Behind the Myth of Pier Paolo Pasolini

Behind the Myth of Pier Paolo Pasolini

Behind the Myth of Pier Paolo Pasolini

On the artistic afterlife of the Italian filmmaker, poet, novelist, and polemicist.


In the immediate aftermath of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s murder on November 2, 1975, the Italian press published articles comparing the poet, novelist, filmmaker, and polemicist with a whole “canon of contrarian prophets, talismans and poètes maudits,” according to the literary scholar Robert Gordon, who compiled the list: St. Augustine, Gabriele D’Annunzio, Jean Genet, Federico García Lorca, Cesare Pavese, Arthur Rimbaud, Girolamo Savonarola, Socrates, François Villon, Elio Vittorini, and even the archeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann, as well as Ariel, Midas, Narcissus, Don Quixote, and Jesus. Nearly all those associations have some plausibility, but at least in a certain mood, I might lean toward Savonarola, the 15th century friar who became a populist tribune and scourge of religious and secular powers before being burned at the stake. If Pasolini seemed to profane everything, it was because he wanted everything to be sacred.

Born in 1922 in Bologna, Pasolini spent part of his childhood in his mother’s hometown in the impoverished northeastern province of Friuli, not far from the border with what is today Slovenia. Back in Bologna for university, he began writing poetry in Friulian, though he did not know the language well. Meanwhile, his political loyalties were shifting from Italy’s fascism of his childhood to the left. In Friuli after World War II, he declared his support for the Italian Communist Party. In 1949, charged with sexual misconduct with several young men, he lost his job as a secondary school teacher and was expelled from the party.

In 1950, Pasolini moved with his mother to a working-class neighborhood in Rome, finding work in the city’s Cinecittà film studio. In these early Rome years, he made his name as a prodigious member of the literary intelligentsia. His poetry was beginning to be published regularly, he cofounded one of Italy’s leading literary magazines, and he started writing novels, beginning with Ragazzi di Vita (1955), which has been published in English under several titles, most recently in 2016 as The Street Kids. But that anodyne rendering of the title hardly captures the implications of vita in this context, comparable to American street jargon in which “the life” means criminal life; maybe Boys in the Life would have been a more accurate rendering. In any case, Pasolini’s fascination with—and deep affection for—the petty thieves and hustlers of the Roman suburbs he lived in had already established itself. As did his love for dialect: The Italian editions came with a glossary for readers unacquainted with the often obscene Roman slang.

In the following decade, Pasolini—having collaborated on some scripts for Federico Fellini—began making films of his own, starting with Accattone (1961), a story of the Roman lumpenproletariat not unlike those of his novels. Accattone takes the Italian neorealist tradition to an extreme and transforms it into something far darker and more pessimistic. Technically, the film was striking for a visual bluntness or monumentality reminiscent of early Renaissance painting. Bernardo Bertolucci, who served as Pasolini’s assistant director, recalled for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, “It was…like witnessing the invention of a new language. And he never spoke of cinema, only of drawings and paintings, altarpieces.” A new study of Pasolini—Against the Avant-Garde: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Contemporary Art, and Neocapitalism (University of Chicago Press) by Ara H. Merjian, an art historian and Italianist at New York University—takes painting, which Pasolini practiced fitfully but whose history he studied passionately, as a key to understanding his work as a whole. As Pasolini remarked, “My cinematic taste does not have its origins in cinema but in the figurative. That which I carry in my head as vision, as a visual field, are the frescoes of Masaccio and Giotto.”

Not surprisingly, given this heritage, Pasolini’s films would draw on themes drawn from literature, myth, and religion, perhaps more suited to his hieratic sense of style—The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1966), Oedipus Rex (1967)—or would treat contemporary life in an allegorical manner, as in Teorema (1968). Meanwhile, having switched from Friulian to standard Italian, he took on the role of civil poet, commenting on contemporary events to express, as his friend the novelist Alberto Moravia put it, “a lament for the devastated, disheartened, prostrated homeland, and nostalgia for the rural culture,” which he remembered from his childhood and from which the urban proletariat of Rome had only just been expelled, and penning innumerable reviews, essays, and polemics that earned him enemies across the political spectrum, not to mention endless attempts at censorship and legal prosecution. He had fervent admirers too, of course, whom he was always willing to wrongfoot, such as when, amid the uprisings of 1968, he stopped to point to the police as “sons of the poor” and the protesters as bourgeois. Although the same poem clearly specifies, “We are obviously in agreement against the police as an institution,” he was taken by many as supporting them rather than clarifying his thought that students with no ties to the working class were in no position to make a revolution.

For a while in the early 1970s, Pasolini’s films—his “Trilogy of Life” (1971–74)—seemed to suggest a renewed belief that some eternal life force, incarnated in the rowdy impudence of the lower classes of all times and places, was irrepressible. But then his vision grew darker again. He seemed to see the multiplicity of life and language being stamped out by the monoculture of bourgeois consumerism, which he saw as a new and more powerful form of fascism, “a ‘total’ form of fascism” that “has also culturally homologated Italy” and therefore amounted to “a real and true anthropological catastrophe.”

The line between polemicist and curmudgeon blurred in the last years of his life as he penned screeds on the stupefying power of television, long hair (no longer a sign of leftism), and sacrilegious ads for blue jeans. His 1975 film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, represented this state of affairs under the guise of the rump state of Mussolini’s Italy toward the end of World War II, in which a group of rich and powerful men retreat to a castle where they subject a group of young men and women to unspeakable abuse and torture—a sort of hymn to the death drive and one of the most difficult films to watch in the history of cinema. It premiered three weeks after its maker’s still unsolved murder.

As Merjian points out, Pasolini’s death gave rise to his myth. Both “in the popular imagination and the gloss of countless pundits alike…Pasolini had willed his own death, even sought it out.” Those who believed this forgot that he had not long before declared of his time that “the more I am detached from it, the more I agree only stoically to live in it.” And fantasies of a self-willed death, undoubtedly stoked by the grimness of his final film, were not limited to Italy. In a poem by Sandra Cisneros, published in 1994 in The New Yorker, Pasolini’s name seems to represent the superficial signifier of a nostalgic fantasy of bohemia:

I recommend a narrow bed stained with semen, pee, and sorrow facing the wall
Stain and decay are romantic.
You’re positively Pasolini.
Likely to dangle and fandango yourself to death.

Pasolini’s death was no fandango. On the beach at Ostia, near the ancient port of Rome, he was beaten and then run over with his own car. The culprit was supposed to be a young man Pasolini had picked up for sex. Despite a confession, many found it hard to believe the story of cruising gone wrong. Rumors suggested an assassination. Why? “Because he was homosexual, communist, and expressed himself openly against the bourgeoisie, government, Christian Democracy, fascists, judges, and police,” as the Italian collective Wu Ming recently put it. The supposed murderer later retracted his confession, and the case was never solved to anyone’s satisfaction. Pasolini was a martyr, but to what cause?

In Italy, Pasolini’s poetry is part of the 20th century canon. Books like Le Ceneri di Gramsci (The Ashes of Gramsci, 1957) and Poesia in Forma di Rosa (Poem in the Form of a Rose, 1964) are unavoidable reference points. Their very titles possess an aura. What made his poetry so urgent? His friend and sometime antagonist Franco Fortini—another great poet-critic—put it beautifully: “Where almost all the poets who were his contemporaries or immediate precursors gave themselves a way out, a path to salvation by way of discretion, silence, or the so-called ‘decency’ that Montale spoke of, he recognized the moral necessity of indecency, of ‘giving evidence of the scandal,’ of the triumph of shame and excess.” If anything, this moral tropism toward scandal and excess becomes even more evident in his films, in which, as Merjian says, “Pasolini pursued what he called a ‘technical sacrality’ in frank emulation of Renaissance panels and Romanesque sculpture.” It was in religious art that he discovered the possibility of a gaze that would not flinch from even the most abject sight.

Recently, despite the difficulty of encompassing Pasolini’s manifold oeuvre in poetry, fiction, essays, films, and even painting, the artist seems to have been reemerging from behind the myth. For fellow artists, he’s become a beacon. The normally ultra-sensationalistic filmmaker Abel Ferrara devoted one of his best (and most measured) films—shown at the Venice Film Festival in 2014 but unreleased in the United States until 2019—to a chronicle of Pasolini’s last days, played with characteristic subtlety by Willem Dafoe. As A.O. Scott observed in The New York Times, Ferrara’s film “is less concerned with the realistic reconstruction of the past than with communicating a mood in the present.”

Toward the end of his book, Merjian supplies a list of contemporary artists whose work has explicitly cited Pasolini. The necessarily incomplete catalog nonetheless includes some 80 names, grouped by art forms ranging from painting and photography to music and experimental novels and, of course, video and film. Some of the categorizations seem odd. The Italian conceptual artist Giulio Paolini is listed among those who have cited Pasolini in the medium of theater design, and the great Soviet director Sergei Parajanov (who, like Pasolini, paid the price for his sexual nonconformity) is listed for works on paper. I could add other names to Merjian’s list, such as the African American artist Glenn Ligon (his neon sculpture Notes for a Poem on the Third World [chapter one], 2018), the Moroccan French visual artist Bouchra Khalili (her video The Tempest Society, 2017), and the Albanian Italian video artist Adrian Paci, who in 2005 named an exhibition in Zurich “Secondo Pasolini” (“According to Pasolini”). As Merjian remarks, “One is hard pressed to think of a twentieth-century figure—whether poet, artist, or director—who has galvanized a comparable range of artists in such diverse media and over successive generations.” He’s only right, I suppose, if one adds the disclaimer “except for Picasso,” but to put the two men’s names together that way only attests to the protean nature of Pasolini’s cultural impact.

Naturally, the depth and significance of those references is highly variable. Richard Serra’s 1985 sculpture Pasolini consists of two blocks of forged steel, one horizontal—a double square that is twice as long as it is high—and the other upright, also a double square but half the size of the horizontal one, so that it is as tall as its much larger companion. (Two years later, Serra produced a screen print using the same title, with a single horizontal black form against the white ground of the paper.) Serra’s undoubtedly sincere admiration for Pasolini cannot change the fact that his own art is resolutely abstract and concerned with phenomenology, a meditation on size, scale, and above all, proportion. Nothing but the presence of the name tells us anything about Pasolini or about Serra’s feelings about Pasolini. The sculptor has, as he said in a different context, “more to say about the balance of weight, the loss of weight, adding or removing weight, the concentration of weight, the imbalance of weight, the rotation of weight, the movement of weight, the directionality of weight, the form of weight.” I thought of how the smaller upright element could be taken allegorically for the mere living, standing man and the greater horizontal might be the man taken by death, something like the “calm block fallen down here from an unseen disaster” that Stéphane Mallarmé (in Peter Manson’s luminous translation) saw in the tomb of Edgar Allan Poe, the poet “such as into Himself at last eternity changes him.” But as much as I can see in Pasolini something of Poe—Mallarmé’s imagined Poe, I mean, not the real one, who died as mysteriously if less violently than Pasolini in 1849 in Baltimore—I can’t quite put myself in a frame of mind to conceive of Serra indulging in anything like the baleful reflection that the French symbolist gathered from his American predecessor.

By contrast, Sharon Hayes, in her video work Ricerche: Three (2013)—which somehow did not make Merjian’s list and which I wrote about a couple of years ago when reviewing the exhibition “Trigger: Gender as Tool and Weapon” at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York—does not evoke Pasolini’s biography even as much as the archformalist Serra. Instead, she modeled the piece on a film by Pasolini, though not one of his best-known works: the 1963 documentary Comizi d’Amore (Love Meetings), which, as Pasolini lamented, achieved little success beyond “cinephiles” and “sociologists.” And yet it might be one of his key works, an unsparing attempt to come to terms with the spiritual state of modern Italy. He traveled the length and breadth of the country to interview citizens of all ages, occupations, and social classes about love, sex, marriage, the role of women in society, divorce (then still illegal in Italy), and so on.

Comizi d’Amore starts with a gaggle of kids in Palermo being asked the obvious question, “Where do babies come from?” The stork brings them, or maybe a midwife. Next Pasolini meets with Alberto Moravia and the psychoanalyst Cesare Musatti: Is this series of interviews worth undertaking? Sure, says, Moravia, because no one talks about these things in Italy even privately, let alone on film. But Musatti warns, “People will either not answer or lie.” And a bit later on, a young man in a craftsman’s shop in Florence admits that he finds the whole topic of sex sad rather than exciting. A soldier believes that society pushes men to play the Don Juan or else be considered a failure, but his buddies disagree; they feel they are too short or don’t have the looks to play that game. A peasant father in Emilia Romagna, asked if men and women should be equal or if women should be inferior, replies, “A little inferior, but not a wide gap.” His daughter, smiling, disagrees. (Later, a woman sunning herself on the Lido in Venice allows, “We’d like to be superior, but sometimes it’s convenient to feel inferior.”)

We also meet university students, a pro soccer team, female factory workers, sex workers, and notably, the elderly poet Giuseppe Ungaretti, who, though sitting on a beach chair, is dressed in a suit and tie. Since everyone is different, he says, “all men are, in their own way, abnormal. All men are, in a way, in contrast with nature.” Asked to be more specific about his transgressions of norms, Ungaretti (who seems utterly embarrassed by the whole conversation) tells Pasolini, “I break all laws by writing poetry.” I couldn’t help thinking that Pasolini must have silently considered his elder’s response evasive—but that the response might have corresponded with Pasolini’s conception of his own role.

In any case, Pasolini finds an absolute difference between the north of Italy, “modern but…confused,” and the south, which with its “poor yet real population” maintains the cruel clarity of ancient ways, and concludes that, as articulated “from the lower classes and the deepest instincts,” “certain impelling desires” are in conflict with “a modern and democratic law”—a situation that is met only “with disarming superficiality or hopeless confusion.” This is, of course, nothing more than a local variant on what Sigmund Freud much earlier diagnosed as “das Unbehagen in der Kultur,” that is, an inherent discomfort or unease with civilized life. (The title of his book by that name is ordinarily mistranslated as Civilization and Its Discontents.)

What’s striking in Comizi d’Amore—what marks it as the work of Pasolini rather than an ordinary journalist’s—are not his questions or even the answers he gets but the way that the questions, by throwing the interviewees off balance, putting them in a position in which they don’t always know how to respond, reveal something normally hidden, not in their views but in their faces, their bodies, their habitus: a profoundly human sense of being caught on the cusp of revealing some inner secret not even they ever paid attention to, a kind of innocence even amid hypocrisy or willful ignorance, which does not affect the truth that, as Pasolini once said, “that which anyone really is is something mysterious and profound.”

If Pasolini attempts to be almost encyclopedic in encompassing all strata of Italian society, Hayes’s Ricerche, less than half the length of its model, concentrates on a single place, a single age group. Her interviewees were all students at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, one of the last remaining US all-women colleges—which today means that it has to accommodate the increasing porosity of gender identities. As Hayes points out, “The interview unfolds on camera in such a way that you’re not entirely sure how many people are being interviewed as interviewees slowly add in as the camera, following the interviewer, shifts across the group left to right,” which is to say, while her sampling of subjects is very narrow compared with Pasolini’s, its precise limits are ambiguous. The interviewees are a far more diverse group than Pasolini could have dreamed of encountering in the Italy of six decades ago—white, Black, Native American, Latinx, South Asian, East Asian. Their relationship to the category of women is far more varied than could ever have been articulated in Pasolini’s Italy, too, since the group includes gender-fluid individuals as well as trans men and cis women. And while all of Pasolini’s interlocutors were marked, implicitly or explicitly, by the country’s dominant Catholicism (though Moravia’s Judaic roots go unmentioned), the Holyoke students’ religious upbringing and commitments are varied. This is as much of a conclusion as they can reach: “We are talking about different ‘wes.’”

Would Pasolini, if he had lived into his 90s, have approved of Ricerche? Permit me to doubt it and not only because his unqualified agreement with anything was so rare. Savonarola wouldn’t have liked it, either. Pasolini might well have derided the diversity of the Mount Holyoke students as an entirely bourgeois diversity, another example of that assimilation of everything to a dominant culture, a dominant language, a consumerist and mass-marketed bazaar of fungible identities “obtained by the imposition of a form of hedonism and joie de vivre,” as he believed.

By now, he easily might have become not just a contrarian but an out-and-out reactionary. Merjian makes clear—starting with his title, Against the Avant-Garde—that although today we might like to see Pasolini as a vanguard artist, he came to reject abstract and Pop art, electronic and aleatory music, the literary experiments of many Italian poets and writers of the 1960s, and the anti-narrative films of Michelangelo Antonioni as much as the abstract “cinema of lyric poetry obtained through editing and the intensification of technique.” All of these he saw, not without reason, as toothless attempts to “deride institutions without eating into them.” Many of the back-and-forth polemics that Merjian chronicles among Pasolini and his contemporaries now seem to be of essentially antiquarian interest, although their ferocity might give pause to those who today lament such vehement and ad hominem public disputes as evidence of a newfangled “cancel culture.” What counts is the consistency with which, in what Merjian calls Pasolini’s “all-out war against the present,” he found his fellow writers and artists all too timely in their interventions.

As for what Pasolini would think of his artistic beatification in a world that has become, if anything, even more homogenous in its colonization by neoliberalism than the one he decried? He might not have appreciated the 80 or so homages that Merjian notes. I suspect Pasolini would have quoted one of the verse passages of his 1968 novel Teorema:

But begin to understand immediately
that the poets and painters old or dead
in spite of the halo of a heroic air you give them
are useless to you, teach you nothing.

But if Pasolini’s great lesson was his pessimism, our task is to learn when to apply it and when it might do us more harm than good. The young people Hayes interviewed gave me hope. And for that very reason, I wonder whether Pasolini was, after all, the right model for her work. Or perhaps it’s that she understands him better than he understood himself when, finally—but “finally” only because of a contingent act of violence he never willed—he slid from pessimism to despair.

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