“He was an artist who was engaged in his work and the world, a political and personal activist, constantly rethinking and re-examining his position, and always living in the moment.”
Abel Ferrara on Pier Paolo Pasolini1
“The motivation that unites all of my films is to give back to reality its original sacred significance.”
Pier Paolo Pasolini2
Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini (2014) debuted at the Venice Film Festival last year, 50 years to the day since his subject first presented The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964) at the same festival. Ferrara’s film depicts the final day of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s life, as he prepares to release what will become his most controversial film (the notorious Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom), while preparing to begin a new project.
Those three films come to GFT this month*, and they, along with the insight Ferrara’s film gives to that ultimately unrealised final project, Porno-Teo-Kolossal (Porn-Theo-Colossal), leave the indelible impression of an effervescent intellect. As deliberate and poised as Pasolini’s films are, it’s difficult to imagine a less staid or complacent filmmaker. And yet, over the decades since his death, his films have accrued a canonical arthouse respectability that often belies how provocative they first were and why.
If the austere and poetic beauty of The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964) is undimmed by 50 subsequent years of filmic rending and rendering of the life of Jesus, the impression made by its debut is perhaps a little obscured. The openly gay, anti-clerical atheist Pasolini had first skirted around the subject of Jesus’ life with La Ricotta, his short contribution to RoGoPaG (1963). Based around a typically lavish film production of the Passion, it focuses on the travails of an impoverished bit-player, due to play the penitent thief crucified alongside Jesus, as he struggles to sate his hunger on set.
Having long since set a pattern of provocation and litigation, Pasolini was prosecuted and convicted for “insulting the religion of the state”. Though the conviction was overturned on appeal, the director struggled to persuade authorities or audiences of his good intent, and the ironic, self-reflexive speech he had given the director (Orson Welles), who also reads from Pasolini’s own book, didn’t help:
“[Italy has] the most illiterate masses and the most ignorant bourgeoisie in Europe…. [The average man] is a monster. A dangerous criminal. Conformist, colonialist, racist, slave trader, a mediocrity!”3
In this context, the apparent reverence displayed in The Gospel… was as shocking as its spare aesthetic. The film, as director Derek Cianfrance once claimed, “is essentially a documentary about Jesus.”4 Pasolini’s third film, it built upon the practice the director had established in his first two, Accattone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962), of recruiting untrained, locally-sourced actors. More particularly, Pasolini favoured non-professionals for whom his film would often be their sole acting work. The script is drawn directly from the Gospel of Matthew, with no original dialogue. The film was received so rapturously by the Catholic Church that both right and left wing were appalled. Pasolini, for his part, insisted he was a non-believer “telling the story through the eyes of a believer”5.
10 typically tumultuous years later, Pasolini had enjoyed a period of critical and commercial success with a trilogy of opulent, bright, fantastical films. His next would represent his last and most violent convulsion from the status quo. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) is based on the Marquis de Sade’s infamous book 120 Days of Sodom, written during his incarceration in the Bastille. Pasolini transposes the action of Sade’s novel, set between the end of Louis XIV’s reign and the beginning of the Régence, to the similarly turbulent period immediately following the downfall of Mussolini and his Salò Republic. Pasolini’s film, like Sade’s book, retains its elemental power to shock and provoke.
Pasolini’s aim, however, was not the thin, frivolous controversy more recently seen over the likes of The Human Centipede or A Serbian Film, but instead a careful and considered dismantling of fascism, overtly, and, more subtly, consumerism. Salò is partly a corrective, partly a clarification of themes developed in his acclaimed Trilogy of Life, themes that Pasolini felt had been either misconstrued, diluted or corrupted by the slew of soft-porn imitators they inspired. Those films, The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1974), despite or because of their transgressions, had been extremely popular.
Pasolini explained, “I made [the Trilogy of Life] in order to oppose the consumerist present to a very recent past where the human body and human relations were still real, although archaic…and these films opposed this reality to the non-reality of consumer civilisation.”6 Just days before his death, the director explained how he had modified his thinking. “In this new film, sex is nothing but an allegory of the commodification of bodies at the hands of power. I think that consumerism manipulates and violates bodies as much as Nazism did.”7
At the time of that statement, the director was preparing to shoot the long-gestating, apocalyptic Porno-Teo-Kolossal, another biblically-inspired tale, of an elderly magus compelled to travel to the birthplace of Jesus. Ultimately, Epifanio and his companion find that “Paradise doesn’t exist…the end doesn’t exist.”8 In Ferrara’s film, Willem Dafoe’s Pasolini reads from the finale of his own script:
“Epifanio is taking a piss and then he turns back and looks at Planet Earth. Sounds are coming from there, faintly, far away. Music, voices, pop songs, advertising. Revolutionary songs. He looks back at Earth and he says, ‘In the end, I’m happy that I followed that star, because it gave me the opportunity to know better the planet that I love so much.'”9
It’s tempting to consider Porno-Teo-Kolossal, as described and partially depicted in Pasolini, to be as close to a conclusive statement likely to come from the director; likely or indeed possible. That’s because it’s difficult to imagine a final position from an artist who wasn’t so much mercurial as atomically inscrutable, always in flux and, as Ferrara suggests, constantly questioning, alive to the world.
Sean Welsh, September 2015
*This article was originally commissioned as a programme note by GFT.
1. Abel Ferrara, ‘Framing Pasolini: An Interview with Abel Ferrara’ by Nico Marzano
2. Pier Paolo Pasolini, ‘One Man’s God, Another Man’s Devil’ by Guy Flatley, The New York Times (April 20th, 1969) D15
3. RoGoPaG: La Ricotta (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1963)
4. Derek Cianfrance, ‘The film that changed my life’
5. Pasolini, Pasolini On Pasolini: Interviews with Oswald Stack (London: Thames and Hudson, 1969) p86
6. Pasolini, as quoted in Allegories of Contamination: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life by Patrick Rumble (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996)
7. Pasolini, The Lost Pasolini Interview, roundtable recording translated by Celluloid Liberation Front
8. Pasolini (dir. Abel Ferrara, 2014)