Pier Paolo Pasolini was an ardent critic of his age. A recently reconstructed documentary film by him gives us an insight into many of his critiques – on war, the media, beauty, work and religion. As an object of hate and scorn in his time, he still has the power to move us.

Truls Lie
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review. Also head of the Norwegian monthly newspaper NY TID. Based in Oslo/Berlin.

Late on the evening of November 1st, 1975, they battered him so hard over the head with a wooden plank that his veins were ripped out. The well-trained, 53-year-old Pier Paolo Pasolini fought back against his four assailants, but when two of them held him down while a third kicked him hard in the groin, he passed out. Out there, in the suburbs by the seaside, they got back in the car and drove over him several times – his body beaten to a pulp, his heart stopped. They threatened to kill the young man with whom Pasolini had an erotic rendezvous, if he revealed the truth. He shouldered the blame and the subsequent prison sentence.

“Class is also an aesthetic theme in his reality-tale of contemporary history” 

Pasolini had been a source of irritation to Italy’s elite for several decades, as a columnist, critical poet and filmmaker. Driven by a deep-seated anger, he directed his criticism at the ruling class and the stranglehold of conformity. Pasolini’s life ended when he was at his most productive – he had just finished Salò, or 120 days of Sodom.

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Pier Paolo Pasolini

So why am I writing about him now? Well, the new film, Pasolini’s Rage 1)Pier Paolo Pasolini: corpie luoghi. M.Mancini, G.Perrella, Theorema, 1981. (La Rabbia di Pasolini), has been screened at several recent film festivals, like Visions du Réel in Nyon. The film was originally made in 1963, as a collection of newsreel footage accompanied by commentary, spanning the decade that had just passed. At the time, it was juxtaposed with a similar film by the director Giovanni Guareschi, which depicted the man-in-the- street’s popular views on society. However, Pasolini withdrew from the project upon discovering the extent of Guareschi’s vulgarity. Now, Pasolini’s work is re-issued, with Guareschi replaced by more of Pasolini’s work from that time, in part II, as well as additional interviews and reviews.

Pasolini typically comments and takes notes. Interestingly his other documentary films are also made in the form of “notes” on films [see Tarantino’s article at page 50]. I too am inspired to take notes sitting in the dark room in Nyon. Pasolini’s “news bulletin” is impressive – it is virtually a poetic verdict or a political essay on his era. But is there anything useful to be learned from this almost sixty years down the line?

The answer is yes, because impressively, Pasolini is so insightful in passing judgment on and making predictions about his age that such observations could easily be applied to our times. He unveils the ‘machinations’ of the powers that be, for example the Korean War:

“When war breaks out, whose fault is it? [It is] the fault of the poor people, naturally. God punishes Sodoms with rags, Gomorrahs with destitution, the curse of down-and-out love. The rich also die, naturally. But for something. And this “something” is the fury that makes the world its own opposite, a scorching ruin, a bottomless darkness. … Little Koreans, you were alive too. Neglected, because we the rich don’t know about poverty. Neglected, because we the rich don’t know about poverty. And our excuse is that it’s far away, as if distance cures evil. You maddened humble ants, millions of small corpses.”

The anguished voice accompanies images of terror-stricken soldiers, dead bodies, battlefields. I completely forget about the other films I was supposed to see this evening. I am spellbound by these comments from the 1960s, for example the release of the Italian prisoners of war:

“Ah, voice without any hope, voice of the powerful world, voice of hypocrisy which does not even have the modesty to hide its own pitiless indifference.” Pasolini is enraged by and laments high- level politics’ acts of war, but is also similarly affected by commercialisation: “ The fascist petty bourgeoisie is ready for European unity.”

Pier Paolo Pasolini

“Pasolini is close”, I note enthusiastically, as I listen to the ironic commentary on newsreel footage from the end of the Second World War. He explains the media’s portrayal of happiness, holidays and leisure time as long overdue. He points out that the dream of staying home in blissful comfort has been achieved, thanks to television: “Finally a touch of genuine satisfaction. Voice of insincerity, voice of falsehood!” rough TV, the bourgeoisie were able to speak with “… a humiliating irony for every ideal, the voice which sets jokes to tragedy – millions of candidates for the death of the soul.”

Pasolini’s somewhat pleading voice has a thin overtone. After all, this was the man who was brutally murdered, the man many people could no longer tolerate.

The prose poems over the images are reminiscent of a time gone by, of what was mystical or respectable in life. Is Pasolini the last man standing against the nihilistic wave that has swept far across Europe – just as Nietzsche once predicted it would? Or a resounding cry from a world in which there was a distinct difference between good and evil, quality and mediocrity, reflection and reflex?

Pasolini’s Italian commentary continues to reach me through the English subtitles. Like through the newsreel footage from Hungary, 1956:

“A storm of death strikes a people asking for freedom and respect for the human individual. Counterrevolution has burst forth, the bourgeoisie brothers do not forgive. … You, cry with contempt, anger, hatred: ‘long live freedom!’ In Roma, in Paris. Freedom has become sorrow. ‘Nero futuro de Parice.’”

Pasolini then tackles the newsreel archives from the Congo in 1961: we see the democratically elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, being dragged, bruised and battered, onto the back of a truck. I am reminded of a scene from Raoul Peck’s documentary/feature film about Lumumba, 2)Raoul Peck, Lumumba. Documentary (1992), fiction 2000. where his enemies (supported by Belgium and the CIA) drive him away to kill him, chop up his body and burn the pieces.

I turn over my paper and continue writing notes. Now the theme is the USA: Capitalism used to consist of property and accumulation, now it’s about production and consumption. The advance of Capitalism left the traditional world behind:

“When all the peasants and craftsmen are dead, and industry takes the cycle of production beyond arrest, then our history will be finished.”

We also hear how Ava Gardner and Gershwin’s jazz rhythms made the Americans forget Karl Marx. Hmm … In any case, Pasolini travelled to the USA four years later – and loved New York, Harlem, Ginsberg and Kerouac.

Pasolini turns to the worker:
“To buy a worker costs nothing. Just flash before his nobility of heart a recognition of nobility. He is a god son, a good father, and he desperately wants to have a spirit as well, to share the parties of those living not by bread alone. He can turn mean like a faithful dog, the desperate white worker, because he knows, in the depths of his conscience, he is not worthy. And his eyes shine with a bitter light.”

Religion too meets with Pasolini’s rage:

“For a red flag betrayed, an image of God rediscovered. But the darkness of conscience asks not for God, but for his statues. The terrible strength of the hypocrite is not fearing the banal and ridiculous. With touching sincerity they perform their rite.” Christianity became the religion of the bourgeoisie. And after the Pope died: “They, with their sub-proletariat brothers, all in mourning, the tide of our century, that still needs religion, to give a single meaning to its panic, its guilt, its hope.”

All of a sudden, I become aware that I am gawping, open-mouthed, driven into the film’s conundrum.

And on Elisabeth II’s extravagant cortege in London in 1945, Pasolini’s comment on this two-thousand-year-old ritual, witnessed by two million people’s “God save the Queen!” I am reminded of a similar cortege that took place for a certain Princess Diana …

Pasolini’s Rage is not directed solely at the shoddy work and delusions of the powers that be, or popular conformity and consumption, but also against the so-called revolutionaries.

My notes from an interview with him at the end of the film are as follows:

“In Italy there is a petty bourgeoisie, no angry young men. Resistente here in Italy was a great organised revolt of all values of themselves, unique in Europe – it meant revision or revolt, revolution of all the ideas that Italians had of themselves, about modern history. But like all patterns, these have been dated. To become revolutionary today means adopting a form of Moralism, petty bourgeoisie in double-breasted jackets who, rather than having the backing of Catholic dogma for reassurance, they have the dogma of Marxist ideology.”

Pasolini’s rage continually finds new themes: “How much undying terror. War is a terror unwilling to end. In the spirit, in the world.” Nonetheless, he also seeks out the blessed sons who said: “My father fought against the Tsar and against capital, and the freedom I have, he gave to me. The land I sow, the factory where I work, he gave them to me. … I’m proud to resemble him.” Can we sense something constructive about Pasolini here, and not simply grieve with him?

To Pasolini, the class struggle is the cause of all wars, but class is also an aesthetic theme in his reality-tale of contemporary history. The upper classes are: “masters of beauty, fortified by the use of beauty, reaching the supreme con nes of beauty, where beauty is only beauty”.

It is precisely here that the ruling class distinguishes itself, in the combination of wealth and beauty – the door is closed to the rest of the world. Pasolini chooses superbly illustrative film footage of furcoated, smiling blondes, images of the ruling class disappearing behind London’s noble-wood doors. at which glitters blinds us from reality, the calamity of death. And who exemplifies this blinding quality better than Marilyn Monroe? Pasolini, who had close friendships with women such as Maria Callas, makes the following observation on Monroe: “To many light-hearted glances giving yourself to others, you carried away your beauty, it vanished like golden dust. … Your girls, merchants daughters, It vanished like a golden dove. You went on being a child, as silly as antiquity, as cruel as the future – a mortal sickness. Death, has Marilyn showed us the way?

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Pier Paolo Pasolini and Maria Callas on the set Medea, 1969

The film ends by pointing out that only one war can rid the Earth of its bloody ways: the war of the spirit.

I am exhausted, worn out from taking notes, worn out by Pasolini’s rage. His spiritual strength, his unrelenting tone, his sensitive expressions – but you can’t help but be captivated. And perhaps “captivated” more than convinced – Pasolini himself said in another interview that to make any impression at all, one has to seduce.

Back in Oslo I start rummaging around for his films. I see Salò, or 120 days of Sodom again. When I was younger, I did not understand the film’s political critique and simply interpreted it as perverse. It is – as Pasolini says in another interview – not for “young people”. The film criticises how the ruling powers, which he calls inherently anarchic, use rituals and codes in their exercise of oppression and violence.

Pasolini set the Marquis de Sade’s 120 days of Sodom in Italy in 1944; it depicts four fascists who pick out 18 young men and women for orgiastic and violent gratification at a manor house. It illustrates the commercialisation of the young in their treatment as objects: the powerful act on casual whims, they kill, play and grope on impulse and at will. From a high window, torture down in the forecourt is casually observed through binoculars – almost as an allegory for how power is exercised in society.

Was Pasolini devoid of expectation back then in 1975? He himself said during the filming that he had no hopes for a better future. “Hope” was a sales pitch employed mainly by the political parties (indeed, was this not the slogan used during Obama’s US election campaign in 2008?).

Pasolini himself was ridiculed in his time, as in the play by Dino Verde (1963) where Pasolini is accused of exploiting the three Ps: “Pappone, Prostituta, Puritano, [pimp, prostitute and puritan] – he just needs us three. Pasolini can live as a king! Disgusting!”

However, Pasolini was rather a vivid reminder of the transitional period between pre-modern and our late-modern fragmentary media world – which he was clever enough to predict fifty years ago. Secondly, he showed deep sensitivity towards humanity; he was clear-sighted enough to incessantly remind us that we are capable of being independent individuals, of controlling our own lives – that life should not be consumed by work, debt and meaningless media-babble.

I came across instances of Pasolini’s rage turning to joy. In La Rabbia, he pays tribute to the Cuban Revolution: “Cuba is free! Perhaps only a dance could say what it was to fight in Cuba. Or song. the splendour of savage wars … Only pity can make human.” He also pays homage to Gandhi and celebrates the decolonisation of Tunisia.

Pier Paolo Pasolini

So, what did Pasolini predict would happen? Was it something to be voiced by his Medea-figure? 3)Raoul Peck, Lumumba. Documentary (1992), fiction 2000. The mysteriously archaic woman – played by Maria Callas – who lived by her senses alone, nature and obscurity, inexplicable and magical in that respect. In contrast to her Jason – the embodiment of civilisation, the elegant, virile young man who sought new adventures in far-off lands.

Pasolini does not here exclusively favour looking back to a mysterious past. Because the “sacred” or valuable life can also be secured by the future, as he demonstrated the previous year in Theorema (1968): The beautiful adolescent in the film is God’s deputy on a visit, a personi cation who overwhelms and impassions everyone he meets. The visit illustrates the sacred side of reality. This mysterious young man catches the “producing and consuming bourgeoisie”4)Enzo Siciliano, Pasolini, A Biography, Random House, New York/London, 1982, p. 313–20. off guard when he physically seduces an entire family–thefactory owner, his wife and children and the maid – only to disappear again. Crisis ensues: the father wanders naked around the train station in Milan and decides he wants to hand the factory over to the workers; the maid’s complete innocence is identified as sacred – water springs from her grave. The film, like Pasolini’s book of the same title, was to be a sublime dream of innocence, with Eros representing the sacred. The film’s blend of eroticism and religion ensured that it was reported to the police after the premiere in Venice in 1968. In court later, he elaborated on the intrusion of the sacred into daily life, and eroticism’s philosophical role in existential crises. Pasolini was acquitted when the film was approved as a poetic work.

In his biography, Enzo Siciliano tells of Pier Paolo’s problematic relationship with his father, a father who wanted him to become a poet, preferably of edifying poetry:“ father didn’t think that [poems] could be destructive, scandalous.” Pasolini looked instead to his mother Susanne: “to me, she was like Socrates. She had an idealistic and idealised view of reality. She really believed in heroism, in charity, compassion and generosity.” Or, as Pasolini says in La Rabbia: “For me the ideal angry man of history is Socrates. I don’t believe there can be a more sublime example of anger than that.”

End of notes.


© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).
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References   [ + ]

1. Pier Paolo Pasolini: corpie luoghi. M.Mancini, G.Perrella, Theorema, 1981.
2, 3. Raoul Peck, Lumumba. Documentary (1992), fiction 2000.
4. Enzo Siciliano, Pasolini, A Biography, Random House, New York/London, 1982, p. 313–20.
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