The Italy That Was

Pasolini as wallpaper. Matera, 2015.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s reputation in North America is founded almost entirely on his work as a filmmaker, particularly his medievalist trilogy of box-office hits: The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales and The Arabian Nights. In Italy, he was a central and very public figure in twenty-five years of post-war intellectual life. Besides his work in film — which came toward the end of his interrupted career — he wrote poetry and novels, worked in theatre, social criticism, political theory, social linguistics, and was a journalist.

That more of Pasolini’s prodigious output is not known, or even available on this continent, is due in part to the vagaries of film distribution and book publishing. Virtually all of his work is available in Spanish and French translations; in English, not even Grove Press have seen fit to reprint the two Roman novels Ragazzi di Vita and Una Vita Violenta since his death in 1975, and Random House has only this year issued a collection of poetry. But Pasolini’s unfamiliarity here is surely due as well to the complex nature of contemporary Italian society and Pasolini’s responses to it.

A decent biography could have done much to re-introduce Pasolini to North America. But Enzo Siciliano’s 1978 biography Pasolini, a bestseller in Italy, will largely disappoint the reader who is looking for a sense of Pasolini and the social context of his work. Siciliano, a friend and colleague of Pasolini’s, has written a belaboured volume that purports to be a literary and intellectual overview of the artist’s life and times. If that’s all you want from a biography — if you’re content to have distant and often orthodox psychologizing stand-in for any emotional sense of the subject — you’ll still find Pasolini tough going unless you already know something about Italian Fascism and Italian letters, and have a sense of Marxism and Catholicism as the twin dominant forces in Italian intellectual life. You can’t begin to come to terms with Pasolini’s work without some familiarity with this history; but, perhaps understandably, Siciliano’s book is not the place to begin.

Siciliano begins with an Oedipal reading of Pasolini’s childhood: a close attachment to his mother, who came from a rural petty rentier family; an antagonistic relationship with his father, a Fascist and an officer in the Carabinieri from an impoverished aristocratic family in Emilia-Romagna, where Pasolini spent much of his youth. During the war and the liberation, Pasolini lived with his mother in her homeland of Friuli, an autonomy-minded region in the extreme northeast of the country. It is here that he reconstructs and mythicizes his youth, and we see created one of the matrices of both his politics and his art. Pasolini sentimentally allies himself — “as a sort of mystic act of love,” he says — with a peasant culture already in dissolution: he teaches himself Friulan dialect, publishes vernacular poetry that breaks literary rules, and eventually establishes, in 1946, the Academia di Lenga Furiana in the town of Casarsa. It is here in Friuli too, in his invented maternal locus where the peasants wear red scarves, that Pasolini joins the Communist Party (PCI) and, in 1949, is expelled from it “for moral and political unworthiness” after it is learned that he has had sex with three boys he met at a country festival. Pasolini’s stormy relationship with the Party and constant public scandal were to continue until his death in 1975.

In 1950, Pasolini moved with his mother to Rome, a city that is in a sense the rural capital of Italy. By this time, the integration of Italian society into the post-war capitalism of the EEC is well underway, and Rome is surrounded by shantytowns built by the poor from the agricultural south, the dispossessed of an economy newly centred in the industrial north. Pasolini goes to live and teach in these settlements, and his erotic and aesthetic begin to reform (more ingeniously, I think) around the urban sub-proletariat, rather than around the peasantry. Rome in the ’50s was an exciting place culturally and intellectually, and Pasolini quickly established himself among those trying to construct a new Italian culture after the long and barren years of Fascism. He began to work prodigiously, briefly resuscitating the moribund body of Neo-realism — which had been the cinematic expression of the Resistance — with a series of works that hinge on one another: newspaper articles on everyday Roman life; street research into ghetto dialects; the script for Fellini’s extraordinary Nights of Cabiria; and two novels about the young unemployed males of the shantytowns, Ragazzi di Vita and Una Vita Violenta.

By this time, Pasolini had fully integrated homosexuality into his work as well as his public life. In an article ambitiously titled “Pasolini and Homosexuality,” Richard Dyer chastises the filmmaker for his attraction, on and off the screen, for rough trade. Dyer’s argument is a commonplace one: the eroticization of straight ghetto youth is self-oppressive; it “re-invents the inequalities of heterosexual relationships” and objectifies the male body. These contradictions in Pasolini’s erotic practice are in my opinion intelligently documented and explored in his work. I’d be happier to let them stand.

Though still writing and publishing poetry, by 1960 Pasolini had become interested more explicitly in politics, and had begun to make films. His first two films, Accatone and Mamma Roma, share with his novels not only an underclass subject matter, but also a “vulgarity” of expression that brought criminal charges. Charges of obscenity, pornography, corruption of minors, attempted robbery, harbouring criminals, contempt of religion (and so forth) were brought against Pasolini by the state throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Sometimes, as with Ragazzi di vita, the charges originated in the Prime Minister’s office; as well, charges of immorality and libel were made on what seemed a daily basis by the Church and the right-wing press, which began to use the adjective “Pasolinian” to refer to any setting vaguely low-life or homoerotic. It became difficult, and remained so until his death, to see Pasolini’s movies or to read his books: censorship was imposed both by the state and by apparently organized gangs of fascist youth who continually disrupted screenings of the films and attacked him on the street. The last scandal of all was Pasolini’s brutal murder in November 1975. He was beaten and kicked to death by a hustler he had picked up and taken to a soccer field in the indeterminate outskirts of Rome. It is probable that the hustler was paid to murder Pasolini, and was helped by others. It is certain that the Italian state did everything it could to inhibit the investigation of the murder and conceal the likely involvement of the right.

In turning to the cinema — where he was to do what is doubtless his best work — Pasolini initiates a quest for a form of expression that is crude and violent, chaotic, and most importantly, pre-linguistic. Once the realism of his first two films is behind him, he comes to expect the cinema to be a “Bible of the poor.” Its images were to indicate another, more authentic reality, a reality where what he recognized as the deadly deceptions and compromises of bourgeois society are unthinkable. It is important to note that in Italy bourgeois cultural forms became predominant at a very quick pace during the post-war “economic miracle,” and that this change virtually destroyed the archaic and innocent social formations — such as the peasantry — Pasolini loved so much. Politically Italy was changing too. After the twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956 at which Khrushchev exposed and denounced the crimes of Stalin — the PCI, under the leadership of Togliatti, a follower of Gramsci, consolidated itself to become the most powerful Communist Party outside of Eastern Europe. The populist John XXIII had, in turn, broken the ideological immobility of the Catholic Church with the reforms of the Vatican Council and his encyclical Mater et Magistra, which eased the Catholic hierarchy away from its previously anti-socialist stance and toward a concern with what came to be called “social justice.” By the mid 1960s, then, politics was squarely on the agenda.

Pasolini’s film work during this period — and by this time his literary career had culminated — should be read as direct interventions into an ongoing debate about the future of Italian society and indeed of consumer capitalist society in general. The important works of these years — The Gospel According to Matthew, Uccellacci e Uccellini, Pigpen and Teorema — are nostalgic ruminations on ancient, blissful communism and Christianity that implicitly interrogate the contemporary orthodoxies of Marxism and the Catholic Church. For its part, Teorema is also a frontal attack on the bourgeoisie, in which Terence Stamp plays an erotic figure who appears in the suburban villa of a Milanese industrialist family and proceeds, by way of seducing the entire household, to reduce it to psychological rubble. The Stamp character, Pasolini recalls, was “originally a fertility god, a god of pre- industrial religion. He turned into a generic ultra-terrestial and metaphysical apparition, the Devil or God or a mixture of both. The important thing is that he was authentic and unstoppable. The love he arouses is authentic, and it destroys the bourgeois’ idea of themselves.”

The notion of sex as an inherently pure biological and authentic practice is one Pasolini pursues in The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales and The Arabian Nights, known collectively as the “Trilogy of Life.” After 1968, he is profoundly disillusioned with the accommodationist policies of the PCI. (In a notorious poem entitled “II PCI ai giovani!!” he exhorted the rioting students to “leave liberalism to Bobby Kennedy” and sympathised with the cops, “the sons of the poor”.) Pasolini retreats into the exploration, through three medieval texts, of European and Middle Eastern prehistory. The communal peasant worlds evoked in these movies are prehistorical in the sense that they exist outside of our own developing history; they are an unequivocal denunciation of modern life, which Pasolini rejects as impossible and unlivable. It doesn’t really matter that these worlds never existed, and are in fact as impossible as our present one, for the films are not a political programme. What is important is the imaginary attribution to the past of the freedom so ruthlessly negated by the present.

The pastiches of the trilogy — the most successful of which is the last. The Arabian Nights — recover and reconstruct deep levels of memory and fantasy. Just as the universe drawn in the films is undifferentiated and totalizing, so is sexuality itself: the body is represented without recourse to gender privilege, and sexual desire flourishes polymorphously. This vision, which Alberto Moravia has described as a peasant homosexual Utopia, is perhaps Pasolini’s most specific and profound contribution to sexual politics. The reconciliation of sexual freedom, pagan mythology and peasant culture — so successfully embodied by the lusty and vernacular Ninetto Davoli, with whom Pasolini had fallen in love in 1965 — is, however, an obviously precarious one. Pasolini’s last film, barely finished before his murder, is the brilliant though seriously flawed Salò or 120 Days of Sodom.

It is this last idiosyncratic period of Pasolini’s life that Siciliano is most conspicuously unable to come to terms with. It is an admittedly difficult task, and one compounded by Pasolini’s relentless drive toward individual anarchism and heresy. His notion of sex as a revolutionary force capable of “purifying the bourgeoisie”; his attack on the Radical Party for initiating a referendum on abortion (“I consider it a legalization of homicide… There would practically no longer be any obstacles to heterosexual coupling”); his facile equation of sadism and Fascism in Said — this was Pasolini at his most typically iconoclastic, writing front-page columns in the Corriere Della Sera, Italy’s largest daily. These crusades won him few supporters on the left or the right, and in retrospect seem selfish and regressive (though not, I think, opportunistic, as some of his critics on the left have argued).

A case can be made, then, for Siciliano’s claim that Pasolini in his last years became increasingly isolated, socially, intellectually, and psychologically. Unfortunately, this conclusion, coupled with Pasolini’s promiscuous sexual practice and the vile murder, is read back into his life, all the way back to Friuli and — wouldn’t you know it? — the Oedipal childhood. By the end of Siciliano’s heavy-handed “interpretation” of Pasolini’s life and work, what at first seemed annoyances, when added up damn the entire method as unfair and wrong (at least in the hands of Siciliano: Sartre was enormously successful in his similarly conceived book on Genet). I was prepared to give Siciliano the benefit of the doubt with corny references to homosexuality like the following: “Underneath oozed deadly torments.” But his spuriously delicate and inoffensive treatment of Pier Paolo’s affair with Maria Callas finally belied his tendency to sum up the contradictions of Pasolini’s life as an unbroken cycle of sexual fetishism, scandal, neurosis and the death wish.

I’m afraid those interested in Pasolini’s films would do well to overlook this book altogether and instead consult the British Film Institute’s fine monograph, Pasolini, Oswald Stack’s interviews in Pasolini on Pasolini, and issue 13 of October. As for the rest, read the man yourself: the novels, the collections of essays (particularly Passione e Ideologia and Scritti Corsari), the poetry and, of course, the movies themselves.

In the end. Pier Paolo Pasolini remains a singular figure: a man of indefatigable and violent intellect who loved life so desperately that he challenged every authority in order to envision nothing more — or nothing less — than a world worth living in. As inchoate, tentative and problematic as much of his work is, it has been indispensable in opening up new critical and artistic domains. Contemporary sexual and cultural politics owe a great deal to Pasolini and it is certain that he would have continued to poke at — and indeed to interrogate — the seamless surfaces of Western culture. His death was a serious loss to all of us.

Adapted from The Body Politic (January/February 1983) by Alexander D. Wilson. Photograph courtesy of iltorosanto. Published under a Creative Commons license.