Late on the evening of November 1, 1975, assassins 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 had an erotic rendezvous if he revealed the truth. He shouldered the blame and the subsequent prison sentence.
Pasolini had been a source of irritation to Italy’s elite for several decades, as a columnist, critic, 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.
So why am I writing about him now? Well, a new film, Pasolini’s Rage (La Rabbia di Pasolini), has recently been screened at film festivals and cinematheques, including Visions du Réel in Nyon and Toronto’s TIFF Cinematheque Ontario. The film was 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 has been reissued, with Guareschi replaced by more of Pasolini’s work from that time, as well as additional interviews and reviews.
Pasolini typically made comments and offered notes. I, too, was inspired to take notes sitting in the dark room in Nyon. Pasolini’s “news bulletin” is impressive: a poetic verdict or political essay on his era. But is there anything useful to be learned from it almost 60 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 his observations could easily be applied to our times. He unveils the ‘machinations’ of the powers that be—in the Korean War, for example—but his conclusions are still relevant:
“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 course 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. And our excuse is that it’s far away, as if distance cures evil. You maddened humble ants, millions of small corpses.”
Pasolini’s anguished voice accompanies images of terror-stricken soldiers, dead bodies, battlefields. Mesmerized, I completely forgot about the other films I was supposed to see at Nyon. I was spellbound by his comments from the 1960s; for example, on 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 was enraged by and lamented high-level politics and how it led to war. But he was also similarly affected by commercialization: “The fascist petty bourgeoisie is ready for European unity.”
“Pasolini is close,” I note enthusiastically, as I listen to the ironic commentary on newsreel footage from the end of World War II. He explains that the media was already reporting that happiness, holidays and leisure time were about to take place—and 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!” Through TV, the bourgeoisie was able to speak with “…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. His prose poems over the images are reminiscent of a time gone by, of what was mystical or respectable in life. Was Pasolini the last man standing against the nihilistic wave that swept far across Europe—much like Nietzsche’s prediction? 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. Here’s his reaction to newsreel footage from the thwarted humanist Hungarian revolution of 1956:
“A storm of death strikes a people asking for freedom and respect for the individual. Counterrevolution has burst forth, the bourgeoisie brothers do not forgive….You cry with contempt, anger, hatred: ‘Long live freedom!’ In Rome, in Paris. Freedom has become sorrow. ‘Nero futuro de Parice.’”
Pasolini in La Rabbia 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 Raoul Peck’s documentary and feature films about Lumumba, which showed that his enemies (supported by Belgium and the CIA) drove 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, according to Pasolini. He predicts: “[W]hen 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.
In La Rabbia, Pasolini turns next to the worker: “To buy a worker costs nothing. Just flash before his noble heart a recognition of nobility. He is a good son, a good father, and he desperately wants to have a spirit as well, to share the parties of those who live 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, which 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 problems.
At Elizabeth II’s extravagant wedding in London in 1947, Pasolini’s comment on this 2,000-year-old ritual, witnessed by two million people, is “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 the petty bourgeoisie—no more angry young men. ‘Resistente’ here in Italy was a great organized revolt of all [the] 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 become dated. To become a revolutionary today means adopting a form of moralism—the petty bourgeoisie in double-breasted jacket. They would rather have the backing of Catholic dogma for reassurance than 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 capitalism. 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 confines 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 fur-coated, smiling blondes, images of the ruling class disappearing behind London’s noble-wood doors. That 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 of Monroe: “Obedience demands…too many joyful glances which ask for mercy! Thus, you have taken away with you your beauty, it vanished like gold dust…. The same beauty the sweet girls of your world have, the merchants’ daughters, the beauty queens…vanished like a golden dove…. But you went on being a child, as silly as antiquity, as cruel as the future…you disappeared like a white-golden dove. In death, is it possible that Marilyn has shown us the way?”
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 expression—you can’t help but be captivated. And perhaps “captivated” more than convinced; Pasolini himself said in another interview, “[T]o make any impression at all, one has to seduce.”
Back in Oslo I started to rummage around, searching for his films. I watched 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 said in another interview, “not for young people.” The film criticizes how the ruling powers, which he calls inherently anarchic, use rituals and codes in their exercise of oppression and violence.
The Marquis de Sade’s 120 days of Sodom was reimagined by Pasolini as taking place in Mussolini’s Italy in 1944. The film depicts four fascists who pick out 18 young men and women for orgiastic and violent gratification at a manor house. Salò illustrates the commercialization of the young through their treatment as objects. Here, 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 bin- oculars, almost as a symbol of how power is exercised in society.
Was Pasolini devoid of expectation back there in 1975? He himself said during the filming that he had no hopes for a better future. “Hope” was a sales pitch specially employed by the political parties (indeed, was this not the slogan used during Obama’s U.S. election campaign in 2008?).
Pasolini was ridiculed in his time, as in the play by Dino Verde (1963) where he is accused of exploiting the three Ps: “ Pappone, prostitute, puritano [pimp, prostitute and puritan]. Pasolini can live as a king! Disgusting!”
Actually, Pasolini remains a vivid reminder of the transitional period between pre-modern and our late-modern fragmentary media world—which he was clever enough to predict 50 years ago. He showed deep sensitivity towards humanity. Pasolini 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 a song. The splendour of savage wars…. Only pity can make [us] human.” He also pays homage to Gandhi and celebrates the decolonization of Tunisia.
So, what did Pasolini predict would happen? Was it something to be voiced by his Medea? In that film, she is a mysteriously archaic woman, played by Maria Callas, who lives by her senses alone, natural and obscure, inexplicable and magical. She’s the living contrast to her Jason, who is the embodiment of civilization: the elegant, virile young man who sought new adventures in far-off lands.
But Pasolini didn’t prefer a look back on a mysterious past, despite his many historical films including Medea. The “sacred” or valuable life could also be secured in the future, as he demonstrated in Teorema. There, the beautiful adolescent in the film was God’s deputy on a visit, a personification who overwhelms everyone he meets. His visit illustrates the sacred side of reality. This mysterious young man catches the “producing and consuming bourgeoisie” off guard when he physically seduces an entire family—the factory owner, his wife and children and the maid—only to disappear again.
Crisis ensues in Teorema: 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 demonstrating the sacred. The film’s blend of eroticism and religion ensured that it was reported to the police—and condemned— after the premiere in Venice in 1968. In an Italian courtroom soon after, he elaborated on the intrusion of the sacred into daily life, and eroticism’s philosophical role in existential crises. Pasolini was acquitted and the film was approved as a poetic work.
In Enzo Siciliano’s biography of the artist, he tells of Pasolini’s problematic relationship with his father, who had wanted him to write edifying poetry, nothing “destructive or scandalous,” and his mother, who believed in “heroism, charity, compassion and generosity.” Pasolini says in La Rabbia: “The ideal angry man of history is Socrates. I don’t believe there can be a more sublime example of anger than that.”