100 years of Pasolini: indisputably unrepeatable | The State of Cinema

17 March, 2022

I am a force of the Past.

My love lies only in tradition. (…)

 And I, a foetus now grown, roam about

More modern than any modern man,

In search of brothers no longer alive.

P.P. Pasolini, 1962


On the 5th of March, cinephiles celebrated the 100th birthday of Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975) – or, at least, would have celebrated. The invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation cast its pitch-black shadow across this moment, as well, one that is ultimately almost infinitely more insignificant than the other losses that were swallowed up in the darkness of this shadow: human lives, taken or definitively altered, towns, the hopes of an entire world that was finally seeing the finishing line of the pandemic that also throttled our lives in the past years. Yet, even so, a moment not lacking in importance, even despite the hard times that have, alas, renewed themselves.

Of course, any article written in the memory of a masterly, yet gone filmmaker or artist of the modern age tempts one to make an exercise in imagination and by placing them in the tumultuous present – and it’s a temptation that I can hardly avoid, given the context – that is, of the biggest armed conflict on European territory since 1945, arriving after two years of the plague. Pasolini was a soaring critic of television, at its onset, so I can only imagine how exasperated (at the very least) he would have been by the post-smartphone media landscape; I don’t believe that he would have dissected it like Farocki would’ve (another figure prematurely gone, which the world would have desperately needed in these past years), but he probably would have had a precious insight regarding the war, not limited to the analysis of the political field, but also given the changes in the morphology of moving images. What would he have said about the thousands upon thousands of amateur videos that have made their way onto our very-small screens (capable themselves of creating such recordings) from the front lines—ranging from the most brutal ones to those such as the one in which the military orchestra of Odessa plays a rendition of Bobby McFerrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy? One can only imagine, starting from his myriad editorials and essays that were published in Corriere Della Sera (and collected in Corsair Writings) that, as a survivor of World War Two and an intimate connoisseur & fierce commentator of its long-term effects (especially that of consumerist, global, equalizing, neutralizing capitalism), his words would have been a valuable resource.

A few years ago, as I was chatting with literary critic Mihnea Bâlici, I had the revelation that there are two Pasolinis – the Pasolini of cinephiles, and the Pasolini of bibliophiles. If the latter group has generally seen at least one or a couple of his fiction features (since the filmmaker was also behind an impressive number of documentaries, chiefly amongst them his 1965 Comizi d’amore), the same thing cannot be said of cinephiles, despite the wealth of writings that he left behind, across all major literary genres – poetry, prose, plays, along with essays. As I noted in a brief text that will soon be published in Scena9, at the invitation of Ionuț Sociu, Pasolini refused to be definitively categorized to the detriment of all the denominations of his activities – “What qualification do you prefer? Poet, novelist, debater, scriptwriter, actor, critic, or director” – and instead preferred something “simple: writer”. Those who believe that cinema is the fourth major genre of literature can certainly detect a congruence in this particular thought. Amongst them, Andrei Ujică, who dedicated a short film to him in 2000, which he re-worked and re-released last year.

Pasolini on the set of The Decameron.
Pasolini on the set of The Decameron.

It is particularly the existence – in posterity – of a splintered Pasolini (which is somehow inevitable for a prolific intellectual that left behind such a vast, multidisciplinary body of work – amongst it, 15 feature fiction films shot in just 12 years!), splintered precisely in this manner, makes me wonder why the intellectual model that he embodied did not inspire others to take up a similar praxis (once more, with the possible exception of Farocki, if we’re going for major names) – why are directors (apparently, increasingly) avoiding the Agora, the public space that P.P. confronted, even inflamed so directly in his writing? It seems that most are convinced of the fact that their films speak for themselves, that they’re self-contained (or even self-sufficient) – that the space in which one may make some references to social and political currents is, par excellence, the interview or the public appearance, and writing, when it’s not limited to scriptwriting, seems overwhelmingly limited to the biographical and diaristic spheres, very rarely breaching into literature. (Two things I would like to note here. First, the authors who single-handedly transpose their scripts into prose, like Tarantino with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, mostly choose to write in a straight-forward literary fashion; when Pasolini shot and wrote Teorema in parallel, he conceived them as complementary objects: the book has multiple distinctive episodes, which do more than to simply expand the film’s narrative universe, but are also transgressive in their narration: directly speaking to the reader, fragmenting the narrative, inserting poetic intermezzos and pseudo-journalistic moments, and so on. Second of all, even though one could argue that Cristi Puiu did flirt with publicly commenting on current events throughout the pandemic, regardless of his points – conservative Covid denialism, in his case – and my thoughts upon them, I do not believe that he qualifies because he did not write these comments, but rather chose to broadcast them using by the use of public appearances, be they physical or televised.)

Of course, I’m not thinking about those filmmakers and artists that (still) believe in the supremacy of aesthetics – after all, they’re not the kind of folks people from which you should expect such things, as defunct as the concept may be – but rather, of those who are consciously working with political elements in their work. (Besides, I often find – with exceptions, of course – that authors who are uncompromising in their politics generally tend to master the figurative aesthetics of cinema much better than those who claim to put them on a pedestal.) But the apparent adversity shown by filmmakers towards writing opinion articles, towards directly communicating with the audience, or to generally write anything other than their scripts or memoirs will always be somewhat strange to me; the last few decades have proven to us a fully opposite disposition on the part of writers, who are seemingly more willing than ever to experiment with the means of cinema, all the more so in the post-digital era (lest we get temporally stuck at pioneers such as Jean-Claude Carriere and Graham Greene).

I don’t know to which degree these things might have something to do with a possible disdain towards tangible, day-to-day life events; contemporary art cinema seems to be at a moment of heightened tension between the escapist and politically engaged sides, one that is higher than ever in the last 30 years. But it’s precisely day-to-day life that fueled much of Pasolini’s Weltanschauung – both in his first novel and films, as well as in the final period of his creation, even if under the sign of the ontological, at times demi-godly, mythological status of the characters in his Trilogy of Life. (Which was to be followed by a trilogy of death – of which only Salo survives, along with the notes on an unrealized film inspired by Gilles de Rais, Joan D’arc’s ex-general, who lost his mind after her death and became a mass-murderer after dabbling into occultism; a character that inspired Agustí Villaronga’s 1986 Tras el Cristal.) The reality which he was inspired from as he created his marginal protagonists was not only that of the squalid Roman neighborhood of Rebibbia, it also came from the newspapers and scandals of the day – the brutal ending of Mamma Roma (1962) was an almost 1:1 transposition of the death of Marcello Elisei, a youth who passed away in the Regina Coeli prison in 1959, a tragedy that scandalized the leftist Italian intellectual sphere at the time. And how many other films (just to cite a recent local example – Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn) and artworks (say, grunge music – Polly, Jeremy, Plush, etc.) weren’t also inspired by the daily news? If we were to believe that his “direct”, “confrontational” style turned Pasolini into a controversial intellectual – it might so be that this self-sufficiency that I talked about earlier has much more to do with an aversion to controversy, with an instinct of self-preservation that P.P.P. decided to forgo.

Pasolini on the set of The Decameron, in the role of Michelangelo.
Pasolini on the set of The Decameron, in the role of Michelangelo.

But not just day-to-day life inspired him – it was also the past, as a form of (emotional) regress from a bright, post-war future that failed to become reality in the present, a regress, yet never reaction(ary). The increasingly emergent American-style consumerism and pop culture of the sixties appalled Pasolini, who saw them as the harbingers of the death of the world in which he had grown up, a death that to him sometimes seemed even worse than the one put into motion by Mussolini’s fascists, which signaled the irreversible nature of social atomization and the ascent of mediocrity to the rank of virtue. With his impressive list of (now mostly defunct) infractions that got him arrested – indecency and blasphemy amongst them –, Pasolini not only innovated within his representations of the past, not shying away from explicitly showing violence and sexuality but also seemingly took refuge into it, at one point, recreating worlds that were increasingly distant from a historical and geographical perspective (as he did in Arabian Nights – shot across three continents, from Kathmandu to San’aa); a response to a present that has seemingly aborted the hopes of the past.

But not just day-to-day life – it was also the notions of contrast, of tension, of opposition, of one not just unafraid of being excluded, but also a critic of certain ways of belonging, to various toxic currents, consciously or unconsciously. An atheist that believes the Passion of Christ to be the greatest story ever told. A firm, Gramscian communist, that was kicked out of the respective party. A gay man that was mutilated and brutally murdered by a man to whom he was attracted. An anti-fascist that pulled punches on the neo-Nazis that were waiting for him on the steps of a cinema that was running his film, an anti-fascist writer that indeed interviewed Ezra Pound. A lover of antique mythology and medieval literature that adopted him by drawing upon resources that were entwined with that of realism. A former blasphemer that was now cherished by the Vatican as the author of the greatest film about the Messiah in history. „I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.”

Maybe an intellectual that will tower as tall as Pasolini – not one identical to him, but reaching for the same expansive, explosive, transgressive intellectual ambition that is not only limited to cinema – still has the time to be (re)born from the embers of these ashen years. At least, this is what I can hope for.

Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short film festival - BIEFF, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. At Films in Frame, she writes the monthly editorial - The State of Cinema and is the magazine's main festival reporter.