Thursday, October 11, 2007

Two films by Pasolini

Before Pasolini turned to fim making in 1961 with his life in Roman slums drama Accattone, he had already established himself as a major poet and a public intellectual, of the thorny, adversarial kind. As has been noted at so many places he was a man of contradictions but that is only if you look at it from a superficial level. His whole artistic project was to show how false and hollow these contradictions are. He was a dedicated Marxist who was obsessed with the idea of the sacred and was always searching for an epic and mythical dimension in life that is his opinion was being destroyed and devalued in the modern industrial societies. In his poetry, and in many of his films too, he elegized the vanishing peasant culture of Italy and "the desperate vitality" (the title of one of his poems) which he thought was being replaced by a shallow consumeristic material prosperity in postwar urban Italian society. He was also an avowed atheist who made some of the most stirring and profound religious films ever (including a couple, Teorema and The Gospel According to Saint Matthew which won prizes from some Catholic organizations while inviting boos and calls of bans from others) As if all of this was not enough he was also openly homosexual. One has to actually look at his Teorema or Mamma Roma to see how he reconciles all these apparent contradictions into one complex and exhilarating work of art.


Accattone is a generic Italian word for what Americans call a "bum," a street scrounger, a good for nothing. The hero's name is Vittario but people call him Accattone and he doesn't mind the nickname. He is actually a pimp, living a food-chain existence exploiting those who are weaker than he is-- that is the women who work for him as prostitutes. The main narrative follows him closely as he goes about his life, tries to get straight, though very half-heartedly and ultimately fails tragically in the end.

Even though on surface it looks like a standard neo-realist film documenting the lives of outcasts, downtrodden and marginalized people, you soon realize that it is no regular documentary work of political protest. Pasolini's interests lie elsewhere. He is more interested in locating that idea of sacred in the lives of people living in the Roman slums. In one scene when a prostitute is beaten brutally by a bunch of thugs the soundtrack swells to the music of Bach's passion. For someone not aware with his sensibility and ideas, the whole thing will look too pretentious and heavy-handed but once you realize what he is trying to achieve the scene becomes deeply moving. It is far from being a reactionary work, romanticising the life of the slums though, to Pasolini the whole issue of social injustice and moral failure is too obvious to really bother depicting it explicitly. It could otherwise have become yet another film full of slogans. He is tackling more complex themes here.

I think I am babbling rather incoherently so I will just link to this essay which says the same things in a much more interesting manner. This comment in particular - "Unlike so many other young iconoclastic directors at this time, Pasolini is not intent on de-mythifying and de-sacralising but rather on “re-sacralising” human existence."

Pasolini made Mamma Roma just one year after Accattone and though in the subject, characters and the basic treatment it repeats a lot of what is there in the earlier film, it still is a far more satisfying film in technical aspects. Or may be it was just that the dvd was issued from criterion with their usual attention to quality transfer. The visual compositions and the cinematography is much more beautiful and evocative in the film. With the way he shoots even the garbage dumps or the billowing grass on the waste lands, it is not hard to understand what he meant by his quest for a mystical dimension in the apparently seedier side of human existence. The film also has Anna Magnani, at her stormy best, in the title role. Pasolini generally worked with non-professional actors (this is another thing that will trouble a neophyte) but Magnani's acting is so over the top and stylized that it works beautifully in counterpoint to the awkward actors all around her. With the way she laughs (rather guffaws), or the way she walks or even carries herself, she reminds of the Pasolini's phrase "a desperate vitality."

The basic story concerns the middle aged prostitute played by Magnani trying to start a new life in Rome for the sake of her teenage son. She gets a new house, becomes a vegetable vendor, even gets her son a job through an elaborate con-scheme but tragedy is always around the corner. Her pimp returns, forcing her to walk the streets again. Her son eventually learns of her past and gets involved in some petty crimes all ultimately leading to tragic consequences.

Like in Accattone the film is full of religious symbolisms, most of them so obvious, blatant and over the top that it will make your jaw drop with its audacity. The young son as he lies dying in prison is photographed in the manner of the religious paintings of the dying Christ. Mamma Roma herself is portrayed as the Virgin Mary. The music, like in Accattone, is highly operatic and religious in nature. The final scene looks like as if it is shot for an opera or a tragic drama with even a bunch of people acting as a chorus. Pasolini was actually inspired by the medieval and renaissance religious painting and his visual compositions show it very clearly - the way he shoots the faces in medium closeups, always occupying the center of the frame. Before shooting Accattone he also showed his cinematographer clips from Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc which is again an interesting reference point when thinking about this film.

There are so many more things that can be said about the film but I will probably keep them for future. Both of these films are masterpieces, specially Mamma Roma which is I think the best place to start if you haven't seen any film by him. Will also try to post about Pasolini's poetry sometime soon. For now, the senses of cinema has a profile of Pasolini which is a very good introduction to his films. Also an essay on the criterion site.

2 comments:

KUBLA KHAN said...

I don't know if you have read Heretical Empiricism, a collection of essays by Pasolini, including his essays on cinema, arts, politics and so forth.
in it, pasolini's famous essay called Repudiation of the trilogy of life is included as well.
he also writes on the Cinema of poetry......and this book also includes brilliant essays on his notion of cinema.
Pasolini called cinema....word without language.
since you are an enthusiast, try reading it if you already haven't!

Alok said...

I have come across references to his cinema of poetry essay at many places but have never read it. The Heretical Empricism book is not available in the library, will see if i can find it somewhere else. thanks for reminiding.

I am reading his selected poems and also some fragments available on the internet. Will write more when I have something to say.