Pasolini, poet of cinema
by Erin Blackwell
The films of Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-75) should be required watching for all poets, artists, filmmakers, sodomists, coprophiliacs, clowns, cannibals, Catholics, classicists, anarchists, activists, atheists, communists, industrialists, pimps, hookers, sadists, fascists, murderers, thieves, cops, lovers, and Italian speakers. Newly struck 35-mm restored prints of tutti quanti (all of them) grace the 200-seat Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley, Sept. 20-Oct. 31. This weekend the Castro Theatre and Roxie Theater show six.
Pasolini is a household word, usually for the wrong reason. Salo (1975), his infamous final film, was released after his brutal murder in a Roman street. Having heard the movie was sick, abject, disgusting, I was relieved to find it's simply exquisite torture. Much like the prose of de Sade himself, on whose 120 Days of Sodom it's based. Where the Frenchman skewered Catholic dogma, the Italian targets fascism, aka the corporation. In the end (pun intended), all earthly powers conflate: imposing restraints, humiliations, and death on the vulnerable human bodies in their power.
Salo depicts ritualistic kidnapping, torture, and murder as erotic games played by guardians of social order. For modern-day equivalents of the film's Mussolini-era officials, look no further than the Marines of Abu Ghraib. A thrill of relevance seized me as the naked captives walk on all fours across a marble floor, leashed to armed guards. If the U.S. weren't up to its eyeballs in state-sanctioned atrocities, I would've dismissed Pasolini's vision as perversion for perversion's sake. Instead, I hail him as a blithe messenger of abject reality.
There's a lot of coprophagia in Salo. I had to keep telling myself it was chocolate pudding. "Eating shit" is an apt allegory for initiation into a corrupt society. The most profound of the film's litany of shocks is its carefully maintained thrum of cognitive dissonance. Why would well-dressed people in an elegant Italian villa, accompanied by a baby grand, choose as their preferred entertainment the degradation of self and others? Anyone with an imagination will discern in these abject behaviors the corollaries of contemporary rites of passage.
Before he was a filmmaker, Pasolini taught Greek and Latin to schoolboys, an occupation consistent with his later aesthetic: didactic, tragic or comic in the classical sense, invoking the persistence of myth in modern lives. His arrest for solicitation of a minor led him to write Impure Acts (1948). He was a poet and novelist before making his first film, age 39, proving himself a virtuoso of visual and theatrical elements as well as narrative. Urban provocateur, rural mystic, Marxist Catholic, gay saint, devoted Mamma's boy, PPP worked the dialectic of dramatic situations like mind-expanding teeter-totters.
His first film, Accattone (1961), is a cinema verite hommage to street life in the Roman slums, focused on the hard-luck life of a pimp (Franco Citti) with a stable of one. The theme of Post-War Italian Men Without a Future is hammered home in the masterpiece Mamma Roma (1962), starring magnificent Anna Magnani as a retired-streetwalker-turned-fruit-seller who strives but fails to give her son a winning edge.
From such neorealist or "popular" works, Pasolini shifted to "unpopular" Bunuel-style denunciations of the bourgeoisie. Teorema (Theory, 1968), his most glamorous film, stars Terence Stamp as a Rimbaud-reading houseguest who upends each member of a rich industrialist's household, including the maid. See supermodelesque Sylvana Mangano's mother-of-two reduced to cruising for young hunks in the family Fiat.
Pasolini's most successful foray into spaghetti Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex (1967), is based on Sophocles' tragedy (429 B.C.) of a man whose unwitting corruption brings ruin on his country. A perennial existential paradox. Mangano as the Queen of Thebes with Citti as her son and consort send pre-Freudian shivers down your spine. Pig Sty (1969), the crack cocaine of agit-prop filmmaking a la francaise, stars Jean-Pierre Leaud as another rich industrialist's son – spoiler alert – whose horrific off-screen fate is to be eaten alive by pigs.
After the revolutionary 60s, Pasolini fell back on lavishly costumed epic comedies drawn from antique literary classics for his Trilogy of Life (1971-74). Boccaccio's Decameron (1353) and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (later 14th century) inspired joyous hymns to the pleasures and torments of pre-Enlightenment Europeans. There's plenty of lusty intrigue justifying naked man-on-man and -woman sex, but no lesbianism (oddly consistent with Queen Victoria's view). Arabian Nights, shot in Iran and Yemen, features black actors.
Photo: Courtesy MoMA
Then came Salo, his summation on the backside of human relations, alas, prophetic of our current predicament as Americans. What can a dead gay Italian teach us? Dare we take inspiration from his creative courage to subvert the power structures that demean us? Or die trying? This much is clear: a $50 PFA membership lets you see movies at a bargain-matinee $5.50 apiece, and it's good for a year.
Pasolini: A Film Series plays Sept. 14, Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., SF, www.castrotheatre.com, $12. Sept. 15, Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., SF, www.roxie.com, $12. Sept. 20-Oct. 31, Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, (510) 642-5249, www.bampfa.berkeley.edu/filmseries/, $5.50.