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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1365

Pier Paolo Pasolini was the first of two sons born to Carlo Alberto and Susanna Colussi Pasolini. Carlo Alberto Pasolini, though from an aristocratic Bolognese family, was reduced to poverty and became a soldier. Until his death in 1958, his life was a dream of military and Fascist ideals, and after his discharge from the military, he became an alcoholic. It was rather with the petite bourgeoisie background of his mother’s family of the Friuli area (in the northeastern corner of Italy, bordered by Austria and Yugoslavia) that the poet identified. Susanna Colussi, who had inherited her Hebrew name from a great-grandmother who was a Polish Jew, was a schoolteacher and already thirty when Carlo Alberto Pasolini married her.

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Carlo Alberto Pasolini’s wife and two sons accompanied him wherever he was stationed in Northern Italy. The marriage was turbulent and marked by frequent temporary separations, and Susanna channeled all her love into her relationship with her sons, especially her older son. Indeed, the relationship between Pasolini and his mother, whom he would one day cast as the Virgin Mary in his film Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964; The Gospel According to St. Matthew, released 1964), was animated by an unequivocally incestuous tension. When the two of them moved to Rome without Carlo Alberto in 1945, Susanna took a position as a maid to support her son’s literary aspirations. The image of his “artless, eternally youthful mother” pervades all the poet’s work.

In high school in Bologna, after his inevitable exposure to the poetry of Carducci, Pascoli, and D’Annunzio, one of Pasolini’s teachers read to him a poem by Arthur Rimbaud. Later, Pasolini claimed that his conversion away from Fascism dated from that day; he also wrote that after Rimbaud, poetry was dead. William Shakespeare was another early discovery, and Pasolini’s reading of Niccolò Tommaseo’s compilation, I canti del popolo greco (1943; songs of the Greek people), did much to awaken Pasolini’s appreciation of the folk culture of his mother’s Friuli. Shakespeare, Tommaseo, and Carducci constituted Pasolini’s personal triad, recognized as such in “La religione del mio tempo” (the religion of my time). He came early under the spell of the Provençal trobar clus as well, and he considered himself a disciple of the Spanish poet Antonio Machado.

In the winter of 1942-1943, Susanna moved back to Friuli to avoid the bombings in the larger cities. Most of the following year, which Pasolini called the most beautiful of his life, was spent there with his mother and brother. That September, he was drafted, but a week later, on the day of Italy’s truce with the Allies, he escaped into a canal as his column of recruits was marched to a train en route to Germany. In April, 1944, his brother Guido went to the mountains to join the Osoppo-Friuli partisan division. He and some comrades were captured by the Communist Garibaldi Brigade, politically tied to Marshal Tito’s fighters and favoring the incorporation of Friuli into the emerging nation of Yugoslavia; the comrades were later slain. The death of Guido was deeply traumatic to Pasolini and embarrassing to him as the Communist he would soon become.

Pasolini taught briefly in a private school, became involved in the local politics of Friuli, wrote for the local newspapers, and at length established himself as a Communist. With his maturity in the 1940’s, he began to feel increasing guilt for his homosexuality, guilt he dwelt upon in his unpublished diaries (written from 1945 to 1949), from which he later extracted the completed whole of L’usignolo della chiesa cattolica (the nightingale of the Catholic Church). Repeatedly, he writes of “being lost,” of being dominated by the “slave penis.” By 1949, Pasolini’s participation in homosexual activities was such that attempts were made to blackmail him, and he was formally charged by the magistrate of San Vito al Tagliamento with corrupting minors and committing lewd acts in public. Before the carabinieri of Casarsa, by whom he was also summoned, he defended himself by invoking the name of André Gide, who had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947, and by describing his activities as an “erotic and literary experiment.” Although Pasolini was acquitted in 1952, the fact that he did not deny the charge led the executive committee of the Communist Federation of Pordenone to expel him from the Italian Communist Party for moral and political unworthiness. It was a triple blow: Friuli had turned its back on him, his party had rejected him, and he had lost his teaching position. In a letter to a member of the Udine Federation, he declared his intention to remain a Communist and to persist in living for the sake of his mother, although another person might consider suicide. In the winter of 1949, he fled with her to Rome.

Pasolini’s first few years in Rome were difficult, but the eternity and modernity of Rome captivated him, and he thrived on the sexual freedom that the metropolis afforded him. A teaching position was secured for him in 1951, and soon he was writing for Il popolo di Roma, Il giornale of Naples, and Il lavoro of Genoa. He cemented friendships with writers such as Giorgio Bassani, Alberto Moravia, Elsa Morante, Attilio Bertolucci, and Federico Fellini, whom he helped with the Roman dialect of Fellini’s 1956 film Le notti di Cabiria (The Nights of Cabiria, released 1957). In 1952, Pasolini tied for second place and won 50,000 lire in the Quattro Arti contest in Naples for his article on Ungaretti.

The years from 1953 to 1961 were the most productive of Pasolini’s career. He published two novels, two books of poetry, the critical essays collected in Passione e ideologia (1960; passion and ideology), and from 1955 to 1959 directed the literary magazine Officina. He wrote thirteen movie scripts, translated the Oresteia of Aeschylus, and directed and scripted his first film, Accattone (1961). Rome was alive in those years with intellectual creativity and political ferment, but as exciting as it was for Pasolini, it also took its toll on him. For the first time, he found himself getting involved with literary projects merely because he needed a public; he was plagued by litigation and by vicious journalistic attacks.

After his debut in the world of filmmaking, Pasolini’s life changed course. His fertile mind seethed with new ideas, and the names of far-flung places began to appear in his work. In 1966, he made his first visit to New York, where he sought out young revolutionary blacks in Harlem and was mightily impressed by the potential he discovered in the United States. Two years later, he was deeply disillusioned by the “tragedy-revolt” of the student riots of 1968; in his view, the youth, who had been cradled by the class struggle, had sold out to the bourgeoisie. Between 1970 and 1975, he made a successful and controversial trilogy of films–Il decamerone (released 1971; The Decameron, released 1975), I racconti di Canterbury (released 1972; The Canterbury Tales, released 1975), and Il fiore belle mille e una notte (released 1974; The Arabian Nights, released 1975)—based on his belief that the “last bastion of reality seemed to be the ‘innocent’ bodies, with the archaic, dark, vital violence of their sexual organs.” In the Corriere della Sera of June 5, 1975, however, he repudiated this notion, claiming that “even the ‘reality’ of innocent bodies has been violated, manipulated, tampered with by the power of consumerism.” Pasolini’s polemics against the consumer society had become harangues, and the poet did not seem to have any cures to offer for the ills he so vehemently identified. His output in his last years was increasingly complex and contradictory.

The exact circumstances of Pasolini’s death may never be clearly established. Late on the evening of November 1, 1975, Pasolini set off in his Alfa Romeo GT and picked up a street hustler named Giuseppe Pelosi. On the beach at Ostia, the two of them struggled, Pasolini was struck on the head with a board, and Pelosi subsequently ran over Pasolini with his own car. Because the boy was unmarked, however, and because he gave a confused testimony, there is some reason to believe that Pelosi was merely an agent for others who had more reason than he to eliminate Pasolini.

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