Written by W.D. Farnsworth.
‘Poor as the poor I cling,
like them, to humiliating hopes;
like them, each day I nearly kill myself
just to live.’
Not long ago, I was in Rome, in the slums of Pignetto; a destitute but oddly charming suburb about an hours walk from the bustling and ancient city centre. The buildings seemed coarse and ill-maintained, the people kept their heads down with cigarettes dangling from their lips, heading down to the local butcher or grocery store, exchanging fond smiles and local gossip. Across the streets you see some of the most intricate and striking graffiti that makes Cocker Alley in Melbourne look like mere child’s play with dabbling’s of anti-capitalist, pro-anarchist markings placed in the local schoolyards.
When you walk down the busy streets lined with small, busted up Italian cars into the narrow alleys that define this area of Rome, you will notice a face that commonly rises in this area. His face is painted along the streets and on the small, dilapidated buildings usually paired with the infamous sayings of this leftist rebel. This man’s face is hardened, his cheeks are hollow and his brows are almost constantly furrowed as if in deep concentration, perhaps as if he were staring down a mortal enemy. This face is the intellectual Guevara of Rome’s leftists and it has become so attached to the country’s sense of political fervour as to literally become the face of its poor and disenfranchised.
Born into fascism yet raised by revolution; infamous auteur-provocateur Pier Paolo Pasolini was more than just a filmmaker: he was an artist, a polemicist, a novelist, a poet, a painter and a warrior of his times. Most know him for his scandalous and revolting masterpiece: Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salò or the Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom) (1975) or even perhaps his filmic adaptations of Boccaccio’s The Decameron and Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, but few outside of Italy know him as the great rebel of post-war Italy who turned his own personal battles into his art which would become the spiritual, political and sexual battleground for the new Italy.
Publishing his first volume of poetry at 19 in the Friluli dialect of northern Italy, Pasolini wrote numerous essays, novels and poems. Soon he became a well-respected film director, directing feature films and documentaries with wild acclaim, becoming one of Italy’s foremost intellectuals and writers before being brutally murdered in 1974.
The anger of Pasolini and his politics would no doubt fit well into the political climate of the Trump years, as it is as volatile now as it was during the man’s life time. After the years of fascism, Italy’s Left and Right were deeply entangled within fighting, conspiracy and treachery. The last great figure of the left: Antonio Gramsci, who was imprisoned in the late 30s, was the last great martyr of political speech in Italy at the time. Pasolini was a vehement supporter of the Marxist left, yet also one of its most extreme critics, attacking its pro-Stalinist sympathies and its reliance on the middle class to maintain its social hierarchy. He would fight tooth and nail to keep it away from the dangers of its extremism.
While both a Marxist and prominent atheist, as well as an openly gay man, Pasolini threatened all of the foundations of his country despite maintaining a quiet respect for the imagery of the church and of classical literature. His documentary Comizi d’amore was an attempt to explore and dissect the ‘regular’ Italy, one unburdened by populist politics or defined by strict social classes. He would go around the country asking people on the streets questions on God, family, homosexuality, sex etc. to find what mattered, truly, to the Italian people. In these questions you hear the desperation of Pasolini as he asks these questions, not only asking for the purposes of mere documentation, but to sincerely understand why the country was as divided as it was. His inquisitiveness and his inability to stay silent as an artist and as a public intellectual however, almost always landed him in trouble.
When he was expelled for ‘homosexual behaviours’ from the communist party, Pasolini felt attacked and excluded from people and an institution which, while it was one that he vehemently believed in, he felt had let him down and was still polluted by a dangerous sense of polluted ideology. He spent the next few years writing poetry (his famous Ashes Of Gramsci being one of the high points of his writing career) and publishing two brutally honest novels about the Roman slums which he frequented. His fascination and even love for the Italian lower class led him to write and direct his own films starting with the tantalising Accattone (1961)—as a neo-realist nightmare of lower class pimps and low lives to reconcile themselves with their own faith and sense of belonging in the ‘new Italy’.
His most ambitious projects were of course the most controversial and politically charged. His rendition of the life of Jesus Christ in il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew) (1964) stripped down the overly fetishised catholic portrayals of the last days of Christ. It works with non-professional actors, a basic camera setup and bare minimal sets. Pasolini created a version of the Christ mythology that even unbelievers like myself can understand the literary beauty of such a dense work. Despite this however, its subversive nature is in its lack of general beauty, it made the shit-stained streets of Bethlehem outrageous to believers across the world.
Pasolini’s film making career started with simplistic camera work to portray the politically disenfranchised of the Italian suburbs, then, as he grew more confident with the camera, he became fascinated by ancient mythology and classical literature. Each film of his became in itself a political statement; either about himself, his country, or his own religious beliefs. Watching his films, you can see the evolution of his craft and an evolution of ideology that kept his work so impassioned.
If one target was his country’s obsession for catholic sensibilities and the destruction of it through stripped-down visuals, the other was the control of the bourgeoisie and its strongholds. In Teorama (1968) we have a typical family of the class who invite a young, dashing stranger into their household only for each family member to be slowly seduced and fucked by the beautiful stranger in a wonderful satire of societal sexual norms and assumptions. This includes the mother, the father, the daughter, the son, and yes, even the maid.
Pasolini’s films look and feel unlike any other type of film from the 60s/70s. His camera is mostly stationary or handheld, relaying a certain distinction of reality within each frame. Pasolini had an intense passion for reality, even placing it in mythology such as his stunning adaptations of Oedipus Rex or Medea. His passion with the world and its people was retained through the stark simplicity of his poetry, the polemic prose of his essays and the simple yet beautiful nature of his films.
Yet at Ostia beach, about a 45-minute drive from Rome, there is a memorial to him. A simple yet striking statue over where his body was found: his body broken, his head smashed brutally and his car stolen. The circumstances as to how he was murdered remain a mystery till this very day; whether it be the fact that he had made too many enemies both on the left and the right side of politics, no one can say for sure. Pasolini was a man who lived for scandal, his films are well known in the English speaking world but few know of his extraordinary polemical works, or his incredible life. Rarely has an individual held such an artistic impact on a country. When I was in Florence I found a collection of his poetry in English, which maintains a special place on my all too messy bookshelf. I have read and reread it again and again, and my hope in the power of language and intellectual sincerity becomes renewed. My wish nowadays is to read his work in Italian and fall in love with the work all over again.