Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Eye

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Eye

For the Italian filmmaker, the act of seeing was its own kind of art.

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What goes into the making of a movie? By “movie,” in Pasolini’s case, I take it that we mean a distinctive, unprecedented, unforgettable way of seeing, in which the world is turned toward us and shown in a new light. And the new light is not merely glittering and irresistible (though in Pasolini it is regularly both) but necessary. Necessary to its subject: in this instance, in the films Pasolini made in the early 1960s, the face and temper and desperation—the disintegrating identity—of the proletariat as the long epic of class struggle drew to an end.

What goes into such a moment of form—such a making of a style? I summon up a memory from near the beginning of Accattone, whose opening sequences are stamped on my mind—or his choice of distance between moving face and moving camera, his unforgiving lighting, his shallow depth of focus, the brittle staccato of his soundtrack. Start almost anywhere in these early movies, or in the scenes from Fellini’s Notte di Cabiria where Pasolini’s imprint is unmistakable; open a page at random in The Ragazzi or A Violent Life or A Night on the Tram; and immediately you are in a working-class world that very few others have touched. A savage and absolute grandeur greets you, tinged with (undercut by) bitterness and compassion, and above all by a determination to destroy—at last, in agony, against one’s own deepest wishes—the great myth of the 20th century.

English-speaking readers have been told the story of Pasolini’s life many times, and often very well. The aspects of the writer and filmmaker’s life that seem most obviously to have fed into his work—his childhood in Friuli and his continuing attachment to the rural society in which he grew up, his youthful experience of fascism, his immersion in the “neorealist” moment following 1945, his Marxism, his sexuality, his tortured relations with the Italian Communist Party, his love of Rome, his horror at the first emerging reality of “consumerism” (no one had a more chilling premonition of the age of Berlusconi to come, and of the way that Italian model of politics would infect the world)—these things have been written about with passion.

But they are not quite enough to help us with his art. A movie, in Pasolini’s hands, is a vision. At the center of its making is a set of decisions, or a tissue of visual assumptions (perspectives, spatial intervals, kinds of grounding and uprightness, kinds of stillness and movement), that go to give the world a shape, a form. What informed the decisions (the assumptions) in Pasolini’s case? Here’s where the texts translated in this book, and introduced so meticulously by Ara H. Merjian and Alessandro Giammei, add a new dimension to our understanding. For, now, we have in hand some measure in English of Pasolini’s long love affair with painting—and even (oddly) with art history.

What other moviemaker, for instance, writing about his work for a newspaper audience, would move from sentence one to sentence two in the paragraph I quote below—let alone from sentence three to sentence four? (He is commenting on his 1962 film La Ricotta, whose blasphemies had initially earned him a four-month prison term, only later quashed on appeal.)

In addition to the kind of rigorously simple technical selectivity afforded by 50 and 75mm cameras, with La Ricotta I added a “Pan Cinor” lens for my basic panning shots and wobbly tracking shots—not so much for its zoom movements (still very limited) as for the grade of the lens, from 100 up. This obtains effects even more dear to the eyes of an apprentice in the studio of Masaccio: it flattens the images, making them warmer and coarser. You leaven them like loaves of bread, solid but… light. As light as a paintbrush is light, even frothing, as it invents the massive play of shadows in three dimensions, with Man at its centre and the Eternal Light as its source of illumination.

Partly, yes, the invocation of Masaccio here is polemical. The appalling homosexual blasphemer is conjuring a figure from the sacred (Old Master) past of Italy as one further thumb in his reader’s eye. But this is just the surface of things. For Pasolini really did consider himself an apprentice in Masaccio’s studio, constantly—and in that of Piero, Angelico, Caravaggio, Romanino, Picasso, Morandi, Guttuso, Cézanne. He never recovered from the effect of hearing, at age 17, the great art historian Roberto Longhi lecturing in Bologna on the eve of the Second World War, flashing up on the screen the details—the visual “facts”—that were to issue in his “Fatti di Masolino e di Masaccio’ a year or so later. Those facts defined what seeing was, for Pasolini. Or what it ought to be—had to be—still, again, more and more insistently—however much the odds were stacked against it.

There is no judgment that gets us closer to the center of Pasolini’s aesthetic, I feel, than the one he passed in 1965 on the painter Romanino (a “marginal” figure in the history of the Renaissance who had roared back to the center of things in Italy in the 1960s): “Romanino was what his culture did not allow him to be.… This is the crux of my talk.” Here was a painter, Pasolini believed, who had taken advantage of his provincial distance from orthodoxy (and sophistication), in order to find his way back to religion—to a truly religious painting, a painting that established the sacred in the world—in an age of counterfeit.

“People talk,” said Pasolini on another occasion, “about my movie Accattone’s ‘religiosity.’” They may be right. But “religiosity lies not in the need for personal salvation,…not in the fatality that determines the entire story…. It is found in [the film’s] very mode of seeing the world, in the technical sacrality of seeing itself.”

Pasolini lived among painters, and formed some of his most precious friendships with them. One or two of the figures he revered are known outside Italy—Renato Guttuso, for instance, and Carlo Levi (though hardly as a painter as opposed to a writer)—others are not. The names Toti Scialoja, Giuseppe Zigaina, Federico De Rocco or Renzo Vespignani meant little or nothing to me before I read Merjian and Giammei’s translations of Pasolini’s tributes. But in the age of Wikimedia (long may it last) it is easy enough to find images to match the unfamiliar names, and well worth it. I found myself back in the strange splendid world of neorealism, looking at painters trying to find an equivalent—or at least an accompaniment—to the power and humility of Paisà and Il Grido and House on the Hill and Path to the Nest of Spiders. I realized again—looking at Zigaina’s sickles and cycles thrown down by the side of a Friuli irrigation ditch, or even at his more dutifully communist Assemblea di braci from 1950—what Pasolini so wished to hang on to in his passion for the local and “dialectal.” I saw what Guttuso’s high Mexican-muralist rhetoric kept alive for his admirers. I glimpsed the ghosts of Levi’s peasants in the streets of The Gospel According to Matthew.

The antinomies of Pasolini’s art and politics are spelled out most dramatically, I think, in the long poem “Picasso,” written in 1953. “Picasso” is given a heroic translation here by Merjian and Giammei—the first time it has appeared in English—but they would be the first to admit that the poem’s mixture of anger and insolence and dignity is hard, going on impossible, to transpose from Pasolini’s terse and sonorous terza rima. Many a dissident Marxist has sneered, justifiably, at Picasso’s postwar service to the Communist Party—his dreadful peace doves, his portraits of Stalin, his “discretion’ over the crushing of the Hungarian revolution. Only Pasolini found an idiom appropriate to the Fall.

Here he is toward the end of “Picasso,” face to face with the master’s new giant murals of War and Peace. War he has nothing to say about. (Even Pasolini can be charitable.) Peace—the horrible false optimism of Picasso’s strip cartoon—elicits his full Inferno roll of drums:

…Ah, non e nel sentimento
del popolo questa sua spietate Pace,
quest’ idillio di bianchi uranghi. Assente
e da qui il popolo: il cui brus io tace
in queste tele, in queste sale…

[Ah, this is not the way the people feel, this pitiless Peace of his, this idyll of white orangutans. Absent from this is the people: the people whose buzzing voices fall silent in these canvases, in these galleries…]

And if the people are not there in a work, their proximity threatening the illusion—this is Pasolini’s message—no amount of good will or ideological purity will fill the gap.

…La via d’uscita
verso l’eterno non e in quest’ amore
volute e premature. Nel restare
dentro l’inferno con marmorea
volonta di capirlo, e da cercare
la salvezza…

[The way out toward eternity does not lie in this wished-for premature love. We shall stay inside the inferno with an unflinching will to understand it, and seek salvation there…]

All this, I remind you, in response to a great Roman celebration of Picasso the party member, organized by Pasolini’s communist friends.

Needless to say—but are such things worth dwelling on any longer?—Pasolini’s Marxism proved, in his lifetime, hardly more popular on the left than on the right. Processions of Marxist mediocrities reassured the faithful that the filmmaker was a “bad Marxist.” They still do. As if badness has not always been the point. As if Marxism had not, from the very start of its Party petrification, been obliged to be bad—hybrid, contaminated, mystical, chiliastic, ironic, despairing, anti- or ultra-materialist—in order to remake the Marxist impulse, the Marxist facts, in the face of those waving the Little Red Book.

I know, finally, that Pasolini’s sense of history—his picture of hell and salvation, his very obsession with the “people”—will strike many readers as antiquated. The poet, lucky being, could only half anticipate the great work of sterilizing and infantilizing the imagination that his hated “consumerism” would set in motion. He never looked down into an iPhone mirror. He only saw the first clumsy adumbrations of our present image-world. He was spared the debacle of the Italian and European left. But his badness—his old fashioned absolutism—lives on.

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