Happy Birthday, Pier Paolo Pasolini!

pasoliniNow that Slavoj Zizek is a movie star and Malcolm Gladwell can fill rock star venues, it’s probably just a lazy short-hand to contend that Pier Paolo Pasolini‘s celebrity is all but inconceivable now. He’s remembered in English-speaking territories for his films–raw spins on Italian life, Christianity, and the sacred and blasphemous pillars of Western literature. In Italy, however, Pasolini was a one-man culture industry. He established himself as a poet, novelist, journalist, intellectual, documentary maker, radical irritant and all-around literary celebrity. PPP burned too brightly to last until his 80s, but if he had, today would have been his birthday.

Pasolini was born into a military family and attended Bologna University, but he entered a downward spiral after being expelled from his school-teaching job and the Italian Communist Party for homosexual activities. He landed in the slums of Rome, whose down-and-outs were the subject of his 1955 novel Ragazzi di vita. Like Burroughs or Genet, Pasolini’s poetic vision of the underworld brought charges of public indecency. The rallying of the intellectual community encouraged Pasolini to become more outspoken, and his subsequent celebrity became his entree into the film-making world.

Pasolini’s manipulation of the stuff of documentaries into fictional parables had deep roots in French Poetic Realism, the Neo-Realism of Roberto Rossellini, and the art of Caravaggio and Filippo Lippi. 1961’s Accattone is a kind of beat film, with its listless pimp protagonist dropping out rather than getting caught up in Rome’s la dolce vita, while its follow-up Mamma Roma repeats the trick with Anna Magnani as the Madonna of the Slums. Pasolini’s obsession with religion found natural expression in “La Ricotta,” where a beggar takes part in a filmic re-creation of the Passion. Orson Welles plays the bemused director who pontificates over a bed of go-go music.

A student of art history, Pasolini had recognized that the slums were the natural terrain of Christ. For his Gospel According to St. Matthew, he staged the life of Christ in rural Sicily, Lazio and Calabria. According to IMDB, Pasolini originally considered casting Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg as Christ before settling on Enrique Irazoqui, a young economics student. In what would make an interesting companion piece to Soderbergh’s Che, Christ is depicted as the ultimate socialist and revolutionary. The identification of Communism and Christ had unexpected results. The Office Catholique International du Cinéma awarded the film a prize and in 1999, the Pope named it a Catholic “must see.”

Pasolini preferred graffiti to pietas, however, and many of his films are satires whose barbs have faded in the widening distance between the present and the 1960s. In 1968, however, he scored an international art house hit with Teorema, perhaps the ultimate tale of a bourgeois family destroyed by a free spirit. Terence Stamp is the omnisexual angel/devil whose beauty and mysteriousness even seduces the maid; his sudden withdrawal from the scene sends the entire crew into varying degrees of piety and madness. The film has arguably influenced a variety of films ranging from Dennis Potter‘s Brimstone & Treacle to Michael Haneke‘s Funny Games.

In 1966’s Hawks and Sparrows, the comic Toto and Ninetto Davoli eventually eat the crow who has been hectoring them throughout the entire film with a leftist cathechism. In the 1970s, as the radical left splintered, Pasolini’s appetite turned to literary adaptations that reinvigorated The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales and The Thousand and One Nights by cultivating their ribald roots. The extended pantheistic celebration of human sexuality and bodily functions fashioned the director as a kind of sexual guru. He referred to the work as his “trilogy of life.”

His last, most notorious film, scrutinized his entire cinematic project by way of de Sade. Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom was again a novel marriage of gospel and location. Set in Mussolini’s puppet Italian Socialist Republic in the dying days of World War II, the film realizes de Sade’s mad fantasy of untrammelled freedom. Rape and torture are administered by a duke, bishop, magistrate and president, who have all become incestuously intertwined, in an agonizing masque. Claustrophobic and voyeuristic, the film depicts an imagination–whether that of Italy, de Sade, or Pasolini’s is up to the viewer–collapsing in on itself, ending on an unlikely grace note of two soldiers dancing together. The film has the distinction of being banned in Australia … twice.

Salo was made for instant notoriety, and it’s tempting to consider how it may have been received if Pasolini was not repeatedly run over before its 1975 premiere. Like Caravaggio, he died on an Italian beach. A teenage hustler confessed to the murder, but Giuseppe Pelosi recanted his confession in 2005. A reopening of the investigation heard testimony that Pasolini had actually been lured to Ostia by thieves who had stolen several reels of Salo. In his book PPP: Pier Paolo Pasolini and Death, his friend Giuseppe Zigaina has suggested that Pasolini wanted to end this way. Having burned down his playhouse of squalor and myth with his last film, it may be that Pasolini had nowhere else to go.

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One Response to “Happy Birthday, Pier Paolo Pasolini!”

  1. Critical Bitchslap: A.O. Scott vs. Richard Brody « SquallyShowers Says:

    […] in a structured manner. That allows room for romantics like Jean Renoir and radicals like Pasolini, too. Rossellini’s later work like Il Miracolo and Stromboli in fact goes beyond […]

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