To mark the centenary of the birth of Pier Paolo Pasolini on March 5, 1922, our new program on the Criterion Channel presents nine of his features and two of his shorts as well as Il bell’Antonio, a 1960 satirical drama cowritten by Pasolini and directed by Mauro Bolognini. Starring Marcello Mastroianni as an impotent husband and Claudia Cardinale as his frustrated wife, the film won the top prize in Locarno.
In Los Angeles, the retrospective at the Academy Museum pairing Pasolini’s features with his shorts and documentaries runs through March 12, and if you’re in Europe, let Sabzian be your guide to events in Italy, Belgium, France, and Spain. The celebrations are naturally most festive in Bologna, the city where Pasolini was born and to which he returned as a teenager after a childhood spent in northeastern Italy, where he became fascinated with the Friulian dialect. Staging a retrospective and an exhibition, the Cineteca di Bologna is also publishing two new books and sending thirteen of Pasolini’s films to theaters throughout Italy.
Pasolini was only seven when he began writing poetry, and he eventually became deeply engaged in the debates among the Italian intelligentsia via his newspaper columns and literary essays. He painted and wrote plays and novels that drew outrage and lawsuits from all quarters. Pasolini is “unique to postwar Italian culture and politics,” wrote Gary Indiana in 2004, “unique in his degree of loathing for its fifties and sixties economic miracle and its impact on the country’s cities, the countryside, and its dialect subcultures, unique in his nervous mingling of intense, alienated Catholicism with Gramscian Communism.”
After settling in Rome, and having worked with Federico Fellini on the screenplays for Nights of Cabiria (1957) and La dolce vita (1960), Pasolini was nearly forty when he directed his first feature. Accattone (1961), cowritten with Sergio Citti, draws from two of his novels, Ragazzi di vita (The Hustlers, 1955) and Una vita violenta (Violent Life, 1961). Franco Citti plays a thief and pimp wandering the borgate, the Roman slums, and in 2004, Gino Moliterno wrote in Senses of Cinema that Accattone is above all “a celebration of this world which, for all its material poverty and its atavistic violence, its misery and apparent amorality—or perhaps precisely because of them—is nevertheless one of the few remaining sites of resistance to the spread of secular bourgeois morality and its concomitant religion of affluence and consumerism.”
Mamma Roma (1962) stars Anna Magnani “at her most volcanic, hyperbolic, and magnificent as a Roman prostitute trying to go straight and provide a respectable middle-class existence for her teenage son,” wrote Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader in 1989. After completing Mamma Roma, Pasolini quickly turned to La ricotta, a thirty-five-minute contribution to RoGoPaG (1963), an omnibus film that also features segments directed by Jean-Luc Godard and Roberto Rossellini.
Orson Welles stars as a film director, “a caricature of himself,” as Pasolini put it to James Blue in Film Comment in 1965. “A profoundly religious film,” wrote Gary Indiana, “La ricotta is an explosion of disgust at consumer society and its vulgarity, a scabrous reproach to the Catholic Church for its abandonment of the poorest members of that society, a film about a film about the Crucifixion that shows Christianity’s central symbolic event being staged within a circus of depravity.”
In 1964, Pasolini shot Love Meetings—a loosely structured documentary in which he asks Italians on the street as well as a psychologist, a poet, and his close friend, the renowned writer Alberto Moravia, about sex—and The Gospel According to St. Matthew, which won a special jury prize in Venice and was nominated for three Oscars. “I remember lines of poetry I wrote when I was eighteen or nineteen years old, and they were of a religious nature,” Pasolini told James Blue. “I realized, too, that much of my Marxism has a foundation that is irrational and mystical and religious. But the sum total of my psychological constitution tends to make me see things not from the lyrical-documentary point of view but rather from an epic point of view. There is something epic in my view of the world. And I suddenly had the idea of doing The Gospel, which would be a tale that can be defined metrically as Epic-lyric. Although St. Matthew wrote without metrics, he would have the rhythm of epic and lyric production.”
In The Hawks and the Sparrows (1966), a political road movie on foot, Pasolini directed beloved comic actor Totò; Ninetto Davoli, the great love of his life; and a talking crow. Given that Pasolini despised his father, a military man with fascist leanings, and adored his mother, an adaptation of Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex (1967) was probably inevitable. Two years later, he returned to the ancient Greeks with Medea (1969), starring Maria Callas, with whom he got along famously.
Teorema (1968), starring Terence Stamp as a stranger who mysteriously appears at the estate of a wealthy family in Milan, “remains equivocal in its meanings,” wrote James Quandt in 2020. “Despite Pasolini’s contention that ‘that guest has come to destroy’ and that his is a ‘love that destroys,’ one wonders if the stranger’s serial seductions liberate rather than devastate the maid, son, daughter, mother, father—archetypes all—and just who is seducing whom, given that each member of the household appears more pursuer than pursued, active, willing, or eager in his or her own enticement.”
Porcile (1969), featuring Pierre Clémenti as a cannibal wandering a timeless landscape and Jean-Pierre Léaud as the son of German industrialist, “represents the apex of Pasolini’s ‘difficult’ period, a difficulty that here probably derives, at least in part, from Pasolini’s own very mixed response to the student uprisings of 1968,” wrote Gino Moliterno in 2002. Famously to some and infamously to others, Pasolini sided with the proletarian police and against the demonstrators, and Derek Jarman, writing in his 1987 book The Last of England, agreed: “Why didn’t these students, the fortunate ones, throw stones at the real source of repression: the bankers and the judges, rather than these simple boys from the south co-opted by the state? Pasolini got his targets right.”
Before he was murdered on November 2, 1975—and his death, whether at the hands of right-wing thugs, a couple of extortionists, or most improbably, a single seventeen-year-old kid, remains a contentious mystery—Pasolini made his bright Trilogy of Life and one of the darkest films ever made. In The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1974), Pasolini’s “obsession was with finding a world outside of all the commodifications of capitalism, including, prominently, the bodily,” wrote Colin MacCabe in 2012. “By grafting the marginal modern (the Italian lumpen poor, the third world) onto medieval texts, Pasolini hoped to fashion an alternative to a present that he found ever more repellent.”
Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1976), based on the 1785 novel by the Marquis de Sade, may have been intended as the first film in a projected Trilogy of Death. Set in the mid-1940s in the German puppet state known as the Republic of Salò, the film focuses on eighteen teenagers captured and abused by four wealthy libertines. Salò is “a one-of-a-kind project that takes no little defending, and may indeed be indefensible,” wrote John Powers in 1998. “It’s the cruelest, most obscene, and most intellectually toxic work ever made by a major director. Once seen, it is forever remembered . . . Yet if Salò is not a simple or likable movie, it does have a terrible kind of grandeur. And this grandeur is inseparable from its assault on all our most cherished moral beliefs.”
Last May, novelist Rachel Kushner included Teorema in her list of top ten Criterion releases. Does Terence Stamp’s stranger take advantage of an entire family or fulfill their deepest desires? “It’s not clear if he’s a god or devil,” writes Kushner. “On a visit I made a couple of years ago to Al Biondo Tevere in Rome, where Pasolini ate his last meal, the waiter’s eagerness to show me which chair he sat in, which sink he’d used to wash his hands, the towel he’d dried them on, and so forth, led me to believe that seduction is alive and well, even if Pasolini himself is long gone.”
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