Home Video Hovel: Pasolini 101, by Scott Nye
“My heroes are young men who rebel against society, and so are devoured by it.” So wrote Pier Paolo Pasolini in a journal, recited in a new half-hour feature encapsulating the nine films The Criterion Collection is presenting in their new box set Pasolini 101. Whether he’s making a film about Jesus Christ, Oedipus, a pimp, or a boy who has sex with pigs, Pasolini frequently uses those who push themselves to the margins of society to expose our collective and individual weaknesses, and our determination to maintain the image of order.
The box set’s title is a dual reference to this year marking the 101st anniversary of his birth, and the set functioning as an outstanding introduction to one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. After making his name as a prominent poet, novelist, left-wing journalist, and all-around intellectual, Pasolini entered the film world first as a screenwriter (most notably on Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria), then as a full-fledged writer/director with 1961’s Accattone. The box set includes all nine feature films he made in the 1960s – Accattone (1961), Mamma Roma (1962), Love Meetings (1964), The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), The Hawks and the Sparrows (1966), Oedipus Rex (1967), Teorema (1968), Porcile (1969), and Medea (1969). He would make four more films, culminating in the incendiary Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, before he was violently killed in 1975.
The films, much like Pasolini himself, become more confrontational as they go on, taking on increasingly grotesque scenarios and acting styles to rage against the growing industrialization, commercialization, and conformity of Italian society through the decade. There’s a refrain about boundary-pushing art, that it never loses its bite even as its extremity will inevitably be outdone, which is especially applicable to Pasolini. Nothing you see in his films, all the way up through Salò (available separately as a standalone Criterion release), is as outrageous as what can be routinely seen in the “Midnight” section of a typical world cinema festival today, but the potency of his expression and the ugliness he confronts feels as terrifying today as it must have sixty years ago.
Some of that ugliness, after all, was right there in front of him, as out in the open as we find in America today. I hadn’t seen Love Meetings – his only feature-length documentary – before viewing it as part of this set, and was extremely taken with it. Pasolini plays the host, though only occasionally seen onscreen, as he travels across Italy interviewing ordinary people in public spaces about divorce, homosexuality, gender roles, prostitution, virginity, and a host of other related topics. Pasolini was a reasonably-famous out gay man, but there’s little indication the people he talks to know who he is, and they are relatively unvarnished in their opinions. What really comes to bear is a sense that Italy held deeply small-c conservative social viewpoints that they nonetheless are beginning to realize must be reconciled with a new social order. Divorce, then still illegal in Italy, is clearly desired by young people, who in turn feel like women have more opportunities, until they’re pressed on what that really looks like. Similarly, homosexuality is verboten, but everyone seems to allow for some discussion of it if their children should come out. Most distressingly, the documentary reveals that for all of Italy’s advancement, a great many people are seeking to reaffirm the patriarchy, even to the point of excusing or allowing domestic violence to maintain order.
The boldness of this documentary, coupled with his prior films about prostitution and an irreverent look at the crucifixion in his short La ricotta (also available in this set), made newspapers and Catholic Church wary of Pasolini’s plans to tackle the full life of Jesus in The Gospel According to Matthew. What emerged instead is probably the most reverent film about Christ that I’ve ever seen, if for no other reason than it uses only the events and words transcribed in the Book of Matthew as its subject. It brokers no further elaboration or explication, while approaching the events with the stark and amateurish style that he brought to his earlier neorealist films.
Pasolini almost became more amateurish as he went on, growing more confident that he could tell a story and develop a perspective with less and less affectation as he went. The camerawork in Gospel can verge on irresponsible, but that only makes the spiritual nature of it feel more holy – it brings the events straight into the real world. This opened him up stylistically, away from the adherence to reality that restrained Accattone and Mamma Roma, and all his films from this point onward have an air of the supernatural to them.
If Italy had reason to be suspicious of Pasolini’s reverence before Gospel, his films following would certainly give the contemporary believer further reason to doubt him – all are tinged with horrific violence, subversive (to put it mildly) sexual yearnings, and an increasing sense that humans are not so far advanced from the animals we claim superiority to. Beyond society’s tendency to devour those who step outside of it, Pasolini’s related overarching theme is how the order we align ourselves to is scarcely capable of civilizing us. By the time he got to Teorema or especially Porcile, he could have a tendency to jump in theme-first, but each film is still marked by a raw carnality almost all other cinema, and people, seek to deny as a part of themselves. Teorema is in a sense an inversion of Gospel – what if a deity came to Earth as a man, but rather than redeeming those he touched, threw them into crisis instead? (To crib from Sullivan’s Travels, this is accomplished with “a little sex.”) Thus, even films like Oedipus Rex and Medea that might seem from a distance like stately exercises in mythologizing are instead immediate, alarming, and deeply involving human dramas about people at their most exposed and vulnerable. The primal conclusions of Teorema, Oedipus, and Medea remain some of the most profound, frightening screams cinema has yielded, while Porcile’s placidity is almost more striking than all three – one can either scream at the void or open oneself to it.
Pasolini’s work is filled with and fueled by these sorts of competing impulses, never better realized than in his shortest, funniest, and most profound film, The Hawks and the Sparrows. In it, a father and son (played by legendary comedian Totò and newcomer – and Pasolini’s lover – Ninetto Davoli, respectively) wander the countryside, more or less to collect rent for properties the father owns. They come across a talking crow who’s a left-wing intellectual and tells them fables about class divisions. This edges into the spiritual realm, with overt reference to Rossellini’s wonderful The Flowers of St. Francis, before plunging into absurdist tragedy as Totò seeks payment from poorer and poorer tenants, only to eventually find himself on the other side of the counter, so to speak. Everybody has someone to pay and someone to exploit in a downward spiral that satisfies no one. And yet, or maybe accordingly…it’s very, very funny.
When I first started watching Pasolini’s films eleven years ago, they unlocked a part of myself that in many ways I’m still continuing to grapple with, a way of seeing the world that is an extension of but wasn’t at all contained within how I was brought up. His films can feel like walking around inside a poem, myth, or painting; not making them “realistic” but drawing us into them as participants, combatants, and voyeurs. He draws us closer to the legends that precede us and defined our societies, digging into what they say about us, while inventing some new ones of his own, steeped in that same history and all the more burnished by the present and the act of making them. I am continually in awe of their accomplishment, curiosity, and revelations.
As Criterion box sets go, this is heavier on the archival material than the newly-produced stuff. The set includes two shorter (35 and 55 minutes) documentaries Pasolini made, as well as two short narrative films that were included in anthologies. As noted at the top, there’s a new visual essay with narration from Tilda Swinton and Rachel Kushner reading excerpts from his journals reflecting on his films and work. Also for new material, there’s a newly-edited-and-restored collection of footage and audio interviews that Agnes Varda made in 1966 when she and Pasolini were both in New York that is extremely cool.
On the archival end, there’s an episode of the always-wonderful 1960s French series Cineastes de Notre Temps that offers extended interviews with Pasolini, his regular producer Alfredo Bini, and several actors he had worked with to that point; an hourlong documentary from 1995 reflecting on his work and legacy; interviews from the 2000s with several collaborators (including Bernardo Bertolucci, who started his career as a production assistant on Accattone); a 1967 documentary called Notes from a Critofilm in which Pasolini offers a brief example and expression of his style and how it comes to bear; a documentary on Davoli from 1997, looking back on his life and relationship with Pasolini, including footage of the two of them speaking about their work together; a 2004 documentary on the making of Medea; and commentary tracks by academics Tony Rayns and Robert S.C. Gordon on Accattone and Teorema, respectively.
All the films are presented in new 4K restorations (except for Teorema and Medea, which were done in 2K) undertaken by Cineteca di Bologna, Cineteca Nazionale, Criterion, and SND Films for the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Pasolini’s birth. I have some reservations about Porcile, which is on the “cooler/bluer” side of the color palette from the rest, a too-common trend in European film restorations. Otherwise these are all-around very exceptional, with a lot of depth and granularity, very minimal damage. Oedipus Rex and Medea look warmer and more natural than prior editions. Compared to the Masters of Cinema editions of Accattone, The Gospel According to Matthew, Hawks and Sparrows, and Porcile, Criterion offers more robust and finely-detailed images. My instinct is to look to Gospel and Hawks as my new standards for black-and-white transfers. I did some brief comparisons to the quality that comes through via The Criterion Channel, where seven of these are also available, and there’s no question that the Blu-rays offer a substantial upgrade in image integrity, even when using the same transfer.
The films are encased in a lovely “book-style” edition packaging that also include a full 100-page book with new essays by film critic James Quandt as well as poems, notes, and drawings by Pasolini. Unlike the Bergman or Fellini sets Criterion has put out, this is roughly the height of a DVD case and should fit on any standard shelf.
Together with their Trilogy of Life box set and standalone release of Salò, anyone with a Region A Blu-ray player can now acquire, fairly easily, every feature Pasolini made in his short career, and the sets collectively include most of the short films he made. This will obviously serve as the readiest and widest-ranging introduction to his work, including some of his best films, and comes highly recommended for any newcomers to his work, and certainly to those who already love it and want the best editions possible.