Profile: Pier Paolo Pasolini (from 2001)

[Cross-posted from Kamera, and written in 2001]

“Two great human beings were killed just because they were kind and loved other people. That [sic] were Jesus Christ and Pier Paolo Pasolini.” (Front page of a site dedicated to Pasolini)

The rather overwrought and ostensibly glib analogy between Christ and Pasolini is one that simmers under many fan sites and even reviews, often invoking the 1975 murder of the dissident Marxist homosexual writer and film director in terms approaching martyrdom. His stated belief in the sanctity and dignity of poverty, his outspokenness, and his mysterious death are all claimed by his supporters, yet, in conjunction with his homosexuality, his artistic heterodoxy and his will to provoke, are also grist to the mill of his numerous detractors, exciting secret bigotries on both sides. Compared by Edmund White to Yukio Mishima in his nostalgia for a more honourable, disciplined past, Pasolini displayed such traits in, for example, his opposition to abortion, which, he felt, allowed pleasure to be divorced from procreation. As White put it, “his politics were too personal, too shifting, and too adversarial to fit into any orthodoxy,” but he remains without doubt one of Italy’s most influential post-war intellectual figures.

His work, in the biographical hubbub, has suffered by comparison, aesthetic elements scaled over by biography, no single work more so than the film he completed a few weeks before his death, Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom. This most controversial of all his films, a transposition of the Marquis de Sade’s novel to Mussolini’s puppet republic of Salo in 1943-44, is released this month on video by the BFI, followed in subsequent months by the Trilogy of Life, offering a chance to dip into the work of one of the most distinctive film-makers in cinema history.

Born in 1922 into a bourgeois family in traditionally left-wing Bologna, Pasolini’s transformation into the most disputed territory in Italian film followed an unconventional path. Not directing his first film until the age of 39, Pasolini had been a precocious if eccentric poet, publishing (at a time when Italianization was a national policy under Mussolini) in his native Friulian dialect. Later, in 1957, Pasolini won the Viareggio prize for his collection, The Ashes of Gramsci, dedicated to Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist thinker. Expelled in 1949 from the Communist Party for “moral indignity”, after being arrested and charged for allegedly corrupting the morals of two teenagers, he moved to Rome, living in the slums of Ponte Mammolo, where he continued to write. Causing a furore with his first novel, Ragazzi di Vita (1954), despite its linguistic innovation, Pasolini was prosecuted for obscenity, the first of over thirty such trials directed at his work during his lifetime. The facility he had shown with underworld slang and situations in his novels brought him to the attention of the film industry and he entered into film-making shortly afterwards, as a scriptwriter on Mario Soldati’s La donna del fiume, going on to collaborate on a number of films, including Fellini’s Le notti di Cabiria.

His directorial debut in Accattone! (1961) dealt with a pimp in Rome, re-working the underworld themes of his second novel, Una Vita Violenta. His 1962 follow-up, Mamma Roma, stalked similar ground, starring Anna Magnani as a prostitute aspiring to a middle-class life. Both films went on to win awards at major international film festivals, but caused intense controversy, and in the case of Accattone!, right-wing disturbances, at home.

Comparisons between the marginality of the early Pasolini and Jean Genet are apposite; some of the snobbishness towards Genet’s subject matter also tainted discussion of Pasolini’s early work. But by his next two films, in 1962, his La Ricottasegment of the famous compilation film RoGoPaG, starring Orson Welles, and in 1964, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Pasolini seemed to be situating himself far more within national and international intellectual discourse. The former stoked such outrage with its depiction of the Deposition, that Pasolini was arrested under blasphemy charges, yet the latter film’s clarity, humanity and simplicity prompted the Vatican to award him a medal. Casting a young Spanish economics student as Christ, a Roman truck-driver as Judas, and his own mother as the Virgin Mary, shooting without make-up, Pasolini set his peasant Gospel in bleak and hilly Calabria, achieving a high degree of directness and accessibility, in what he referred to as a “re-consecration.” Further religious exploration followed in the ambiguously allegorical Theorem (1968), described by Pasolini as “a straightforward apologia concerning the descent of God and his relationship to man”, which also led to an award from a Catholic organisation, later rescinded after an intervention by the Vatican.

Pasolini’s Oedipus Rex (1967), with its jarring, alienating ending, shifting from Morocco to modern-day Bologna, and other films of the late 1960s, especially Hawks and Sparrows (1966), re-emphasised the director’s convictions towards the sacred (“sacrale”), which ranged across archaism, primitivism, pre-industrial society, myth and ritual. In positing alternatives to the values prevalent in modern society – the heterosexual couple, technology, patriarchy, capitalism, consumerism – he sought to initiate at least an imaginative search for lost innocence, though one in full knowledge of its unattainability.

This tendency in Pasolini’s work is best exemplified by the Trilogy of Life, comprising The Decameron (1970)The Canterbury Tales (1971) and The Arabian Nights (1974), which, said Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, “celebrated life, vitality and instinctual sexuality.”

Described at the time as “blasphemous, subversive, pornographic, indecent”, and awarded the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, The Decameron does not form a very faithful adaptation, rather a commentary on contemporary Italian life, in which he alters the original stories in line with his Marxist and socialist beliefs. Transforming Boccacio’s socially elite characters into marginal victims allowed Pasolini to emphasise the socio-economic points he was making through characterisation. Making Pisan characters into Sicilians, he sought to emphasise the economic and social marginalisation of Southern Italy, with the lower classes abused by both the Church and the bourgeoisie to shore up their own power; likewise by having his characters speak in Neapolitan, not in standard Italian, he revisits his own practice of writing in Friulian. Alongside the almost Bakhtinian, overflowing, abundant sexuality, changes in camera speed are used to denote semi-comic action, leaving one with the feeling somewhat of a Marxist Benny Hill. Any number of bawdy spin-offs littered the market for the next few years, although alongside that, Pasolini’s film did bring many new readers to Boccaccio’s original.

The film functions more by the juxtaposition of stories, of situations, than by juxtaposition of images – unusually for Pasolini, since, as a largely anti-narrativist film-maker, his films are generally excessively dependent on the strength of each individual shot, rather than by continuity or contrast between successive shots. In using suitably grotesque medieval faces, Pasolini short-circuits (in an almost Lombrosian fashion) the need for characterisation through dialogue. In his own case (playing a disciple of Giotto), Pasolini’s character possesses the aura of a medieval Takeshi Kitano.

Both The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales have taken criticism from purists for not being faithful enough, but they are referring to fundamentally uncinematic texts, based largely on description. This perhaps explains the overblown and comedic performances, as the more visually arresting the face, the less actual acting that needs to be done. In The Canterbury Tales, Pasolini extracts 7 tales, abandoning the characters’ introductions, as they would be too confusing in a two-hour film and would complicate matters too much, compressing the narrators into a largely symbolic Chaucer figure (played by himself). Of course, what is gained in cinematic directness is perhaps lost in nuance and complexity, but Pasolini appreciates the difference between written and cinematic representations – which he used to his advantage in another way in Salo, imprisoning the audience, where with de Sade, they would be able to put the book aside.

Pasolini famously renounced, abjured the Trilogy of Life, citing “the irrefutable fact that, even if I wished to continue to make films like Trilogia della vita I would not be able to do so because I now hate the bodies and the sexual organs … of the new Italian youth. … The collapse of the present implies the collapse of the past. Life is a heap of insignificant and ironical ruins.” He bemoaned the “lack of humanity, lack of pity, [that] is identical for the whole mass of youth.” Most gallingly, he felt that outside of Europe, “for some time the people no longer exist anthropologically. For the French bourgeoisie the people consist of Moroccans or Greeks, Portuguese or Tunisian, who, poor things, can do no other than assume as quickly as possible the behaviour of the French bourgeoisie.”

Salo was supposed to form the first part of an anti-trilogy, expressing a counter-trajectory to the more lyrical, bawdyTrilogy of Life. Pasolini abandoned a planned life of St Paul to take up the project, the story of which he described as “the organisation of orgies and their realization.” For him, making the film, and setting it in Salo, struck deep personal chords, since his brother had been killed there during the war, and he himself had been captured by the Nazis nearby. Those “terrible days” inform the production design, from the villa, designed to look like the home of a “cultured Jew”, to the haut bourgeois clothing, to the Art Deco and Bauhaus decorations, expressive of the era of functionalism and industrialism, to the De Chirico empty courtyards and streets.

“Formally I want this film to be like a crystal, and not magmatic, chaotic, inventive and out-of-proportion like my previous ones,” said Pasolini of Salo, and less sensationalistic critical reaction has tended to centre on the formal precision of the camera work, production design (geometrical designs), the compositions (which, after a while, cease to register difference in the viewer’s consciousness). Pasolini explained the unreal feel of the film as follows: “My old, magmatic way was more realistic, because a thing badly done and haphazardly stuck together is more real than something done well within the rules. This one is less real because it’s more perfect.”

The film’s line of action is likewise rigorous and relentless. Four men (the duke, the banker, the bishop, and the judge) arrange to have 16 youths, 8 male (abducted by their 8 guards) and 8 female (chosen by four ageing procuresses), from the villages surrounding a deserted villa. The four repair to the villa, where they read out a book of law to the youths, expressly forbidding expressions of religion and love, the penalty being death. Each day, everyone is to assemble in the Room of Orgies, in which one of the procuresses will recount details of her sexual exploits, to arouse the others. Passing through Sadean litanies of sexual aggression and torture, organised into Dantesque “girone”, or circles – the circles of Manias, of Shit, and of Blood – what Italo Calvino calls the “menagerie” is subjected to rape, choreographed celebrations, torture, coprophagy, and ultimately, inevitably, execution.

The rather smug response given by so many directors in response to why they want to make films – to tell stories – is given short shrift by Pasolini here. In Salo, recounting a story is intended to inspire sexual arousal, and analogous enactment. In the Trilogy of Life, enactments were represented, the narrators done away with, and the relation between narrative and arousal is masked. Furthermore he opposes the Trilogy’s joyous sexuality with a tyrannical reification and commodification of the body, subject to the anarchy of sexual violence. Pity has no place in Salo, indeed, it only serves to inflame the torturer’s delight. Sergio Citti, co-scriptwriter on Salo, even went as far as to suggest that it was necessary to feel hatred for the victims, for their passivity.

Pasolini imprisons the viewer within the literal. As Gilles Deleuze has noted, “in Salo… there is no outside”, outside meaning only death. It is “pure interiority”. The only way to leave is to die. The erotic element within fascism, usually visible in camp or parody, is here also literalised, de-eroticised. In a system in which only objects matter, the corollary is that the human body becomes merchandise. For this imprisonment, Pasolini is criticised by Roland Barthes, whom he cites as an influence at the start of the film. Barthes felt that Pasolini had misunderstood Sade, and like Calvino, felt that Pasolini had imprisoned the gaze of the viewer with detail – following Sade prose to the letter, omitting any interpretative element, thereby guilty of fascistic aesthetic strategies himself.

 “…because accumulation is also repetition, the effect achieved, mechanically but very expressively, is that of litanies.” (Pasolini)

Pasolini’s resentment of consumerism, of commodification of the human body, literalises the human body, as the human machine, the human being as part of the industrialised process. Eating shit, in the scene most likely to elicit a standard disgust response in any viewer, turns man into a closed sytem, identified with machinery, production lines – a continuous series of worthless, sterile refinement. Pasolini’s explanation of this section was that “the producers, the manufactureres, force the consumer to eat excrement. All these industrialised foods are worthless refuse.” Despite the sincerity of Pasolini’s explanation, the disgust impulse overrides, allowing the viewer to feel disgust, to feel human. The involvement of excrement in the rites is humourless, joyless – not Bakhtinian, not celebratory. Pasolini’s deepening identification between consumerism, enslavement and fascism finds further expression in the victims, who appear naked (wholesome within fascist imagery, dehumanising in the deathcamps), already undressed, mute – there is no striptease. Silence implies, entails violence. The human system, the meeting of outside and inside, world and self, is further closed off in the brutal climax, with mutilation of sensory organs – eye, scalp (the logical next step after shaving of heads in the concentration camps?), penis. This is the opposite of the Kristevan mother, feeding shit, violating the rectum, and so on. In Salo, there is no catharsis, because there is no release, only identification with the protagonists. Rather than cathartic, it is more expiatory, mortification for the audience, and presumably, the director. The narrative is not polyphonic at all, the only moral referents are the four protagonists, and as Nowell-Smith noted at the time, the viewer’s gaze is inextricably identified with the gaze of the four, tainted by their presence in frame, or implied by the shot angle. The climactic, metacinematic end collapses the gaze of viewer together with the gaze of the four executioners, forcing the viewer to witness the atrocities. As Barthes notes, Pasolini uses sadistic strategies to turn the focus of the attack on the viewer, and on the director.

Further implications come in the famous final scene, with the two boy soldiers dancing together, one asking the other whether he has a girlfriend, and what her name is. Just another day at the office, just another night out at the cinema.

Shock fades with repetition, yet Salo is still shocking. Is this because it is a one-time-only film? Pasolini’s brilliance was to use Sade as a model and a framework – Sade is based on accumulation, and repetition, expression increasing with each subsequent act. The very material of shock is turned in on itself. As others have said, Salo is proof of the irreducibility of cinema. Made at the birth of the video revolution, Salo is a film that threatens the borders of the television, that dares you to use the remote control, the equivalent of being able to close your book. Even in the days of colossal widescreen televisions, home cinemas, watching the work of a provocateur like Pasolini on video is missing the point. In the cinema, the only way to stop the experience is to get up and walk out, to displace yourself physically, as he displaces you psychically.

In the end, perhaps the most human, measured and realistic response to Pasolini’s work is that of Pasolini himself, talking about Salo:

“Maybe some old man in Germany may remember…”

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