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Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Timeless Vision of Pier Paolo Pasolini

Pier Paolo Pasolini was born in Bologna, Italy in 1922. Perhaps the diversity of Pasolini's work came from the diversity of his childhood.

Pasolini's was a lieutenant in the army and his family was always moving. He grew up in various small towns in Northern Italy. After his parents separated, he spent much time in his mother's town of Casarsa, which is located in the northern region of Friuli Venezia Giulia. There, he grew to respect the area's peasant culture and began to write poetry in the region's dialect. He studied literature and art history at the University of Bologna and was drafted into the army during World War II. The war proved to be especially tragic for his family as his younger brother was executed by Communist partisans. Following the war, he returned to Casarsa where he worked as a teacher and ironically became a leading member of the Communist party there.  Pasolini was later expelled from the party due to allegations of homosexual relations with his students. 

Shortly thereafter, Pasolini relocated to Rome and immediately became fascinated by the lifestyle of the Roman underworld, inspiring several volumes of poetry and two novels. His detailed, graphic portrayal of this lifestyle at the Borgate in Rome soon brought writing offers from some of Italy's leading filmmakers and Pasolini began making films based on what he saw. Many would say that Pasolini's most powerful work is in his words; his texts, his poems and  his screenplays. I am most moved by his work as a director, the passion and pain in his characters' eyes as they are reading his lines and portraying the real life people who inspired him. This is especially true in his films, Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew) in which he cast his own mother as the Virgin Mary. Pasolini found striking parallels between Christ and the youth of the political climate in which he lived. The film was controversial during its release but mirrored the conflicts of its time; Mamma Roma with its anger at shallow urban life and the profound pain in the eyes of Pasolini's leading lady, Anna Magnani; Accatone, his first film, in which the main character, a pimp, is treated with extraordinary compassion. Pasolini defended this choice by saying that these are the people with whom he had been living. Pasolini wrote about what was happening in 1960's Italy, but the sensitivity with which he created those characters made them timeless. They were just human beings adapting to their circumstances and struggles. Those characters could just as well be us today.

In November of 1975, Pier Paolo Pasolini was beaten to death by a young man named Giuseppe "Pino" Pelosi, who Pasolini had allegedly picked up for sex. It's been said that his murder at the age of 53 transformed this already controversial and extraordinary artist into an iconic figure of the 21st century. There's been just as much controversy and speculation in Italy over the death of Pasolini as there has been in the U.S. over the death of President Kennedy. Many believe that Pelosi was just a "fall guy" and that the police and government made a cover-up due to Pasolini's left-wing political views. In April of 1976, a court found Pelosi "guilty of the crime of voluntary homicide in company with others not known." An appeals court in December of 1976 overturned the first court's ruling as to a conspiracy.The official story, supported by the government, was that Pasolini had been killed in a quarrel over sex.  To this day, it's still a hot topic, and a few years ago, the case was reopened.

I believe that Richard Peña, formerly of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, said it best. “No other filmmaker from the ‘60’s continues to seem as strikingly contemporary as Pier Paolo Pasolini. His insistance on a cinema of poetry, his candid analysis of the politics of sex, and his search for the spiritual in the everyday make him not only a forerunner of contemporary debates, but also an active participant in those debates.”

Valerio Mastandrea
And it is in part due to Peña and his passion for international cinema, that I discovered the work of Pasolini. In 2007, The Film Society of Lincoln Center hosted the film series, Pier Paolo Pasolini - Poet of Ashes a collaboration between several organizations including the Italian Cultural Institute of New York, Fondazione Aida and The Film Society of Lincoln Center. Each organized its own program dedicated to the work of Pasolini, and because he was an artist in so many ways, it was a jammed packed festival with events all over town. 

Pasolini's film Mamma Roma opened the festival and a live performance of Accatone in Jazz, in which actor, Valerio Mastandrea read lines from the film, closed it. In between, there were photo exhibits, lectures, a theatre production, poetry readings and of course the great films of the Italian maestro. I went into the tribute knowing the basics about Pasolini. I knew that he had great empathy for the human condition, for the way that people get trapped in the demands of society and economic pressures and what war and poverty do to people. Along with the cinema greats like Roberto Rossellini and Giuseppe De Santis, Pasolini was onboard with the Neorealism style of filmmaking by reflecting in his films what was happening on the streets. What I didn't realize is the extent to which Pasolini went to express his frustration and disgust for human suffering, his ability to predict what would happen in society and how to this day, his words and philosophies still ring true. What I discovered through this tribute is that Pasolini was not only a legend in life, but he is also a legend in death. During the festival, I talked with many experts on Pasolini and they each told me the same thing; that on a daily basis, Pasolini is quoted, written about, comes up in newscasts and graces the pages of national newspapers. So, my conclusion is that Pasolini is indeed still with us today and as long as we continue to live on this planet with our struggles and conflicts, he'll be here right along with us.

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