Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Writings on Literature and Arts: the language of cinema, the language of life

16 December, 2022

In spring, I wrote about the existence of “two Pasolinis – the Pasolini of cinephiles, and the Pasolini of bibliophiles”, an observation also inspired by what was then a still very limited number of translations of his writings into Romanian that had appeared until then. Now, at the end of the Pier Paolo Pasolini centennial (which this magazine has also celebrated in both its print and online issues), there is finally an important opportunity for the two major instances of this great intellectual – the filmmaker and the poet – to begin a long-overdue process of unification in the Romanian cultural field. At this year’s Gaudeamus Book Fair, which took place last week, the Tracus Arte publishing house from Bucharest launched two volumes of his writings, which can finally serve the process of completing his image. The first one contains a selection of poems, presented in bilingual format, most of which are published for the first time in Romanian (except for the monumental autobiographical poem “The Poet of the Ashes”, published five years after his death, presented only in Romanian), and is the largest selection of Pasolini’s poems to ever appear on the Romanian publishing market. Although efforts to translate his poetic work have been made in the past – notably in 1988, when the first Romanian translation by Marian Mincu appeared in the anthology titled “Italian Poets of the 20th Century”, published by Cartea Românească – they have always been scattered: poems that have appeared here and there, in print or online magazines (for example, the notable translation by poet and book editor Claudiu Komartin). As such, this volume marks the laying of a long-awaited foundation for understanding not only Pasolini the poet, but also Pasolini the critic, and especially Pasolini the person, while also crucially indicating the point at which the one of the cinephiles and the one of the bibliophiles finally becomes congruent, where the two streams unite into a single flowing river.

These new publications not only complete, but also round off a work that has been available only fragmentarily in the Romanian cultural space, focusing more on Pasolini the novelist, and Pasolini the editorialist: first, Petrolio (“Petrol”, Pontica), a novel left unfinished by his 1975 assassination, published in 1999 by a minor publishing house; then an explosive, but all too brief period of interest from one of the largest Romanian publishers, which led to the publication of the fantastic “Corsair Writings” and the novel “Teorema” (Polirom Bucharest, 2006 and 2007); afterward, it will take more than a decade before the next translation would appear, of his debut novel, “Ragazzi di vita” (“The Street Kids”, Litera, 2018). As I’m not being a literary critic, I can’t claim the right to give a comprehensive review of the volume of poems (other than to leave hints as to what some poems of his you shouldn’t skip when they fall into your hands). Thus, I will especially dwell on the second tome, “Writings on Literature and Art”, in an edition coordinated by Smaranda Bratu Elian (with the contributions of 8 translators), particularly on the autobiographical chapters and on those dedicated to the cinema.

Through their very structure, the “Writings” (the texts of which were collected by Bratu Elian from a total of over 400 that are included in the Italian integral edition) prove the massive breadth of Pasolini’s intellectual interests: ranging from the biographical to the theoretical, from local to universal literature, from poetry to cinema, from hypothesis to analysis. The volume opens with a group of seven texts – of varying lengths and functions – titled “Pasolini on Pasolini” (proof of how much the arts were mixed into the very fiber of his life), a necessary introduction not only because it sketches an (auto)biography, but also because it hints at both the intellectual’s relationship with himself and to the existence of a playful spirit (some of the texts are written in the third person, including a review of his own volume of poems: “Transcend and organize”), at once surprisingly confessional and intimate, especially considering how little of his personal life seemed to seep into his late cinematic works (especially).

For sure, it is well-known that his first two films, Accatone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962) were heavily inspired by Pasolini’s experiences on the outskirts of Rome, where he moved with his mother after the war – but his cinema’s deceptive “escape” into the past in his second phase of filmmaking, deceptive precisely because it suggests the absence of biography (and its interferences). And here it is revealed in overwhelming detail: we learn of the existence of poems about his two great muses, Ninetto Davoli and diva Maria Callas, whom he succinctly, sublimely characterizes in his “review”: “[she is] so famous that this is a trauma for herself and it objectively becomes a problem for anyone who has any connection with her (…) [her] impetuousness leads her to self-destruction and pain” (p.47). In these pages, we find a Pasolini who is torn apart by his famous theological/political contradiction (“I did not believe in God, but I loved, or rather I wanted to love the Church”, p.19, “The religious instincts that were in me led me to communism”, p.20). We also find him describing striking biographical episodes – his relationship with his mother (“the most innocent, harmless and timid being on Earth”, idem), pages about his first literary efforts and the awakening of his anti-fascist conscience as a teenager, about the week (!) that he spent in the army and on the death of his younger brother on the front. Of course, references to his politics are not absent – see, for example, in “Note to Blue-Eyed Ali”, where, speaking in the third person, he describes his early novels as “a quest that precedes (…) the crisis of official Marxism and the profound changes that have occurred in the meantime in the social and cultural structure of the country” (p.33), or “the declaration of equidistance towards two extreme positions objectively represents a support given to the extreme right” (p.53) – but much less than what one can find in the overtly political analyses in “Corsair Writings”: here they serve as a background, one that is sometimes very distant, yet nevertheless always present, rather than an explicit object.

The covers of the two newly-translated volumes, via Tracus Arte.

This first grouping is followed by a series of thematic chapters focused mainly on contributions surrounding literature – “Glimpses of History, Criticism and Literary Theory”, one with writings on Italian writers (from Dante and Petrarch to Italo Calvino and Ezra Pound; perhaps the most hermetic all the chapters for those without extensive knowledge of Italian literature) and a brief one on universal ones. Although short, the latter has a great, heterogeneous, unusual curation: a text on Osip Mandelshtam, one on Constantin Kavafis, another on Flaubert, Pushkin, and Gogol, and one on the letters of Abelard and Heloise (accompanied, extraordinarily, by the constant thought of a possible adaptation focused around two narrative cores – the first, about the relationship of the two to their contemporary philosophical culture, the second, about Abelard’s “Boccaccio-esque” castration). But, of course, these are the pages of a film magazine. So I will concentrate in this last half of the text on the final grouping, even if that means violating Smaranda Elian’s tacit appeal on the fourth cover, where she laments the shadow that these texts cast over her work as a critic and literary theorist: “Pasolini on cinema”.

This last chapter is composed of four theoretical essays and four texts on the works of other filmmakers: Chaplin, Rosselini, Fellini, and Sordi, giving an idea of how he perceived his colleagues. I will concentrate, however, on the first four: stretching over 40 pages of the present volume, where Pasolini uses his vast, impressive theoretical knowledge in the literary field to postulate and, therefore, decode the fact of cinema being a language – only one of the texts is concerned with aspects that are “more pragmatic”, namely “The screenplay as «structure that desires to become another structure»”. Implicitly as well as explicitly, he leads this linguistic excursion to another logical conclusion, namely that life itself is a language: based on “my recurring idea that cinema is identified with life” (p. 311), based on a “Code of Reality”, and that the difference “between reality and cinema is one of temporal rhythm” (p.316). (Elsewhere, an occasion in which the reader attentive to the frequent moments in which he seems to envisage his tragic ending will discover even more fateful expressions – “Until I die, no one will be able to guarantee that they really know me”, p.309).

The first, “The Cinema «of Poetry»”, an article based on a speech given at Pessaro in 1965, that became very popular at its time (for example, it was translated and published in Cahiers du Cinema), but also the most ambitious of the texts presented in the anthology in terms of scope, Pasolini says that, unlike literary, institutionalized language, “cinematic communication (…) seems arbitrary and aberrant” because it does not (or, at least, did not, back then, in times which preceded the democratization of the camera and the digital age) have a “real language” as a referent, as a basis (p. 269), unlike word-based communication. But, he points out, cinematic communication is based on a “system of visual signs” that are natural to humans (mimics, ambiance, memory, and dreams – and how refreshing it is to finally read a comparison between cinema and the oneiric plane that is not romanticized!), which makes it “extremely rudimentary, almost unnatural” and brings it closer to “pre-human, or borderline human manifestations”. Words that would sound pejorative under the heel of any writer other than Pasolini, where they become a (supreme) virtue: here is another reason and means of explaining his attraction to the seventh art, through its resemblance to that primordial, pre-industrial world he always longed for, beyond its resemblance to poetry, which he probes in the pages that follow.

This concern is taken further in “Observations on the long single shot”, where, starting from the amateur footage shot by Abraham Zapruder of John F. Kennedy’s assassination (!), Pasolini begins by postulating the single take as an expression of “subjective perspective” (p.304), which at the same time represents “the maximum realist limit” because it emulates the immanent perception of reality. A theory that would be very interesting to square off with that of Andre Bazin (given that a translation of the second tome of What is Cinema? has also been launched at this year’s edition of Gaudeamus), who saw realism as being the result of the mechanical processes of the camera, which was thus superior to human subjectivity, and as such placed in a dichotomous relationship, in contrast to Pasolini’s integrated view. Beyond that, the latter’s lines also show great acuity and suppleness of thought, an incredible associative mind: after all, this is what it means to use the Zapruder film to postulate a theory (phenomenological in spirit!) not only of the long single shot, but also of montage, of cinematic time, of the subjective/realist dichotomy, and narrativization – both in cinema and film.

It might seem tautological to name the two apart, but in Pasolini’s theory, it isn’t: “just like langue is different to parole” (p.308), cinema is an “infinite long single take”, “a reproduction of the present” (idem), whereas film relies on montage, therefore, on coordination, which is a form of transforming the present into the past, “a past that (…) has all the modalities of the present” (p.309); another good point to put in dialogue with Bazin. Film is, therefore “word without language” (p.310), he immediately continues in “To be is natural?”, the understanding thereof being immanently perceived by the spectator because of its similarity to lived experience: it’s a type of understanding that resembles that of reality itself, he writes. (The logical conclusion of the long single shot? A covert reference to Andy Warhol’s 1964 Sleep, which Pasolini calls “cinema in its purest form”, p.315, however, the fact that it is “long, unmeasured, unnatural (…) causes us to feel horror towards reality”, p.316) In contrast to so many others who explore the idea of cinematic language under the aspect of grammar (although he once did so, see p.313), Pasolini did so under the sign of semiology, one infinitely more rewards in terms of freedom of intellectual exploration than the mere act of searching for taxonomy, for norms and their imposition within this language.

Without lingering too long, or giving too many details due to my sheer ecstasy of coming into contact with these writings, all I can do is urge you to make an end-of-the-year gift to yourself by buying these two wonderful volumes, which have already become indispensable objects in the library of any Romanian cinephile, just one week after their release – they can be ordered on the publisher’s website.

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.