Pasolini’s Legacy: A Sprawl of Brutality
By DENNIS LIM
Published: December 26, 2012
“It is only at our moment of death that our life, to that point undecipherable, ambiguous, suspended, acquires a meaning.” So said the filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini in a 1967 interview. The idea that death defines a person has seldom been more vividly illustrated than in the case of Pasolini, whose extraordinary life and work are invariably seen through the prism of his gruesome end.
His mutilated body was found in a vacant lot in Ostia, a suburb of Rome, in 1975. The assumed killer (who later recanted his confession) was a 17-year-old hustler he had picked up.
His colleague Michelangelo Antonioni remarked that Pasolini had become “the victim of his own characters.” Completed weeks before he died, at 53, Pasolini’s last movie, “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom,” an unrelentingly brutal adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s catalog of degradation and torture, came to be viewed, all too neatly, as a death wish.
In other crucial ways, though, the meaning of Pasolini remains undecipherable, ambiguous, suspended. A lapsed Catholic who never lost his religious worldview and a lifelong Marxist who was expelled from the Communist Party for being gay, Pasolini was an artist and thinker who tried not to resolve his contradictions but rather to embody them fully. With his gift for polemics and taste for scandal, he was routinely hauled up on blasphemy and obscenity charges and attacked by those on the left and the right.
The films that brought him international renown are the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of the Modern Art that runs through Jan. 5, but they are only part of the picture. To himself and to many Italians he was above all a poet. He also wrote novels and plays, painted, composed music and published reams of political commentary and literary theory.
The museum series, the most complete Pasolini retrospective in New York in more than two decades, has been supplemented with a poetry and music recital, discussions and other events, both at the Modern and at MoMA PS1, which has a cinematic installation running through Jan. 7. An exhibition of portraits by Pasolini is on view at Location One in SoHo through Jan 5.
Evoking the feverish sprawl of Pasolini’s output, these events make the implicit case that it is difficult to consider any of his works in isolation.
“It’s very hard to put one label on him,” said Jytte Jensen, the curator who organized the retrospective. “He had many essential roles in Italian society, and he was always searching, completely open to different ways of looking at things and not afraid to say he was mistaken.”
Pasolini’s early features “Accatone” (1961) and “Mamma Roma” (1962), shot in the shantytowns around Rome and starring nonprofessionals, followed the Italian neo-realists in deeming the lives of the downtrodden worthy of art. But the pictures went beyond gritty naturalism to incorporate aspects of the sacred and the erotic. (Pasolini’s empathy for his male subjects often encompassed an attraction to them.)
Coming to film from literature, Pasolini viewed cinema as an expressive and flexible form, a language that, as he put it, “writes reality with reality.” Just as he wrote poetry and fiction in a variety of dialects, his movies cycled through a range of styles and tones. The reactions to them were often divided, rarely predictable.
“The Gospel According to Matthew” (1964), a reverential portrait of a revolutionary Jesus, is a film both Christians and Marxists could love. The underappreciated “Porcile”(“Pigsty,” 1969), an allegory on the dead ends of ideology and a black comedy about cannibalism and bestiality, was out of step with the era’s fervent radicalism. It pleased almost no one, least of all the student activists Pasolini had denounced as elitists. (He sided with the working-class police.)
Alongside his features, many of which were staples of art cinema’s golden age, the retrospective gives equal prominence to his shorts and documentaries, which often offer direct glimpses of his mind-set. In “Love Meetings” (1964) Pasolini, like an Italian Alfred Kinsey, travels through the country recording conversations with people of all ages and backgrounds about their sexual behavior and attitudes. “Notes for an African Oresteia” (1970) describes his plan to direct a movie of the Aeschylus myth in post-colonial Africa and captures his ideas (a wounded lioness to represent the Furies) as well as the skepticism of some young African men that presumably led to his decision not to make it.
Changing course often meant repudiating his own work. Pasolini first classified his bawdy medieval adaptations — “The Decameron” (1971), “The Canterbury Tales” (1972) and “Arabian Nights” (1974), collectively called the “Trilogy of Life” and just released in a boxed set by Criterion — as apolitical works, then proclaimed them radical celebrations of carnal pleasure. But when their popularity spawned numerous soft-core imitations, he revised his opinion again and published an “abjuration” of the trilogy.
The clearest thread running through Pasolini’s movies is his mounting disgust with the modern world. He saw Italy’s postwar boom as an irreversible blight, turning the masses into mindless consumers and erasing local cultures. (For Pasolini difference was always to be protected and flaunted.)
His contempt for the Italian bourgeoisie — labeled “the most ignorant in all of Europe” in his 1963 short “La Ricotta” — manifested itself both as critique (in “Teorema” and “Porcile”) and as a retreat into antiquity and myth, with the past sometimes serving as a window onto the present. (Before the “Trilogy of Life” he went through a Greek-tragedy phrase, adapting “Oedipus Rex” and “Medea.”)
Pasolini’s despair reaches its terminal point (in every sense) in “Salò,” which transposes Sade to Mussolini’s Italy, equates consumerism with fascism and strives to be what he called an “undigestible” film, one that utterly resists commodification. (It’s not hard to imagine how Pasolini would have reacted to the comic incongruity of his MoMA series listing Gucci as a supporter. )
While he has no equivalent in the contemporary landscape, Pasolini paved the way for many filmmakers, including Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Derek Jarman, Gus Van Sant and Abel Ferrara (who has been planning a Pasolini biopic for years). The potency of his ideas and the mystery of his murder (which some believe was politically motivated) have captured the imagination of countless writers and artists. There is a cottage industry of investigative books on his death, which has also been the subject of works ranging from Marco Tullio Giordana’s docudrama “Who Killed Pasolini?” to Elisabetta Benassi’s installation “Alfa Romeo GT Veloce 1975-2007,” which evokes the crime scene with a model of Pasolini’s car (and blinding headlights that echo a moment from “Accatone”).
As a postscript to the MoMA show UnionDocs in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is showing on Jan. 13 two essay films on Pasolini’s death and legacy: the artist-architect Alfredo Jaar’s “Ashes of Pasolini” and the experimental filmmaker Cathy Lee Crane’s “Pasolini’s Last Words.”
At the Modern over the next two weeks every screening will begin with a clip of Pasolini discussing the film at hand. Ms. Jensen said these personal introductions were in keeping with the immediacy of his work. “When you’re sitting in a theater watching a Pasolini film,” she said, “you feel he’s speaking directly to you.”