Pier Paolo Pasolini 1922–1975
Italian poet, novelist, essayist, playwright, critic, editor, short story writer, screenplay writer, film director, and actor.
The following entry presents criticism of Pasolini's work through 1997. For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Volumes 20 and 37.
Although recognized outside his country primarily as a filmmaker, Pasolini was well known in Italy for the strong and controversial views on Marxism and religion he presented in his poetry, novels, and essays. Over the course of his career, his observations on Catholicism, communism, and the existing social order alternately pleased and angered conservatives and leftists alike. Central to Pasolini's life and works were his despair over Italy's impoverished conditions and his anger over the indifference of the materialistic bourgeoisie. Joseph P. Consoli, writing in Gay & Lesbian Literature, observes, "Without a doubt, the author's homosexuality, or as the Italians call it, inversion, contributed to Pasolini's predilection to view his subject matter from nonconforming, contrary, yet innovative, perspectives."
Pasolini was born March 5, 1922, in Bologna, Italy. His father was a career army officer, a fact which forced political awareness upon the boy at an early age. His childhood and early adult experiences in the poverty-stricken village of Casarsa, located in the province of Friuli, inspired his lifelong identification with the poor. Pasolini was called to military duty in September 1943 but escaped after just a week and returned to Casarsa, where he was strongly influenced by the ideas of Karl Marx and Antonio Gramsci, the leading theoretician of Italian communism. Pasolini took a teaching position in a public school while engaging in frenetic intellectual and artistic pursuits, writing and publishing poetry in the Friulian dialect; these activities became his forms of resistance against Nazism and Fascism. In 1949, Pasolini was arrested and accused of "the corruption of minors and committing obscene acts in a public place." The charges were eventually dropped, but the ensuing scandal—Pasolini lost his teaching position and was expelled from the Italian Communist Party—forced him and his mother to move to Rome, where he became immersed in the slum life of that city.Pasolini was murdered the night of November 1-2, 1975; his death is considered an ironic end to a life spent absorbed in and concerned with the violent nature of contemporary society. Reports of his death often conflict, but most sources agree that the young man convicted of the crime struck Pasolini with a board and then ran over him with his own car. What is still debated is the killer's motive: some say he was an innocent boy who panicked when Pasolini propositioned him; other reports indicate that he was a street hustler who was picked up by Pasolini and then killed him, while still others theorize that the killer was an assassin sent by one or more of Pasolini's political enemies to murder him under embarrassing circumstances.
Pasolini has been called one of the most notable poets to have emerged during post-World War II Italy. He wrote his earliest poetry in the northern Italian peasantry's native Friulian language in the hope of creating a literature accessible to the poor. Pasolini rejected the official Italian language, believing it had been created by and for the bourgeoisie. These early poems appear in his first booklet of verse, Poesie a Casarsa (1942), and in an expanded and revised version, La meglio gioventu (1954). These works center on his renunciation of Catholicism and his endorsement of Marxism. Other early poems, along with some experiments in the tradition of religious poetry, are collected in his second volume, L'usignolo della Chiesa Cattolica (1958). The poetry of Le ceneri di Gramsci (1957; The Ashes of Gramsci) and La religione del mio tempo (1961; The Religion of My Time) reflects, among other beliefs, Gramsci's idea of a "popular national literature." Pasolini's later poetry, Poesia in forma di rosa (1964) and Poesie (1970; Poems), is more autobiographical and confessional, yet the political concerns central to the majority of his works are still evident.
Pasolini's experiences in the Roman slums and his impressions of urban poverty inspired two novels: Ragazzi di vita (1955; The Ragazzi) and Una vita violenta (1959; A Violent Life). These highly controversial novels were largely responsible for Pasolini's notoriety. Here again, Pasolini rejected formal, official language in favor of dialect, in this case "a harsh, often crude and obscene, minimized Roman street vocabulary," Consoli explains. The Ragazzi centers on a group of youths whose poverty has led them to a life of violence, crime, and indiscriminate sex. Rejecting the official language of the bourgeoisie, Pasolini liberally utilizes Roman dialect and slang. Though free of authorial intrusion, the work is considered an indirect attack on the Italian establishment; its depiction of Italian young people was particularly shocking. Harshly realistic in its explicit language and political implications, The Ragazzi angered many factions of the community and resulted in Pasolini's prosecution for obscenity, of which he was acquitted. A Violent Life is the second book of his unfinished trilogy on street life. Similar in theme and milieu to The Ragazzi, A Violent Life was praised abroad for its realism and the characterization of its protagonist. After his death, two previously unpublished autobiographical novels, Amado mio and Atti impuri, were published under the title Amado mio in 1983. These works explore Pasolini's homosexuality and his emotional torment over what he saw as the disintegration of Italian society.
During the last fifteen years of his life, Pasolini made films in which he sought to combine his socialist sensibilities with a profound, nondenominational spirituality. His films were often anti-Catholic in their implications and controversial for their explicit sexual subject matter. Among his best-known films are Accattone (1961), adapted from Una vita violenta; Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964; The Gospel According to Saint Matthew); Teorema (1968; Theorem); and Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (1975; Salò: 120 Days of Sodom). Pasolini films traverse a constantly changing range of styles and contents, and his handling of the medium was at times coarse and graphic. He used nonprofessional actors and avoided many standards of the industry, choosing his subject matter from classical legends, tragedies, political diatribes, and other unconventional sources.
Critical reaction to Pasolini's work generally extends beyond its value as literature or film, considering also its implications for political and religious thought. "Pasolini was first a thinker, and then an artist," Consoli remarks, relating a comment from Stefano Casi, who said that despite the many genres in which he worked, "In reality only one definition can render with precision the area of cultural diligence attended to by Pasolini: intellectual." Critics tend to look for meanings and messages beyond the actual storylines of Pasolini's work, often interpreting them as evidence of his stance for or against a particular theory, practice, or governing body. The often conflicting messages of his various works led many to define him as indefinable: Edmund White described Pasolini as "a sort of Marxist and, off and on, a Communist, but his politics were too personal, too shifting and too adversarial to fit into any orthodoxy." Also common in critical discussion of Pasolini's work is the subject of obscenity: the graphic nature of much of his work is seen by some as crucial to its message and by others as gratuitous. Some critics have linked this issue with Pasolini's tendency toward impassive recording of events. Robert Crichton found "an almost perverse misplacement of emphasis" in The Ragazzi, noting that "pages are devoted to stealing six or eight cauliflowers and a paragraph or two to burning a boy at the stake." These critical themes followed Pasolini when he began to explore filmmaking, a transition which brought new complaints as well. Critics were divided over condemning Pasolini for his lack of technical skill or seeing his directorial style as brilliant in its simplicity. John Bragin wrote, "In contrast to most first films Accattone is completely free of technical experiment. It evokes the same tone of sanctity as much of Pasolini's poetry by its direct, frontal presentation of events and characters." Pasolini's third film, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, won the approval of the International Catholic Office of the Cinema (OCIC), which awarded the film its Grand Prix in 1965, "thus making it clear," Maryvonne Butcher stated, "that they considered this picture to be, of all pictures produced in the year, the one which contributed most to the development of spiritual and human values, as well as being outstanding for its technical and artistic standards."
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