Though Pier Paolo Pasolini has a reputation as a great filmmaker, there seems to be no consensus on which of his films are classics, or on what qualities make them great. Many of Pasolini’s contemporaries have at least one commonly agreed-upon essential work that is (rightly or wrongly) treated as critical shorthand for their style. Jean-Luc Godard has Breathless (1960), Francois Truffaut has The 400 Blows (1959), Michelangelo Antonioni has L’avventura (1960), John Cassavetes has Shadows (1959), and Federico Fellini has both La Dolce Vita (1960) and 8 ½ (1963). While a number of Pasolini’s works have earned substantial critical praise, none of them are as famous as the aforementioned films, and none of his works has been singled out as a definitive representation of a consistent aesthetic. While Pasolini is frequently cited by critics and film buffs as an important figure, it seems that his work is somehow more respected than it is well-known.
Perhaps the reason for Pasolini’s somewhat ambivalent cultural status is that it seems that he evolved quickly, changing his aesthetic according to the needs of each individual film. There are certain thematic concerns that do carry over from one Pasolini film to another, and from these it is actually fairly easy to discern the director’s lifelong obsessions. Yet these fixations often seem contradictory, as if Pasolini spent his career as a filmmaker trying to figure out what his point of view was. Pasolini was a gay man with a mother fetish, a Marxist who dabbled in Christian worship, a middle-class citizen with a deep respect for the poor, a realist with a love for fantasy and spirituality, and a forward-thinking taboo-breaker whose films tended to be set in the past. Each of these concerns figure into most of the Pasolini films I’ve seen (seven of his twelve features), but because the contradictions in Pasolini’s recurring themes are never resolved, these obsessions don’t add up to any sort of obvious composite portrait of who the director was. Many of Pasolini’s films are based around classic texts which are then tailored to the director’s unique fixations and social concerns. But even taking these common aesthetic traits into account, it is hard to see how something like the neorealist, earthy The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) could’ve been made by the same filmmaker as the deliberately controlled, brutally hopeless Salo (1975).
With his myriad contradictions and his chameleonic filmic style, Pasolini is an ideal subject for Understanding Auteurs. His is one of the most confounding bodies of work in the history of cinema, and sorting out his many competing ideas – or at least figuring out Pasolini’s approach to exploring those contradictions – should be fascinating whether it ultimately proves illuminating or mystifying. This will be a somewhat incomplete study by default, as I’ll only be looking at his twelve feature films (and his most notable short, 1963’s La ricotta) and not his documentaries, many of which are difficult to find. Pasolini was also a controversial novelist, poet, and essay-writer – with the exception of Orson Welles, it’s hard to think of a filmmaker who was accomplished in so many fields – and ignoring Pasolini’s literary works will obviously have its disadvantages when trying to understand his oeuvre.
Given the difficulties inherent in Pasolini’s cinema, it is somewhat surprising that the director began his filmmaking career with two relatively straightforward examples of Italian neorealism. Though Pasolini hated the term neorealism, his debut film, Accattone (1961), is undeniably an example of the genre. The definition of neorealism offered by Wikipedia could double as a vague yet accurate description of Accattone: “…(a story) set among the poor and the working class, filmed on location, using nonprofessional actors.” Vittorio (the magnetic Franco Citti), a low-rent pimp nicknamed Accattone (street slang for “beggar”), drifts through the film, splitting his time between bullshitting with his friends and dealing with various hazards of his profession. The story, such as it is, mostly revolves around Accattone’s various, constantly thwarted attempts to go strait. Like most neorealist films, Accattone is less focused on narrative than on realistically capturing the life of poor Italians struggling to get by in post-WWII Italy.
Accattone succeeds marvelously as a convincing depiction of everyday life among Rome’s petty criminals and poor workers. Simply taken as a slice of life, Pasolini’s debut is nearly as compelling as Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist standard bearer Bicycle Thieves (1948) and far less melodramatic than Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945). Even the faces of the people appearing in Accattone seem somehow more authentic than they do in the average movie. Though many of the actors in the supporting cast deliver rather stilted line readings, their awkwardness in front of the camera paradoxically seems to make their performances feel more realistic than any professional work could manage. For the most part, the events of the film unfold in a natural rhythm that gives a genuine feel for the daily lives of the characters. By the end of Accattone, the anguish that the street hustlers hide as they laugh through their directionless daily activities is palpable.
The film includes many memorable scenes that realistically convey the characters’ plight with a tragicomic tone that is enormously engaging. A scene where Accattone conspires to eat most of the small amount of spaghetti that he and three equally starving friends are cooking is particularly amusing, though even as the viewer laughs the full tragedy of the friends’ situation is unavoidable. There are a handful of moments where it seems that Pasolini is straining to make a point – as in Claude Chabrol’s contemporaneous Les bonnes femmes (1960), it sometimes feels like the film is exaggerating the boorishness of the male characters’ attitudes toward women to the detriment of the film’s credibility – but in the context of lower-class Italian culture circa 1961, the characters’ dated attitudes toward gender issues are probably fairly accurate.
Pasolini’s direction is fairly basic; aside from a strikingly beautiful recurring use of Bach’s Saint Matthew’s Passion on the soundtrack, the first-time director seems to mostly be working from a “neorealism 101” handbook. The director also falters in his one major break with neorealist convention, an awkward dream sequence toward the end of the film that clumsily underlines the themes of inescapable poverty that Accattone otherwise handles with such grace and subtlety. Despite this one truly flawed scene, Accattone is a tremendously impressive debut film. The film genuinely feels like “poetry written with reality,” and its unsentimental tone manages to stave off the melodramatic tendencies that mar the supposed truthfulness of many neorealist films.
Mamma Roma (1962) is a logical follow-up to Accattone. While Pasolini’s second film once again takes neorealism as a stylistic jumping off point, it has a more dynamic tonal range, a more ambitious scope, and more assured direction than his debut. Franco Citti once again appears as a pimp, perhaps as a nod to his debut role, but the focus of the film is on spirited call girl Mamma Roma (Anna Magnani) and her troubled son Ettore (Ettore Garofolo). Mamma Roma claims to be retired from her profession, but her plans to move with her son to Rome are continuously thwarted by her lack of bourgeois social skills and by her son’s petty thievery.
Once again Pasolini captures early-‘60s Italy with a cinema verite sense of realism, but the tenor of the film is complicated by his treatment of Mamma Roma and Ettore as simultaneously realistic and iconic figures. Pasolini reportedly regretted casting Magnani in the title role, as he preferred to work with nonprofessionals and she apparently disregarded many of his suggestions, but her boisterous, full-bodied performance doesn’t make her seem out of place in this mostly amateur cast. Even though it is evident that Magnani is a more skilled actress than everyone around her, her performance has a remarkable lack of obvious polish. Garofolo also makes his character feel like a real human being, albeit in the opposite way that Magnani does; like the amateur cast of Accattone, his true nature comes through almost because of his lack of thespian skills. His seeming embarrassment in front of the camera makes Ettore’s shyness around love interest Bruna (Silvana Corsini), as well as his awkwardness around the bourgeois Romans whom his mother tries to get him to befriend, palpable.
Layered on top of Mamma Roma’s verisimilitude is a mythic, spiritual element that seems like a big departure from neorealist orthodoxy. Pasolini believed that the middle-class luxuries that were becoming increasingly prevalent in Italy in the ‘60s were destroying the country’s spirituality and that only the working class were in touch with Italy’s peasant and religious roots. He hinted at this religious dimension in Accattone, both with his use of Bach’s Christian-themed music and with the title character assuming a Christ pose before diving into the river, but this thematic element is much more pronounced in Mamma Roma. The wedding party in the beginning of the film is shot in a way that deliberately recalls The Last Supper, and Mamma Roma and Ettore are frequently depicted as modern versions of the Virgin Mary and Christ. After Ettore is arrested for petty thievery toward the end of the film, he is placed on a wooden slab in a crucifixion position, with a Vivaldi spiritual playing on the soundtrack. Depicting the Virgin Mary as an aging prostitute and Christ as an incorrigible young thug may seem blasphemous – and this element of the film may explain why Pasolini was attacked by fascists as its premier – but it is clear when watching Mamma Roma that Pasolini is not treating his themes irreverently. While his conflation of the everyday working class and heavenly religious figures is certainly provocative, it is obvious that Pasolini cares deeply about the relationship between God and man and truly feels that only the poor are in touch with this partnership.
Pasolini proves up to the task of conveying this strange but potent mixture of realistic and iconic tones. While Accattone is a terrific film in many ways, it appears that Pasolini’s main skill as a director at that point was to stay out of the way of his material, with the awkwardly handled dream sequence being the only obviously “directed” scene in the film. Mamma Roma continues the first film’s documentary look, but also uses that aesthetic in some very beautiful and subtly ambitious ways. The highlight of the film might be a lovely reverse tracking shot that follows Mamma Roma down a street as she relates her life story to a revolving succession of strangers who join her under the lamp flickered night sky. There are a number of other examples of terrific black and white cinematography in the film, with Ettore’s quasi-crucifixion standing out in particular. With his second film, Pasolini turns the priorities of neorealism on their head, using reality to convey the spiritual psychology of the underclass characters that he refuses to sentimentalize but obviously has a lot of genuine affection for.
UP NEXT La ricotta and The Gospel According to St. Matthew