen, which admittedly have been few—The Passion of the Christ (2004), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and Life of Brian (1979), if that one counts—this is by far the most uncorrupted in terms of presentation according to the text it’s based on, although Last Temptation does a better job of humanizing and arguably carrying the message to modern viewers. It is also up there in Pasolini’s darkest films, not just cinematically, but content-wise as well. Ultimately, it fits in well with the director’s œuvre of portraying the powerless against the powerful, and in doing so represents Jesus for what he really was – an unflinching radical bent on destroying corruption.
Hawks and Sparrows (1966)
Seeing this movie after The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) in a double feature was one of the greatest cinematic experiences I’ve ever had. The leap between this movie as a chronological subsequent to the former shows a range in directorial capabilities and tone unmatched by almost any other director, all while being concerned with some of the same themes. This is without a doubt Pasolini’s funniest film, a personal intellectual journey through religion, sex, communism, and nature.
From the very first seconds of the showing in the completely filled to the brim theater, the entire audience was laughing. The credits lay over a backdrop of the moon, and an Italian singer makes a song out of all the names that pop up on the screen. The filming techniques throughout predict Benny Hill’s style of sped up running around and eavesdropping on attractive women. Cameras focus on funny or creepy faces, and everyone in the immediate environment is an outrageous oddball, including the main characters. All this before the intellectual Marxist talking crow comes on the scene to lead the father and son pair down a long desolate path that goes on beyond the length of the film. But all these erratic characteristics of the film aren’t isolated additions imposed on the plot. They’re rather an outgrowth of the unique form. A large chunk of the movie is a reimagining of the characters as medieval Catholic monks, set out on an isolated journey through many seasons with the mission to communicate to the hawks and the sparrows God’s message. They comically learn to do so, only to find out both times that neither creature wants anything to do with God’s advice for how to live a good life. With the very memorable surf guitar soundtrack, the different groups that the characters stumble upon, the ideas and themes that get discussed, and the ultimate killing and eating of their brainy guide toward the end, it’s no wonder Pasolini said that this was his favorite of the films he made.