ON Review 1 | 2011
A tribute to Pier Paolo Pasolini 35 years after his death
by Roberto Chiesi*
The personal and creative development of Pier Paolo Pasolini, one of the most important Italian intellectuals of the 20th century, embraced the whole cultural spectrum through poetry, fiction, essays, plays, journalism and cinema. Pasolini was born in 1922 in Bologna and educated at the Galvani Liceo and Bologna University.
Every year the anniversary of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s tragic death, - which took place on the night between 1 and 2 November 1975 - seems more like a national day of mourning. The reasons for this lie in the unique expressive, aesthetic and thematic vitality of his work, although less noble factors, connected with the mythology of his murder, also certainly contribute. This trend began to grow in the 1990s: paradoxically at a time when the degradation of public life in Italy - with the combination of political and media power - became a tragic reality. Quite apart from the mysterious and sinister circumstances that surrounded it, Pasolini’s death can be interpreted as a symbolic drama that heralded his nation’s subsequent descent into fierce debasement. Pasolini was a poet of ashes, not just in the sense that one of his most outstanding collections of poetry was called The Ashes of Gramsci, but also because he described a world - of rural Italian life - that was falling into decay. He was one of the most deeply affected witnesses to this destruction.
Pasolini’s works, from Poems in Casarsa to Salò
Poetry, narrative prose, essays, plays and films: the truly extraordinary eclecticism and experimentalism of the artist’s work are without a doubt some of the key reasons for Pasolini's posthumous success. He was first and foremost a poet; yet we find the elliptical, visionary and evocative language of his poetry reflected in his plays and films as well.
Born in Bologna on March 5, 1922, Pasolini spent his childhood changing homes as his family followed his army officer father’s postings from Parma to Reggio Emilia and then back to Bologna, where he completed his education at the Galvani Liceo and at Bologna University. The first source of the youthful Pasolini’s inspiration, however, was not Bologna but the Friuli region, and more precisely the tiny rural world of Casarsa della Delizia, his adored mother Susanna Colussi’s home town. It was there, in a remote area to the north-east of Venice, that he first discovered an empathy with Italy’s rural population, which was to become one of the fundamental themes of his work. The world of Friuli's peasants took centre-stage in the first phase of his literary life: his poetry book Poesie a Casarsa (1942) would form the nucleus of La meglio gioventù (The best youth), his first major poetry collection published in 1954; his first experiments in playwriting: I turcs tal Friuli (1944); and narrative: Atti impuri (Impure acts) and Amado mio, unfinished novels written between 1943 and 1948. Pasolini employed a language (the dialect of the right bank of the River Tagliamento) that until then had not achieved literary status.
During the war Pasolini settled in Friuli (having graduated with a thesis on the poet Pascoli), and concentrated on teaching. After the war he became a militant activist in the Italian Communist Party, arousing the hostility of local clergy and the Christian Democrat party, both wary of his influence on the young. The outcome was an orchestrated scandal that would be the first of many political attacks to affect his life. A charge of corrupting minors was brought that resulted in his being banned from teaching and expelled from the Communist Party. But this scandal also inspired his move to Rome, where he settled early in 1950. In the capital Pasolini discovered another world alienated from middle class affluence and official culture: the working-class suburbs, inhabited by an underclass that became the focus of his writing in the 1950s, such as his novels Ragazzi di vita/Street Boys (1955) and Una vita violenta/A violent life (1959): these works brought him his first taste of success and fame.
He was also active in literary studies and criticism: in 1952 he edited two major anthologies, La poesia dialettale del Novecento/Twentieth century poetry in dialect and Canzoniere italiano, Antologia della poesia popolare/Italian song-making, Anthology of popular poetry, and published a collection of his own critical essays in the book Passione e ideologia/ Passion and ideology (Garzanti, 1960). This was also a period of intense poetic activity: adopting the Dantean tercet and other classic metrical forms, in 1957 Pasolini published his most important book of poetry, Le ceneri di Gramsci/Gramsci’s ashes.
During the same period, inspired by his friendship with Giorgio Bassani, he began to write for the cinema, collaborating on films by major directors such as Mario Soldati, Ermanno Olmi, Mauro Bolognini and Federico Fellini. In 1961 he directed his first film, Accatone, set in the world of suburban working-class life. Film-making made it possible for him to use the concrete material of reality (bodies and places) to give poetic expression to the vitality, initially, of the urban oppressed and later to that of the oppressed people of the Third World.
His unusual film experiment, La rabbia (Anger), made in 1963, was recently the object of a “hypothetical reconstruction” carried out by Giuseppe Bertolucci and the Bologna Film Library, which restored part of the work’s original aesthetic breadth: conceived as a kind of filmic poem, the work combined archive film footage with a commentary in poetry and prose.
In 1964 he took his inspiration from sacred texts to make The Gospel according to St. Matthew, creatively confronting religious tradition with a ‘proletarian’ Christ in the setting of poverty stricken southern Italy. Although his films were increasingly absorbing his time and energy, he continued to write poetry and in the same year, 1964, he published a collection of intimate poems entitled Poesia in forma di rosa/Poetry in the shape of a rose (Garzanti).
In 1966 came another filmic milestone: in Uccellacci e uccellini (Big birds and little birds), a picaresque fable on the demise of ideology, he experimented with a more humorous tone. The following year he completed a dreamlike version of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, which he described as an autobiographical work, and started work on six tragic plays: Orgia, Affabulazione, Pilade, Calderòn, Porcile and Bestia da stile. An example of poetic cinema or filmic poetry, his 1969 film Porcile (Pigsty) was in two parts, one poetic and the other silent. In the same year he reinvented Euripides’ tragedy, Medea, evoking the impossible reconciliation of a modern, rational lay society with the ancient world. Between 1969 and 1970 he carried out another of his highly original filmic experiments with Appunti per un'Orestiade africana (Notes on an African Oresteia), an open workshop project on a future film that would combine different forms (narrative, travel diary, musical, anthropological documentary etc).
At the beginning of the 1970s Pasolini decided to make a series of three films set in the past, which he polemically counterpointed against the present: this Trilogy of Life, freely inspired by Boccaccio, Geoffrey Chaucer and Arabian romance, consisted of The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972) and A Thousand and One Nights (1974).
In 1973 he began what was to become a celebrated collaboration with the Corriere della Sera - the daily paper of Lombardy’s middle class - publishing a series of articles interpreting facets of contemporary consumerist Italy, which he would later publish in two volumes, Scritti corsari/Corsair writings and Lettere luterane/Lutheran letters. In the same period Pasolini also returned to working on a novel, an ambitious project which was tragically destined to remain unfinished, called Petrolio, where he moved between narrative, autobiographical and other planes. Before his brutal murder, in circumstances which have never been fully clarified, he also published a new book of poems, La nuova gioventù, a ‘rewriting’ of his youthful verses (La meglio gioventù) written in Friuli, but with a sarcastic inversion of meaning. And finally he made Salò, or the 120 days of Sodom (1975), a brutally hallucinatory and visionary descent into hell: a film about the horror and degradation of the present, and the loss of individuality for those who allow themselves to be overcome by a ‘new order’ of conformism and indifference.
*Director of the Bologna Film Library Study Centre & Pasolini Archive.
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