Let's start off first with two career overviews, the first published in Foreign Affairs: The National Society of Film Critics' Guide to Foreign Films, Schulz Huffhines, Kathy (Ed.). San Francisco: Mercury House, 1991. This overview has been made available online at Michael Bayley's website Spirited Away. The second overview, "Problems With Pasolini", was originally published at The Soho News (June 4, 1980) and has been replicated on Rosenbaum's website.
Foreign Affairs: Overview
The critical neglect in the U.S. suffered by an Italian filmmaker as important as Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-75) undoubtedly stems in part from the fact that he was in equal measure a Christian, a Marxist, and a homosexual—not to mention an intellectual who was fully aware of the contradictions inherent in being all of these things at once. It isn't surprising that the serious attempts in his work to reconcile these three identities often created a scandal—compounded by the fact that roughly half his features were adaptations of classics in world literature. But what is often overlooked is the degree to which this poet, novelist, theorist, and essay writer remained in the forefront of modern European cinema throughout his career. The mentor of Bernardo Bertolucci and the favorite living director of Sergei Paradjanov, he remains a vital and challenging figure whose collected works—including, paradoxically, his movies set in the remote past—constitute a dramatic and persuasive vision of the contemporary world.
Nights of Cabiria), Pasolini started out in Accattone (The Scrounger, 1961) as a radical stepson of neo-realism by adapting one of his own novels, A Violent Life—a passionate account of a pimp living in Pigneto, a squalid suburb of Rome where Pasolini had himself lived during the forties. Inspired by the frescoes of Masaccio and Giotto, Pasolini gives notice at the outset that his intention isn't merely to reproduce life as he sees it, but to render it with a sense of poetry and gravity that can only be described as religious.
Indeed, he first attained worldwide notoriety with his stark and unconventional The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) which retells the story of Christ to the strains of Bach, Mozart, Prokofiev, Webern, African music, American blues and spirituals, and Russian revolutionary songs. His next feature, Hawks and Sparrows (1964)—a comic free-form essay in the form of a picaresque journey taken by an old friar (Totò) and a young novice (Pasolini regular Ninetto Davoli) accompanied by a talking raven—provides both an excellent introduction to Pasolini's work and one of his finest inventions. A delightful, provocative adventure that is set alternatively—and at times simultaneously—in the year 1200 and the present, it is the only film that comes to mind which starts off with singing credits, and it clearly gives the lie to any suspicions that Pasolini's underlying seriousness was uninflected by any sense of fun or wit.
Beginning in the ancient past and ending in the present, Pasolini's powerful Oedipus Rex (1967) may well be the strongest of all his classical adaptations, although his subsequent encounters with Greek tragedy both completed in 1970—a Medea featuring the only film performance of Maria Callas (in a non-singing part), and Notes For An African Oresteia, a short feature with an original score by Gato Barbieri—should also be noted.
Teorema (Theorem, 1968) probably remains the most influential of all Pasolini's films. It grew out of notes for a verse tragedy that also yielded a novel written partially in verse, and it describes the arrival of a divine visitor (Terence Stamp) in a contemporary bourgeois household, his subsequent seduction of all four family members and the maid (Massimo Girotti, Silvano Mangano, Anne Wiazemsky, Andrès José Cruz Soublette, and Laura Betti), and the subsequent traumas and convulsions created by his less mysterious departure.
Significantly, Teorema was Pasolini's last feature with a contemporary setting. Loathing everything that the modern world had become, he turned next in his acclaimed "Trilogy of Life" to a celebration of guiltless paganism in other eras, beginning with the erotic Decameron (1970), continuing with the scatological Canterbury Tales (1971), and ending with his very carnal and sensuous Arabian Nights (1974). He then concluded his career, before being brutally murdered, with his most extreme film, Salò (1975), an adaptation of The 120 Days of Sodom that transposes the Marquis de Sade's eighteenth-century novel to fascist Italy in 1944. As Pasolini described his intentions in a self-interview, "Aside from the metaphor of the sexual relationships (obligatory and ugly), which the tolerance of consumeristic power imposes on us nowadays, all the sex in Salò (and there is an enormous quantity of it) is also a metaphor for the relationship between power and those who are subjected to it."
"Problems With Pasolini" Overview
"The problem with Pasolini," a friend observed to me succinctly many years ago, "is that he wants to be fucked by Jesus and Marx at the same time." A "pre-industrial," populist poet and novelist from northern Italy whose relation to the Catholic Church and the Italian Communist Party were as passionately idiosyncratic as the homoeroticism of his films, Pasolini remains, nearly five years after his brutal murder, an indigestible provocateur in relation to our culture—someone who can be neither entirely absorbed nor totally rejected, but lingers like a troubling, irritating sore.
Pigpen (1969) and Salò (1975), on the other hand—two somewhat related and much less hopeful movies about the worst in us—are still around to demonstrate what makes this director so problematical.
Salò, I should confess, is the only conceivably great film that I can think of that I've felt no strong desire to see more than once: rightly or wrongly, I decided that the one time I saw it (at La Pagode in Paris, four years ago) was more than enough. Pigpen I've seen twice: at the 1969 New York Film Festival, and late last month (through the courtesy of New Line Cinema, its 16mm distributor); and neither time has it seemed like a great film, or even a very good one—although it sure smacks a lot of the late 60s now.
Accatone (The Scrounger, 1961)
[Accatone achieved Rosenbaum's list of essential films for 1961.]
Mamma Roma (1962)
The Chicago Reader and
The least known of Pier Paolo Pasolini's features in this country also happens to be one of his best. It stars Anna Magnani at her most volcanic, hyperbolic, and magnificent as a Roman prostitute trying to go straight and provide a respectable middle-class existence for her teenage son. Interestingly enough, while the slums of Rome were Pasolini's essential turf, he dealt with them directly only in his first two films, Accattone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962), turning mainly to period films and allegories in his subsequent movies. But the ultimate rejection of the bourgeois and petit bourgeois world is as total in the subproletarian milieu of this film as it would be in his later work.
* * *
Pasolini and Fassbinder were both maverick leftists who often alienated other leftists as well as everyone on the right, and both had a taste for rough trade, but in terms of their generations (Pasolini was born in 1922, Fassbinder in 1946) and cultural reference points they were radically different. The only reason to compare them now is to note how much their reputations and visibility have changed here over the last two decades. In 1995 Fassbinder is much less a household name in the United States than either Jean-Luc Godard or Andy Warhol, the two artists he was most often compared to when he was alive, whereas Pasolini has much more currency. For one thing, nearly all of Pasolini's features are available on video, and nearly all in their original screen formats—a fact that separates him from Fellini, Antonioni, and Rossellini. (All that's missing of his filmography in this country are most of the shorts, many of them major efforts.)
It's unlikely that Pasolini is as important as these three other Italian filmmakers, though as a writer his reputation is well established. (Only a few years ago Alberto Moravia called him "the greatest Italian poet of the second half of the 20th century.") But he remains a key figure to many major filmmakers. One of the crucial episodes in Nanni Moretti's recent Caro diario is Moretti's visit to the site of Pasolini's murder, and when I once asked the late Armenian master Sergei Paradjanov (Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, Sayat Nova) what filmmakers were important to him, he reflected for about half an hour on why such directors as Luis Buñuel and even his friend Andrei Tarkovsky were too middle-class, then settled on Pasolini as the only contemporary he respected without qualification. Orson Welles, who appeared in a Pasolini short made immediately after Mamma Roma, was surprisingly respectful: "Terribly bright and gifted. Crazy mixed-up kid, maybe—but on a very superior level. I mean Pasolini the poet, spoiled Christian, and Marxist ideologue. There's nothing mixed-up about him on a movie set."
As a poet and novelist and in particular as a newspaper writer, Pasolini enjoyed an influence on Italian culture that would be unthinkable for an American intellectual, but scandal followed him there as it followed him everywhere else, and its impact was international. I'll never forget the strident, hysterical hooting of professional critics at a late-60s New York press screening of Pasolini's remarkable Teorema, a deadly serious parable about a contemporary Christ figure (Terence Stamp) seducing every member of an Italian household—father, mother, sister, brother, maid—then disappearing, thereby traumatizing everyone in a different fashion. This movie floored me at the time with its brute eloquence as well as its simple audacity, but it brought irate responses from some of my friends. "The trouble with Pasolini is he wants to be fucked by Jesus and Marx at the same time," one of them said, and she certainly had a point; it's hard to think of another artist for whom Marxism, Catholicism, and homosexuality were at once so urgent, so alive, and so outrageously interdependent.
Mamma Roma was Pasolini's second feature, made five years before Teorema. It's a good deal less provocative, but it remains one of his better features—and until Martin Scorsese decided to release it, it was the only one that hadn't been distributed in the United States.
Anna Magnani saw Pasolini's Accattone in 1962 and decided she wanted to make a feature with him. Pasolini spent three weeks writing a vehicle for her, then began shooting almost immediately. What emerged from their encounter was not entirely satisfactory to either of them, but it remains a landmark in both their careers. A grande dame and something of a prima donna, Magnani is best known today for her films with Rossellini (Open City, The Miracle), Visconti (Bellissima), and Renoir (The Golden Coach), as well as for her 50s forays into Hollywood opposite Marlon Brando (The Fugitive Kind), Burt Lancaster (The Rose Tattoo), and Anthony Quinn (Wild Is the Wind). She was arguably as much an auteur as Pasolini, and the results of their collaboration are a good deal more memorable than his subsequent teaming with Maria Callas on the 1970 Medea.
"In Pasolini's first films, upward mobility is a descent into hell," writes critic P. Adams Sitney in his recent book Vital Crises in Italian Cinema. And because upward mobility is all that the title heroine of Mamma Roma really aspires to—trying to find a "better" life for her son than she's managed for herself, edging him into the lower middle class—this would be a tragic story even if she succeeded. A former prostitute, she joyously attends the rural wedding of her pimp Carmine (Franco Citti) and a respectable country woman in the film's opening scene: the event signals not only the official end of her servitude but the opportunity to collect her teenage son Ettore (Ettore Garofolo)—who knows nothing about her work—from the countryside and bring him to an apartment she's found for them in the public housing of a Roman suburb. She eventually finds work selling fruits and vegetables in an open market and, with the help of a prostitute friend, begins stage-managing Ettore's sex life—steering him away from a promiscuous older woman and single mother—and conniving to get him the right sort of job, as a restaurant waiter, through an elaborate blackmail scheme. But by this time Carmine, who's left his wife, turns up at her flat demanding that she give him money even if she has to return to prostitution to get it—and threatening to tell Ettore about her past if she refuses.
Pasolini began his filmmaking career as a postneorealist: Citti and Garofolo, like most of the other actors in the film except Magnani, were working-class nonprofessionals whom he more or less pulled off the street. In fact Citti, whom Pasolini had also cast in Accattone, was arrested and put in prison during the shooting of Mamma Roma; Pasolini refused to replace him, holding up the production until Citti was released. When he discovered Garofolo, Pasolini wrote: "It was beautiful, like finding the last verse, the most important, of a poem, like finding a perfect rhyme." But Magnani came from the petite bourgeoisie, and the fact that her character—"Mamma Ro," as most of her friends in the film call her—aspires to that class when the actress was actually of it was apparently the source of most of the problems between her and Pasolini.
Open City (1946)—the film that made her famous, and a favorite of Pasolini's—Magnani plays a courageous partisan during World War II who's killed by the Nazis while carrying an unborn child. It's been noted that if she and her child had both lived, they might well have become Mamma Roma and Ettore; certainly they're the right ages. But Pasolini's film communicates an acute pessimism about Italy that makes it as much a critique of Open City as a sequel to it. That pessimism continued to the end of his life and career: ultimately he rejected contemporary settings entirely. For him consumer culture and the obliteration of the Italian peasantry were two sides of the same ugly coin; he set his last picture, Salò, during the final days of Italian fascism and gave his pessimism apocalyptic overtones.
For all its direct emotional power, Mamma Roma is choppy and often somewhat disjointed as storytelling. The viewer is frequently confused about how much time has passed between sequences, and the dramatic confrontations that the story seems to demand and promise—such as a scene between mother and son after he discovers her prostitution—are often left out.
Yet Mamma Roma remains a delicate and at times beautiful work. For all Magnani's volcanic eruptions in an exuberant bravura performance, this tragedy often seems to have been perceived from a certain distance; the music we hear is mainly Vivaldi (Concerto in D Minor and Concerto in C Major), and Pasolini's sources for the look of the film came from art history rather than other movies.
"That which I carry in my head as vision, as a visual field," he recorded in a diary during the shooting of Mamma Roma, "are the frescoes of Masaccio and of Giotto—the painters I love most along with certain mannerists (for example, Pontormo)." It's a tribute to Pasolini's conception that these classical references seem more natural outgrowths of the story than contrivances imposed on it. When Ettore toward the end is linked to images of the crucified Christ, it's only after an extended initiation into the brutality of his surroundings has been presented as a calvary. And it seems appropriate that Pasolini's final image of blighted urban wasteland, a vacant lot surrounded by grimy buildings and a church, should reverberate like an El Greco.
Gospel According to Matthew (Il Vangelo secondo Matteo, 1964)
The Chicago Reader has been archived at his website.]
There's no question that [Mel Gibson's] The Passion of the Christ has affected some people profoundly, but that may be caused partly by the unfamiliar experience of seeing a mainstream film that rejects entertainment for serious inquiry and English for foreign tongues. If the film industry had more brains and more knowledge of cinema history, this audacious black-and-white 1964 masterpiece by the great Italian poet Pier Paolo Pasolini would be out in a major rerelease right now as a meaningful alternative. Shot in southern Italy with a nonprofessional cast, and powerfully using both classical music and blues, this highly political interpretation of the passion is as scandalous in its own way as Mel Gibson's but more poetic, more contemporary in its impact, and more serious in its overall morality. In Italian with subtitles. 137 min.
Hawks and Sparrows (Uccellacci e uccellini, 1966)
[Hawks and Sparrows made Rosenbaum's 1966 List of Essential Films. Aside from his comments in the overviews above, Rosenbaum employs Hawks and Sparrows to create a less-than-favorable contradistinction to Abbe Wool's Roadside Prophets. He writes at his site: "At its worst, this registers like an unconscious parody of Easy Rider; at its best, it suggests a flea-bitten yahoo version of Pier Paolo Pasolini's Hawks and Sparrows."]
Oedipus Rex (Edipo Re, 1967)
The Chicago Reader has been archived at his website. Oedipus Rex made Rosenbaum's 1967 List of Essential Films.]
One of the most underrated, neglected, and powerful of Pier Paolo Pasolini's features, this 1967 film, shot in Morocco, is a retelling of the Sophocles tragedy that begins in antiquity and ends in the 20th century, with references to both the fascist period in Italy and Pasolini's own life. With Franco Citti, Silvana Mangano, and Alida Valli. In Italian with subtitles. 119 min.
Teorema (Theorem, 1968)
[Rosenbaum ranked Teorema as one of his essential films for 1968 and capsulized his initial thoughts for The Chicago Reader, fleshing them out later in the summer of 2000 with his contribution to a coffee-table book edited by Geoff Andrew that was published the following year, Film: The Critics' Choice (New York: Billboard Books), made subsequently available on his website. He took another look at the film when it was released on DVD for his "Global Discoveries on DVD" column for Cinema Scope.]
Apart from his final feature, Salò, this is probably Pier Paolo Pasolini's most controversial film, and to my mind one of his very best, though it has the sort of audacity and extremeness that send some American audiences into gales of derisive, self-protective laughter. The title is Italian for "theorem", in this case a mythological figure: an attractive young man (Terence Stamp) who visits the home of a Milanese industrialist and proceeds to seduce every member of the household—father, mother (Silvana Mangano), daughter (Anne Wiazemsky), son, and maid (Laura Betti). Then he leaves, and everyone in the household undergoes cataclysmic changes. Pasolini wrote a parallel novel of the same title, part of it in verse, while making this film; neither work is, strictly speaking, an adaptation of the other, but each deals with the same elements, and the stark poetry of both is like a triple-distilled version of Pasolini's view of the world—a view in which Marxism, Christianity, and homosexuality are forced into mutual and scandalous confrontations. It's an "impossible" work: tragic, lyrical, outrageous, indigestible, deeply felt, and wholly sincere.
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The "theorem" of the title is a mythological figure whose arrival is heralded by Pasolini's favorite fetish-actor, Ninetto Davoli, bringing a telegram to the home of an industrialist (Massimo Girotti). An attractive young man in tight-fitting trousers (Terence Stamp) then pays an extended visit, proceeding with solicitous devotion to seduce every member of the household—father, mother (Silvana Mangano), teenage daughter (Anne Wiazemsky), somewhat older son (Andrès José Crux), and maid (Laura Betti)—to the recurring strains of Mozart's Requiem Mass and a modernist score by Ennio Morricone.
Then the stranger leaves as mysteriously as he came, and everyone in the household undergoes cataclysmic and traumatic changes. The provincial maid, whom he saved from suicide, returns to her village, meditates, and eventually levitates. The daughter goes into a catatonic trance, the mother begins to pick up young men on the street, and the son retreats to his room and paints in a wild, chaotic fashion that includes urinating on one of his canvases. The father not only gives away his factory to its workers but takes off all his clothes in the middle of Milan's Central Station and is later seen trekking across a desert, howling like a wounded animal. Pasolini may have been as much in conflict with his own divided nature as any of his characters.
Stuart Hood (who translated Pasolini's novel) suggests may be "Pauline misogyny that informs Pasolini's attitude towards his women characters" and what film theorist Richard Dyer describes as "the association of gay sex with humiliation" makes Teorema even more politically unacceptable today than it was three decades ago.
While he was making this film, Pasolini wrote a parallel novel of the same title, part of it in verse; neither work is strictly speaking an adaptation of the other but a recasting of the same elements, and the stark, utterly sincere poetry of both is like a triple-distilled version of Pasolini's personal view of the world—a view in which Marxism (as opposed to communism), Christianity (as opposed to the Catholic church), and homosexuality are forced into mutual and scandalous confrontations. The style is eclectic but never dilettantish. To emphasize the importance of Stamp's arrival—seen in Old rather than New Testament terms, with a citation from the book of Exodus—the film begins silently and in black and white, moving to sound when Davoli appears, then to color with the entrance of Stamp.
* * *
Boudu [sauvé des eaux] in reverse—who mysteriously arrives as a welcome guest at a bourgeois household in Milan and proceeds to seduce every one there in turn—father (Massimo Girotti), mother (Sylvana Mangano), son (Andrès José Cruz), daughter (Anne Wiazemsky), and housemaid (Laura Betti)—more or less driving all of them crazy in a different fashion (different both in the separate craziness of one from the other and from the way Boudu drives everyone crazy in his own bourgeois household). The housemaid eventually becomes a kind of martyred saint and levitates; the mother winds up a nymphomaniac; the daughter turns catatonic; the son, a painter, abandons his work and winds up pissing on a canvas. The father, an industrialist, turns over his factory to his workers, quietly strips in the middle of the Milan train station in the final sequence, and is last seen wandering naked through a volcanic desert near Mount Etna, screaming his head off. It's the film of someone who, as a friend noted at the time, actually wanted to be fucked by Jesus and Marx at the same time. But what I continue to find commanding about it, in spite of everything, is its absolute sincerity about being taken seriously.
It was and is an obvious challenge, and for me it was also one of the first indications, along with Pasolini's previous Hawks and Sparrows (1966) and Oedipus Rex (1967)—the latter two available on DVD from Water Bearer, but not in editions that I have or have seen, as I already have both films, along with much else, on a three-disc set with French subtitles devoted to Pasolini in the '60s—that he might well be a great filmmaker. But the local press was responding to it with a fairly steady stream of hysterical laughter. I can recall seeing and hearing another Times writer at the time, who specialized in celebrity interviews for Arts & Leisure, howling and jeering with particular ecstasy at periodic intervals. I couldn't tell whether he or anyone else was having a good time, but I doubted it. The nervous atmosphere was akin to what I remember from my Alabama childhood whenever a grown man was seen crying in a movie, and the male teenagers in the audience felt called upon to express their derision, seemingly out of emotional self-protection.
The extra that I find conspicuously and lamentably missing from this DVD—and which I suspect might have been incorporated if Masters of Cinema had handled the assignment—is Stuart Hood's '90s English translation of the novel Teorema, Pasolini's last. Written concurrently with the filming, it offers a fascinating alternate version of the same narrative, with some portions rendered in prose, some in poetry—not at all a "novelization" in any normal sense, but a complex, multidimensional rethinking and recasting of the same material. Hood's introduction to his translation, incidentally, offers the same legitimate critical point that Nowell-Smith makes: that Pasolini's brand of implicit misogyny limits his treatment of the women in the plot, especially the mother and daughter.
Pigsty, aka Pigpen (Porcile, 1969)
"Problems With Pasolini", archived at his website.]
Two contrasting and mutually reflecting and enhancing stories about consumption. One, set in contemporary Germany and featuring Jean-Pierre Léaud and Anne Wiazemsky (both dubbed into Italian), is about the son of a former Nazi who forsakes his fiancee to have sex with pigs; the other, set in the Middle Ages, features Pierre Clémenti starving in the desert and eventually resorting to cannibalism. This isn't one of Pasolini's greatest films, though it's possibly the one that today best shows the warp and woof of its period.
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Pigpen intercuts two horrific stories. In one, a silent, starving hippie (Pierre Clémenti) in a vaguely medieval period, wandering through a striking volcanic wasteland (a splendid location used at the end of Pasolini's 1968 Teorema), becomes a cannibal and attracts a band of followers, all of whom are caught and sentenced to death by representatives of the Church. Just before he's tied down to be devoured by dogs—a fate only discreetly hinted at in long shot—the hero utters one sentence several times: "I killed my father, ate human flesh, and I tremble with joy."
In the other story, a talkative, wealthy, German hippie named Julien Klotz (Jean-Pierre Léaud, with an Italianate fringe of beard), son of a powerful industrialist, pontificates about feeling split between the student revolutionaries and the conformists to an adoring, radical admirer (Anne Wiazemsky) in and around a palatial mansion. Then, as he goes into and out of a cataleptic coma, his father (Alberto Lionello, with a Hitler moustache), learns from a private detective (Marco Ferreri) that a competitor he's planning a merger with (Ugo Tognazzi) is a former Nazi butcher with a facelift, while the former Nazi learns from his own private detective that Julien, an apparent virgin, has been regularly fucking a pig. As the magnates celebrate their newly formed joint empire of "beer, buttons, and cannons," a peasant (Ninetto Davoli—a Pasolini standby who also witnesses the demise of Clémenti in the other story) reports that Julien has been eaten alive by a pig. After being assured that not a single trace of Julien is left, the Nazi says, "Okay. Shhh! Don’t tell anyone." End of movie.
The conception of Pigpen remains basically literary, despite the rather mechanical decision to alternate between extreme long shots and close medium shots in both intercut stories. Beyond this repetitive seesawing pattern, the staging of the German story is so subservient to the verbiage that the mindless ricochet between angle and reverse-angle in the dialogue quickly comes to resemble painting with numbers. (The Clémenti sequences work much better in film terms even though they seem to occur east of nowhere, because the volcanic landscape functions at least as an exciting location.) It seems significant that virtually all the horror-show stuff about consumerism, cannibalism, and bestiality is kept stubbornly offscreen, making the movie more of a blueprint or prospectus than a realized construction.
The Decameron (Il Decameron, 1971)
[Rosenbaum's capsule review for The Chicago Reader has been archived at his website.]
Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1971 film of ten tales from the Boccaccio classic represents the first part of his celebrated "trilogy of life," which also includes the less enjoyable The Canterbury Tales and the more enjoyable (though equally questionable) Arabian Nights. Working with an Italian classic, he seems less inclined to transform his material, though what emerges is entertaining, if only in a mild way—rather like Playboy's "Ribald Tales." With Franco Citti and Pasolini regular Ninetto Davoli. In Italian with subtitles. 112 min.
Arabian Nights (Il Fiore delle mille e una notte, 1974)
In his treatment of The Arabian Nights, Pier Paolo Pasolini has created what might be considered his first pagan film—a work in which Western coyness and guilt about sex (and most of the other varieties of 20th Century angst) seem to have mysteriously vanished. Shooting an odd batch of tales within tales in gorgeous sections of Yemen, Ethiopia, Iran and Nepal, Pasolini delves into a sort of fairy-tale anthropology that is often most luminous when it's least comprehensible. The storytelling is ponderous, but the moods are spellbinding. The magic that we usually associate with these tales is kept in the wings until the later sequences and is awkwardly handled when it appears. It's the magic of the people and the places that holds Pasolini's interest, and the quality that most sustains this genuinely other-worldly film is its almost primeval strangeness.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma, 1975)
"Problems With Pasolini".]
Pier Paolo Pasolini's last feature (1975) is a shockingly literal and historically questionable transposition of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom to the last days of Italian fascism. Most of the film consists of long shots of torture, though some viewers have been more upset by the bibliography that appears in the credits. Roland Barthes noted that in spite of all its objectionable elements (he pointed out that any film that renders Sade real and fascism unreal is doubly wrong), this film should be defended because it "refuses to allow us to redeem ourselves." It's certainly the film in which Pasolini's protest against the modern world finds its most extreme and anguished expression. Very hard to take, but in its own way an essential work.
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Salò, which, as the late Roland Barthes pointed out, derives its powerful impact largely from its literalness: staging the tortures of de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom point by point, detail by detail, even though Pasolini enforces a kind of shotgun marriage between this novel and a relatively recent historical phenomenon by situating all his simulated atrocities in the last stronghold of Italian Fascism, established in a town on Lake Geneva in 1943. Like it or not, Salò is a realized work that accomplishes a good deal of what it sets out to do—to appall us with the spectacle of our own worst capacities, and to confront us with the even more disturbing and conflicted responses that this may elicit in us.
If the underlying motto of Jean Renoir's profoundly humanist The Rules of the Game (1939) is that "everyone has his own reasons," the terrible achievement of Pasolini's last work is to turn this notion on its head—assume that everyone can be regarded as an object—and then apply this postulate to the most disgusting antihuman events imaginable, while retaining the Renoir strategy of refusing to take sides.
It is this adamant refusal on Pasolini's part that makes the experience of watching Salò so unbearable—the deliberate absence of a fixed moral perspective from which we can conceivably identify with either side, the torturers or the tortured. Unlike, say, Jack Nicholson's Porky Pig imitations in The Shining, there is nothing in Salò that allows us to feel superior to the people that we're watching, and the lack of this solace soon becomes horrifying.
Pasolini's Short Films
on his website. La Ricotta made Rosenbaum's 1963 List of Essential Films.]
Some of Pasolini's very best work was done in his rarely screened shorts, to judge from the two in this program I've seen: La ricotta (1963), a satire about a big-budget film in progress depicting the Crucifixion, with Orson Welles as the director; and What Are the Clouds? (1968), the offstage meditations of marionettes who are performing Othello. The others in this program: Notes for a Film About India (1968), The Earth Seen From the Moon (1966), and The Paper Flower Sequence (1969).
In his book of essays, Movies As Politics (Berkeley / Los Angeles / London: University of California Press, 1997, p. 184), Rosenbaum recalled a panel discussion held at the New York Film Festival in 1996, where Pasolini "propounding his recently formulated concept of the cinema of poetry, noted, 'For a literary critic, the distinction between the linguistics of prose and poetry are absolutely clear. Each one of us, just by opening a book without even reading it, understands immediately whether the book is poetry or prose.' At this point, Annette Michelson, who was sitting on the same panel, made a one-word comment: 'Lautréamont'—because, as she noted later, 'Lautréamont represents that point in poetry in the nineteenth century when the distinction between poetry and prose begin to break down." For a more complete account of the exchange, Rosenbaum recommends taking a look at Film Culture, no. 42 (Fall 1966): 97-100.
Rosenbaum originally focused on this line of inquiry in his Film Comment essay "The Problem With Poetry: Leos Carax" (May-June 1994), reproduced in Movies as Politics, and archived at his website.
archived at his website—Rosenbaum references Pasolini to strengthen a query: "Stepping back from the specter of Marketplace and University prose, one begins to wonder whether other options are open to film writing. If, according to Pasolini, there is something called a cinema of poetry, can't one also conceive of a poetics of criticism. ...[L]iterature and criticism, art and science, lyricism and precision, rigor and imagination don't have to be nearly as incompatible as these two categories imply."
Pursuing the value of poetry in cinema in his essay "Radical Humanism and the Coexistence of Film and Poetry in The House Is Black"—collected in Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture In Transition (Chicago / London: University of Chicago Press, 2010, p. 265) and archived at his website—Rosenbaum writes: "Despite [Iranian filmmaker Forugh Farrokhzad's] enormous differences (above all, in gender and sexual orientation) from Pier Paolo Pasolini, it probably wouldn't be too outlandish to see her as a somewhat comparable figure in staging heroic and dangerous shotgun marriages between eros and religion, poetry and politics, poverty and privilege—and a figure whose violent death has been the focus of comparable mythic speculations."