Pier Paolo Pasolini
(1922 in Bologne – 1975 in Rome) was certainly the
most controversial figure in the history of Italian
cinema. The fact that he was savagely murdered
spawned a cottage industry of "Who killed Pasolini?"
articles, books, retrospectives, etc. that is still
going on. With my comments here, I do not
intend to put in my two-cents' worth except to
say that beside being a film director, poet, writer,
actor, journalist, novelist, play-wright, and, at
his death, a major figure in European literature and
cinema, he was an intellectual, a gadfly, and a
political figure, almost born to antagonize people.
And he was good at doing that. With his gift for
polemics and taste for scandal, he was charged with
blasphemy and obscenity many times and attacked by
both the left and the right.
He said “It is only at our moment of
death that our life, to that point undecipherable,
ambiguous, suspended, acquires a meaning."
Enigmatic? Yes. Self-fulfilling death-wish? I don't
know. One comment from colleague director
Michelangelo Antonioni was that Pasolini had become
“the victim of his own characters —a perfect tragedy
foreseen in its different aspects —without knowing
that one day it would end up overcoming him.”
Another from colleague, Luchino Visconti: “I was not
especially a friend of his, but I esteemed and
admired him. His horrible death could happen only in
a country like Italy, where violence is completely
unchecked and free of every control.” That, of
course, is its own cutting comment on that part of
modern Italian society that Pasolini despised.
Running through his movies is his mounting disgust
with the modern world, one in which the richer get
richer and the poor get poorer —maybe not a great
discovery, but a world in which those who claim to
be the benefactors of the "tired and poor" do
nothing, not the church, not the political parties.
I was in Naples when Pasolini was murdered, and I
remember that my wife was shaken. I remember her
saying not that she necessarily liked him but merely
that she had seen him on TV and that he seemed like
an "honest person". He was certainly that. I
have never seen or heard anyone say he was a fraud,
a sham, or a weasel. He said what he thought and
perhaps was less able to resolve his own
contradictions —(or less interested in resolving
to embody them; that
is, what you see is what you get because this is
what I am. Up front, in your face. Always.
This image is from my entry on Street
Art. It appeared in Rome in 2015.That is 40 yearsafter Pasolini's death. He is holding his own corpse and
stepping out towards the viewer. He remains controversial and
Before he was a
controversial film maker, he was a poet and lived in
Friuli up north and became adept in the Friulian
dialect of Italian and proud of his poetry in that
language. He had the wonderfully schismatic point of
view that people should be allowed to speak the
language they were born into! Imagine that! He saw
Italy’s postwar boom as a blight, turning the masses
into mindless consumers and erasing local cultures.
Was that controversial? Yes. It still is. He wrote
early novels, plays, political commentary and
literary theory and was open to criticism and not
afraid to say he was mistaken.
He found a position at Cinecittà, Italy's grand
"Movie City" in Rome and then got into early feature
films saying that films let you "write reality with
reality." Accattone (1961) “Mamma Roma”
(1962), with mainly nonprofessionals, followed the
Italian neo-Realists, although I note that some
neo-Realists featured established actors as well. He
also used a variety of dialects in his movies. Even
today, you run into problems with that. Linguistic
regionalism threatens national unity, or so some
Strange as it may seem, he often stuck up for cops,
the real working class cops, who had to take on
student activists, a bunch of "privileged mamma's
boys running around the streets doing what their
bourgeois fathers tell them to do." Before I forget,
why would anyone object to the “The Gospel According
to Matthew” (1964), a reverential portrait of
a revolutionary Jesus? Fine, he cast his own
mother as the Virgin Mary. So what?! It is chapter
and verse from the Gospel of Matthew.
In one of his last columns, published Oct. 18, 1975,
he blamed television for “having ended the era
of compassion and initiated the era of hedonism... It is an era in which
youth, presumptuous as well as frustrated by the
stupidity and the inaccessibility of the models
furnished to them by school and television, tend
irreversibly to be either aggressive to the point
of delinquency or passive to the point of unhappiness,” he wrote.
That is, we are failing them and no one cares. I
think he cared.
Pasolini's tomb is next
his mother, Susanna's, in the cemetery of Casarsa, a
town in the extreme north-east, about 80 km (50 mi)
northwest of Trieste. It is Pasolini's beloved
Friuli region. Casarsa has built its own cottage
industry with a Pier Paolo Pasolini Studies Center
on the premises of his mother's family
residence, the Casa Colussi-Pasolini.
And the Western Literary Canon? Make your own list
(everyone else does). Start with Homer and list the
people you should know at least a squeaky bit about
if you want to have the Big C (couth). You'll have
lots of names. Make sure this guy is on it. In
quantity, scope, and quality, his life's work is
I am indebted to the unsigned obituary in the New
York Times of Nov. 4, 1975. I am
super-indebted to Carl Sandburg for saying,
"I'm a progressive. I don't know where I'm going,
but I'm on my way."