Pier Paolo Pasolini 1922–1975
Italian director, screenwriter, author, and actor.
Pasolini's films seek to combine his Marxist sensibilities with a deep, non-denominational spirituality. They are considered highly controversial, anti-Catholic, and autobiographical. Decrying social injustice, Pasolini attacks the capitalist concept of man as a merchandiser marketing his fellow man.
After a successful career in literature, Pasolini turned to cinema as a new means of expression. Accattone, his first film, expresses the theme of man's exploitation of women for personal gain. Like Pasolini's other heroes, Accattone has no immediate goal besides survival. Accattone is considered a graceful transition from literature to film, and has received praise more for its vibrant spirit and authenticity than its technical prowess.
Pasolini gained international acclaim with The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. All formalities previously peculiar to "Bible movies" disappeared: Pasolini instead chose a neorealistic filming style that proves to be well suited to the film's quiet Renaissance spirit. While fascinated with the myth of Jesus, Pasolini hoped to probe beyond historic aspects in search of a simple, unadorned reality reflecting God's love.
In Edipo Re (Oedipus Rex) and Medea, Pasolini juxtaposed pagan mythology with contemporary philosophy. Oedipus Rex is his most personal film: Pasolini considered it the symbolic key to his own life. Like Oedipus, Pasolini saw himself as "one who lives his life as the prey of life and his own emotions." These films met with popular critical reception, in contrast with Porcine (Pigsty) and Teorema.
Both Pigsty and Teorema provide more contemporary views of society. They also introduce several characters, as opposed to the solitary perspective of earlier films. Here Pasolini's preoccupation with the failings of bourgeois society is acknowledged: these films are his most powerful social protests. While these are his first attempts to depict an actual cinematic reality, it is philosophical rather than naturalistic. Although Teorema won the International Catholic Film Office Award, it was later banned by the Vatican.
The trilogy of The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and The Arabian Nights signifies Pasolini's penchant for storytelling. Their reception was controversial due to their graphic content; however, many find their medieval bawdiness witty and refreshing. Pasolini considered them a final attack on Western European decadence and an accurate portrait of medieval life. Most critics find the trilogy visually lush but thematically empty.
Pasolini's last film, Salo: 120 Days of Sodom, culminated a controversial career. Based on the Marquis de Sade's novel 120 Days of Sodom, Salo is a fierce depiction of Fascist Italy as well as a final, pained allegory of exploitative humanity. Salo was banned in Italy before appearing in the United States, but it is considered particularly noteworthy for its contrast between indecent subject and formalized style. While some critics find Salo perceptive and insightful, others have accused Pasolini of self-indulgence. Elliot Stein says, "It has as much to tell about what human beings are capable of as Anna Karenina … but Sade tells us more than we want to hear, and Pasolini shows us more than we want to see."
Pasolini considered Salo to be a film about the sadism of modern humanity. He felt that sexual sadism was a metaphor for class struggle and power politics. Shortly after the completion of the film, Pasolini was murdered. Of his own life he had said "I love life with such violence and intensity that no good can come of it. How it will end I don't know…." (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 61-64.)
The world of the Roman pimps and petty thieves has been well explored by Pasolini in his scripts for [Mauro Bolognini's] La Notte Brava and [Franco Rossi's] Mort di...
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un Amico. For his first film as a director [Accattone] he returns to the same theme, because, as he wrote … not so long ago, 'I don't want to explore new ground in my themes but simply to express my ideas with a new technique'.
The question in my mind is, should an artist confine himself to one problem and if so can he really express his ideas in a fresh way taking into consideration the ever changing social structure?
The Pasolini characters and their motivations differ little from those of the two previous films, and the failing of both is again repeated here. Each is a sharp penetration into the Roman slums as they exist (or existed?) but never once is an attempt made to say why an audience should be concerned. The value of life is practically ignored, his characters stand for everything that is against society. Pasolini is content to blame everything on poverty and lack of education, but he does not show why we should care. All one can conclude from his work is that these people would be worthless even if they had the chance to improve themselves….
The new technique that Pasolini thinks he has discovered has been used many times before. His stylised images and symbolism are too obvious. Why have Accattone and the girl he wants to save from the streets play out a scene neatly framed against a church? Why make Accattone a minor poet when he has little comprehension of life?…
[Franco] Citti's natural responsive performance is the highlight of the film, even though the character has nothing to recommend it. His world has no logic, but unfortunately the film hasn't any either.
Robin Bean, "'Accattone'" (© copyright Robin Bean 1962; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 8, No. 12, September, 1962, p. 33.
[Accattone] is a film about the rejects of society, in the active and passive senses of the phrase; about those whom society has rejected and those who have rejected society, or have never belonged or never wanted to belong. In this category is included, at least for the purposes of the film, almost the entire population of Pigneto, the Roman suburb which Pasolini used as a location for the shooting of Accattone: casual labourers, the unemployed, complete down-and-outs—the morti da fame—thieves, petty crooks, ponces and tarts. It is a tough world, with its own special rules for survival….
[There] are films about the underworld, dozens of them, but there is no great mythology comparable to that of the gangster film of the American Thirties; nor has there been any attempt to look at this world realistically, in the way neo-realism looked at the organized working class. It is an absurd story of wasted material, material for myth as well as for a revolutionary social critique, in which Pasolini, by writing scripts to be realised in a perverted and insipid way by Bolognini and others, has passively acquiesced, and for which he is, in part at least, personally responsible. Now with Accattone, directed by Pasolini himself, suddenly it is all there, the social conflicts, the sexual tensions, the authentic violence and the curious but logical morality of the anti-society; not only the reality, but in the person of the central character, Accattone …, the makings of the great myth. This is not to say that Accattone is a particularly good film…. It is at times melodramatic; the camerawork is heavy, groping and obtrusive. But at least it is authentic and alive—not dead material animated by a master of marionettes, but alive from the bottom with the life of the subject….
[One] should give Pasolini the credit for an attempt, obviously deliberate even if not entirely successful, to translate an original approach to his material into cinematic terms. If Accattone does not look like early Rossellini it is because Pasolini had, thank God, no intention of making it look like early Rossellini.
The real subject of Accattone is not the underworld as such, but Accattone himself and his relationships with the world…. (p. 193)
The whole substance of the film is in these relationships—and in the more sinister Mafia-like system which underlies them—and the film works outward from Accattone, across his contacts with the others, in ever-increasing ramifications towards a picture of the underworld itself, seen as a complex of material relationships between individuals and impersonal forces. But the outer rings of the circle, which in fact, according to Pasolini's Marxist outlook, condition whatever happens at the centre, are too distant and unfocused to play a vital part in the construction of the film. Even the physical background, the landscape of decrepit shacks, slum apartments and wastelands, is hardly more than sketched in. Only the people matter, and their concrete situations from one moment to the next…. Unfortunately the camera style, which reflects the preoccupation with the central character, moving outwards towards the group, picking up faces and cross-cutting between the characters, is often too heavy-handed, too self-conscious and deliberate, underlining the obvious and reducing each event to the status of a "point to be made". The natural and essential fluidity of the script is broken, and the film divided into a series of set-pieces.
The best scenes are those in which one is least conscious of the camera…. The big, staged scenes, like the beating up of Maddalena by a gang of Neapolitans with an account to settle, are less effective, and it is here that Pasolini's inexperience begins to drag and one starts to make nasty remarks about literary men playing at cinema (Pasolini is certainly a better novelist than director). But it appears that he has now decided to devote himself seriously to film-making. His next film could be very good indeed. (pp. 193-94)
Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, "'Accattone'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1962 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 31, No. 4, Autumn, 1962, pp. 193-94.
[Mamma Roma] is one of the most vicious indictments of the complete insensitivity of human society as a corporate body to concern itself in a personal way with that element of society they regard as worthless because it has no money, little education, virtually no prospects….
As a director, as a creator of expression in film, [Pasolini's] work in Accattone left me cold; and in that respect the same nearly happened with Mamma Roma—that conscious striving for effect, cynicism and bludgeoning 'truth' (ie pretentiousness). But here his theme, characters and ideas are so strong that it really doesn't matter. (p. 27)
As a director Pasolini creates an unstable balance of effect; the unconscious personal mannerisms are quietly observed, but his juxtaposing of images, particularly in his onslaught on the church and religious belief, are sometimes ineffectual in their crudity. But here, as opposed to Accattone, he does succeed in conveying that there are moments of poetic beauty even in poverty surroundings, that there is a tragic irony in the structure of society: the poor sometimes achieve the happiness that affluence fails to bring to others. It also has a wider view of humanity than his previous film, establishing that even if society is a savage machine, there is still a personal responsibility to improve: 'What one is, is one's own fault' says Mamma. Maybe in Pasolini, the cinema will find it's own Dostoievski: Poverty is a social disease which society regards as enigma; crime is met with harsh reprisal regardless of circumstances. (p. 28)
Robin Bean, "Reviews of New Films: 'Mamma Roma'" (© copyright Robin Bean 1964; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 10, No. 6, March, 1964, pp. 27-8.
It is easy enough to pick holes in Mamma Roma as a cry of social protest. The plot, on the face of it, is mawkish…. The development is arbitrary, with Mamma Roma drunkenly confiding instalments of her past to a string of grinning men who loom conveniently in and out of the darkness as she roams the neon-lit highway…. And yet Mamma Roma expresses exactly and unsparingly what its writer-director, Pier Paolo Pasolini, feels: complete subjective identification with the latent fatalism of his characters…. I happen to find all this extraordinarily moving for the reason that such melodramatic situations are, for all that, elementally true. Pasolini's evasion of conventional realism strikes me as being deliberately used to underline a similar evasion on the part of his characters; just as his unintegrated camera style mirrors their underlying states of mind, all opportunism and casual brutality.
In its rhetorical way the film is a good deal more powerful and assured than Accattone. There is a gaunt, prophetic splendour about those recurring shots of wasteland dotted with ruined, twisted pinnacles of stone and brick…. Several of [Mamma and Ettore's] scenes together—dancing the tango; trying out a new motor-bike—have a curious cut-off quality which appears not only to circumscribe them but to divorce Pasolini himself from society. Artistically such uncompromising isolation can either make or yet undo him. So far, at any rate, it has been his proudest decoration.
Peter John Dyer, "In Brief: 'Mamma Roma'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1964 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 33, No. 2, Spring, 1964, p. 97.
Pasolini, the atheistic Communist, [has] beaten his opponents by making the best film about Jesus in cinema history. He has not given us a Marxist or merely humane Jesus; [The Gospel According to St. Matthew] is Matthew's Jesus. It might have been expected that Pasolini would act on Rousseau's advice: "Get rid of the miracles, and the whole world will fall at the feet of Jesus Christ." This film does not "get rid" of the miracles. Pasolini has woven them, seamlessly, into his earthy film. That is one of his triumphs….
His film about Jesus has in a sense a spiritual connection with [Accattone and Mamma Roma] through his conviction (more Christian than Communist) that, if one believes certain basic principles, then no one—not anyone at all—may be rejected or despised….
The film looks like a quasi documentary; none of the actors wears make-up, the lighting is often blunt, the film sometimes grainy….
The artistic sources of Pasolini's film are clear. First, he is following in the tradition of all those painters of the Renaissance and after to whom the Gospel story was an event of their own lives and who used their family and friends and countryside to certify this fact. Second, he is continuing the Italian film tradition of neo-realism, extending it for the first time (so far as I know) into the historical—to cut through the religiosity of previous film treatments of the story and to emphasize Jesus as Man—the Incarnation.
The paradoxical result is that Pasolini's frank, vernacular texture achieves the religious spirit. (p. 33)
Unlike any other picture on the subject that I know, this film by the Communist Pasolini was made for only one reason: love of Jesus. The effect of this utterly simple truth is overwhelming. It informs every moment of the picture and makes it, even when it is flawed or slow, an extraordinary experience….
Yet, despite the abundance of beauties, the film is slow and undramatic—as any film about Jesus must be. First, there is the stumbling-block of the sermons and lessons. What is a camera to do with them?…
Second, there is the matter of basic drama…. Each spectator brings with him some sort of attitude towards Jesus, of whatever shade of belief, but he also brings expectations of the film-form as such. A film that is faithful to the story may satisfy his religious sense if he has any, as Passion Plays have done for centuries; but it cannot satisfy his unconscious or conscious artistic expectations.
That fact will not, of course, stop future film-makers from attempting the subject again and again. At least Pasolini's work, faults and all, will serve as a standard of honesty in motive and simplicity in art. (p. 34)
Stanley Kauffmann, "Pasolini's Passion" (reprinted by permission of Brandt & Brandt Literary Agents, Inc.; copyright © 1966 by Stanley Kauffmann), in The New Republic, Vol. 154, No. 13, March 26, 1966, pp. 33-4.
The genre [of Uccelacci e uccellini (The Hawks and the Sparrows)] is the picaresque. And very much the moral-pointing literary picaresque of Eulenspiegel or Simplicius Simplicissimus. This, Pasolini states quite openly, is the Journey of Life. The three parts into which the film is divided mark the stages of awareness of the human intellect. The parable is further underpinned by drawing on the fable tradition of La Fontaine. Father and son on their dusty journey play out the business of living; their attempts to come to terms with social reality are either equivocal or outright failures. But at the end of the film, they have, hopefully, learned about their condition. The road is ended but the journey is just beginning; for Pasolini the marxist, freedom is the knowledge of necessity. And Uccelacci e uccellini is his latest gloss on that text. (pp. 28-9)
In terms of technique, it makes for unstylish cinema as well as suffering from the occasional longueur. But its best moments contain rare and beautiful things: the newsreels of Togliatti's funeral, for example, are deeply moving. And Toto's snow-wreathed monk, waiting for the sparrows while winter turns to spring, has both the immediacy and the distancing quality of great art. All in all, a troubled, restless, important film. (p. 29)
Patrick MacFadden, "Uccelacci e uccellini'," in Take One (copyright © 1966 by Unicorn Publishing Corp.), Vol. 1, No. 1, September-October, 1966, pp. 28-9.
[Edipo Re (Oedipus Rex) is a series of events], one following upon the other, unprepared, unexploited for their story values, in many ways even unexplained, but merely allowed to explode before us in their beauty, their mystery, their terror. And this is the magic of Pasolini's cinema, a cinema of frontal assault.
We are not asked to believe a story, we are simply buffeted by emotion. But not only by emotion, for in a Pasolini film ideas and reactions are clearly spelled out for us, and there's always question of a certain aesthetic and intellectual distance. Our reaction is one of enthralment, but of insight as well. Intellect and emotions are appealed to directly and personally, and we feel involved at the most profound level.
For Pasolini structures his film so as to capture man in those moments and situations completely beyond pretence and convention. Edipo Re is the Sophoclean tragedy stripped down to the elemental and the primitive. It is man and the desert and the scorching sun, man naked before his own fear and bewilderment, his lust, his meanness, his strength, his need, his love and compassion, man working out his own destiny, a free being, and yet very much at the mercy of a higher destiny, of mysterious powers beyond his control.
With a whirling, prowling camera that blinks at the sun and gasps and breathes almost in unison with Oedipus, Pasolini (true to his principles re the poetic cinema) invests his film with a wild, tormented, baroque quality…. Pasolini allows each moment all the time required to achieve full poetic and dramatic impact. No fancy jump cuts à la Godard, not that kind of distantiation. The realism is only a launching site, as it were, for Pasolini's soaring poetic assault. (p. 4)
Paradoxically enough, it is in this search for the primitive and the elemental that Pasolini courts the modern sensibility. The modern reflectors, the contemporary currents that have shaped his thinking, his sensibility, are ever present. The ambivalence of Oedipus (and of Pasolini) in the way they relate to the various events—horror, yet fascination, repulsion hand in hand with attraction—reflect the complexity of experience we are so aware of. Pasolini, too, makes sure that the film will be situated unmistakably in a Freudian context from the prologue on. And one could interpret much of the film, especially its epilogue, along the Marxist lines one expects in Pasolini's cinema. But it is in that search for the authentic experience, for brute reality, that the work is thoroughly contemporary in spirit…. In Edipo Re, Pasolini has created a truly personal work informed by his own sensibility, his convictions, his ambivalent attitudes, his doubts. But more, the film is universal man's cry of pain and bewilderment before the mystery of life.
Masterpiece? Probably not, for Edipo Re is anything but unflawed as a work of art. Some of the scenes, as I have indicated, verge on the falsely theatrical; and the strain in styles between the realistic and the baroque has bothered a number of critics. Now and again one feels that in his search for the visually poetic, Pasolini has allowed the picturesque and the liturgical to linger overlong. And it is quite possible that the high-pitched ranting and screaming, the violence and the blood-bath, ultimately work against the film. But this is one film, it seems to me, that should be judged by the magnitude of its achieved ambitions rather than on more or less incidental failures….
Where Edipo Re was a series of events exploding in sound and fury (as they say), stretched out along a man's journey to his destiny, Teorema contains its passion, its torment and anguish, behind a façade of fashionable calm and elegance: a cool, gem-like creation, clear, mathematical, precise. The pace is slow and controlled, the camera in repose as it captures elegantly framed images of crystalline beauty. Once again, to be sure, we are pulled in by the film's intense beauty and passion. But true to his aesthetic, Pasolini achieves a certain distantiation by making his presence overwhelmingly felt as he moves his characters in preordained fashion, figures in some strange liturgy, working out his intellectualised pattern in a structure whose outline is deliberately open, visible….
But for all its aesthetic quality, Teorema risks being one of those films doomed to be swallowed up in the controversy it engenders. It has become the focal point of larger issues and considerations beyond the aesthetic, issues very difficult to avoid; and as such, one feels obliged to touch upon them.
There is [the] accusation of obscenity, for example….
Is the film really obscene, even when judged from the strictly moralistic point of view? … Pasolini himself has pointed out something essential: by the discretion and restraint exercised in his handling of the sexual encounters, and by their systematic reduction to the level of a certain disincarnation, these encounters take on the quality of symbols, part of a poetic language—and anything but peep-show material. (p. 5)
Teorema, to be sure, is shot through with paradox. It has already been noted that the precise, mathematical coolness of the film nevertheless burns with an intensity of emotion. But the paradox goes beyond that: the intellectual clarity and mastery evidenced in the film's structure ultimately open out on an ambiguity that remains, to a great extent, unresolved….
Teorema, in its very structure, can be seen as an exercise in cutting through the superficialities of life in order to arrive at some fundamental realities. Or, in terms of what happens in the film, the before (superficiality) and the after (reality), balanced on a certain catalytic experience….
Teorema [is], in spite of its clarity and precision, difficult to pin down intellectually, and impossible to reduce to any 'system'. For here is a film that has been explained as the expression of "la difficulté d'être d'un homosexuel," and as a thoroughly Freudian adventure—and yet it opens out on to metaphysical and sociological vistas well beyond the Freudian frame of relevance. It is also seen as a "Marxist condemnation of the spirit-stultifying aspects of bourgeois society," and it is certainly that, too. But it soars into areas which transcend the strictly materialistic horizons of orthodox Marxism. And as for the religious interpretation, well, it can always be pointed out that elements in the film may be seen as a bitter and painful reduction of religion to the level of futility and madness…. Teorema is a fascinating and compelling work of art, with a power to charm and captivate; but one of those films, too, with a terrible power to challenge. Forcing us into a direct confrontation with the deepest problems of human existence, Pasolini leaves us suspended, as it were, on the ultimate mystery. Using the Freudian and Marxist insights that have played so dominant a role in fashioning our contemporary way of structuring reality, he cuts through the spiritual death man is threatened with by that consumer society whose be-all and end-all is physical commodities. He shows us man bereft of all but the essentials, faced with his ultimate exigencies, his infinite thirst for something else. But just as man in life, when faced with its overpowering mystery, has an open option—he may (as Pasolini sees it) find his ultimate meaning in the religious solution, in the transcendent, or he may withdraw into the anguished conviction of the basic absurdity of everything, or even into madness or despair—so in Teorema the openness of the option is respected. Ambivalence, perhaps; but the final word is mystery. (p. 6)
Marc Gervais, "Pier-Paolo Pasolini: Contestatore," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1969 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 38, No. 1, Winter, 1968–69, pp. 2-7.
["Teorema"] is the kind of movie that should be seen at least twice, but I'm afraid that a lot of people will have difficulty sitting through it even once….
"Teorema" (theorem) is a parable, a movie of realistic images photographed and arranged with a mathematical precision that drains them of comforting emotional meaning….
"Teorema" is a cranky and difficult film made fascinating by the fact that Pasolini has quite consciously risked [a calamitous response from his audience]….
"Teorema" is not my favorite kind of film. It is open to too many whimsical interpretations grounded in Pasolini's acknowledged Marxism and atheism, which, like Bunuel's anticlericism, serve so well to affirm what he denies. Pasolini has stated that the young man is not meant to represent Jesus in a Second Coming. Rather, he says, the young man is god, any god, but the fact remains that he is God in a Roman Catholic land….
Pasolini doesn't load this film with little calculated messages of purple prose…. Even though Pasolini is a talented novelist and poet, the film is almost completely visual. The actors don't act, but simply exist to be photographed. The movie itself is the message, a series of cool, beautiful, often enigmatic scenes that flow one into another with the rhythm of blank verse.
This rhythm—one of the legacies of the silent film, especially of silent film comedy—[is hard] … to accept. The seductions are ticked off one after the other with absolutely no thought of emotional continuity. So are the individual defeats, which are punctuated by recurring shots of a desolate, volcanic landscape swept by sulphurous mists….
"Teorema" is a religious film, but I think it would take a very hip Jesuit to convert it into a testament to contemporary Roman Catholic dogma.
Vincent Canby, "'Teorema' in Premiere at the Coronet," in The New York Times (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 22, 1969 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1969–1970, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1971, p. 32).
If Pier Paolo Pasolini's Teorema is not the worst film ever made, you can't blame it for not trying….
[Do] not for a moment assume that the story proceeds by any sort of narrative logic. It jumps around in fragmented Godardian non sequiturs that arise from nowhere and trail off into nothing. At the slightest sign of a little consecutive action, Pasolini whisks us off to some unrelated nonincident, or to that wilderness with cloud shadows scurrying across it and another unrelated biblical quotation streaking across the soundtrack. (p. 146)
Nor are you to think that there is anything like meaningful dialogue in Teorema. The advertisements proudly proclaim that though there are only 923 words in the film (it is not clear whether that includes duplicates), it says everything. There is no doubt that it says everything; unfortunately, however, without saying something. Pasolini has declared that the film is largely about the "cage of words" in which we are all cooped up, from which the Stranger, who represents (you have guessed it!) the Divine, extricates us. Yet since there is almost no talk, and what there is comes mostly after the visitation, it would seem that, if cage there be, it is the Stranger who tosses us into it. But, then, a cage of 923 words spread over an hour and a half has bars far enough apart for an elephant to walk through.
What of the visual elements? The color cinematography is handsome to look at, but what is it looking at? (pp. 146-47)
Behavior here is a series of poses. The daughter vacuously holds out her photograph album to the Stranger and says nothing, perhaps by way of preparation for catatonia. The Stranger and the son look through a book of reproductions of the paintings of Francis Bacon: Rimbaud, Bacon—we see what kind of sexuality the divinity likes in an artist. There are, in fact, a great many male crotch shots in the film, almost as if it were told from the point of view of a homosexual worm. (p. 147)
Teorema is totally vapid as film, yet might it not be valid as a parable? Frankly, I can't see how this God (Pasolini has also said—what hasn't he said?—that the Stranger is not Christ, but "the terrible God of Creation") reaches those five people: though the mystics have put erotic tropes to good use, I cannot take this by-the-numbers intercourse seriously even as a metaphor. And why do the five react as they do? What is the meaning of their reactions? Why should the buggered son become an action painter ipso facto, and the humped daughter a catatonic? Why not the reverse? Why should the mother become a whore and the servant a saint? Social class can't be the answer; the father, too, is rich, and he gives away his earthly goods to become an eremite. Why shouldn't the mother become a painter? She painted her face heavily enough. Why don't they all become pizza vendors, or clowns in a traveling circus, or a rock group called God's Very Own or The Grateful Had?
[The Stranger's] appearance suggests, if anything, a Caravaggio angel. The angel as sexually ambiguous—asexual, bisexual, androgynous—has fascinated pederastic painters and writers…. It may even be that Teorema is a conscious or unconscious homosexual pun. (p. 148)
It used to be a favorite subject of Scholastic disputation whether God, being omnipotent as well as immortal, could destroy himself. That question, at least, has been answered: by making a film like Teorema—easily. (p. 149)
John Simon, "Sex: 'Teorema'" (originally published as "Metaphoric Sex, Symbolic Circus," in The New Leader, Vol. LII, No. 10, May 26, 1969), in his Movies into Film: Film Criticism 1967–1970 (copyright © 1971 by John Simon; reprinted with permission of The Dial Press), Dial, 1971, pp. 146-49.
Pasolini always remains detached from his characters. He is not interested in interpreting behaviour. He describes what he sees. His objectivity is alarmingly emotive, particularly when he contrasts a tragedy with the surrounding scenery. (p. 22)
Pasolini's reality is not naturalistic. It is, he says, philosophical and sacral. He tries to enlarge the reality he represents by dubbing his characters, preferably with a different voice, to make them more mysterious, larger than life. (p. 24)
His cinematic style underlines his sense of pastiche, being a combination of several styles, principally Mizoguchi, Chaplin and Dreyer. He sees these directors as 'epic-mythic': they see things from a point of view that is absolute, essential and, in a way, sacral. This is the same way in which Pasolini sees things…. (pp. 24-5)
Christ dies violently on the cross at the end of Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, 1964), screaming and accompanied by cut-in shots of tumbling buildings. Like Pasolini's other heroes he is a rebel. His Lenin-like figure, neurotic and fanatic, moves among the peasantry, a passionate revolutionary, threatening and cajoling, a man with a mission who has 'come not to bring peace but a sword'. There is little, or nothing, of the gentle divine in Pasolini's Christ…. He is a homosexual Christ, needing the adoration of his disciples, but isolated and able to give little affection in return. He is a Christ who spurns his mother with the words: 'Who is a mother, who are brethren to me?' but who suffers from his own act of rejection as he strides away in tears. Pasolini's Christ is both Marxist and religious…. (pp. 25-6)
With Edipo Re (Oedipus Rex, 1967) Pasolini reaches the peak of his autobiographical rebellion. He consciously reconstructs the origins of his Oedipus complex, exploring his relationships with the father he hated and the mother he adored. (p. 28)
[In Oedipus] Pasolini is crudely emphasizing the super-ego represented by the father repressing the child. But if Pasolini's ideas on psycho-analytic theory are naïve, he is here artistically effective and convincing, more so than in the rest of the film. When Pasolini abruptly cuts from the modern father clutching the baby's ankles in a fit of hate to the baby bound by wrists and ankles being carried across a Moroccan desert, the connections seem too tenuous. Pasolini is attempting to move from his own Oedipal situation into a generalized concept of the Oedipus complex, based on the myth of Oedipus. He has said that the basic operation in the film is to reproject psychoanalysis onto the myth. But it doesn't work on this level. (pp. 28-9)
Oedipus Rex is a patchy film, moments of violence and power are spoilt by naïvety and overstatement, and, for Pasolini, parts are surprisingly insensitive. (p. 30)
Throughout his work Pasolini is searching for a way of life that is both Marxist and embraces his feelings about religion. Often the two are confused. He originally intended Marxism as the unifying theme in his work. (p. 32)
[A] search for 'truth' is more plausible as the unity that permeates Pasolini's work. It is a truth that can be summed up in the Socratic 'Know thyself.' (p. 33)
Susan Macdonald, "Pasolini: Rebellion, Art and a New Society," in Screen (© The Society for Education in Film and Television 1969), Vol. 10, No. 3, May-June, 1969, pp. 19-34.
The equation [of Theorem (Teorema)] is simple. There is a family as perfect in form as one of Plato's proofs … father, mother, son, daughter, maid. The family institution, self-contained in its house, its home, is the private body politic in which the individuals should—so we have been educated to believe—derive the security they need to free themselves from their mythological beings—free as individuals, whenever necessary, to transcend the confines of the family, to become good social people, fearlessly taking their place in the more harrowing politics of the institutions of the world. Their guest, a beautiful, quiet young man, arrives and, quite passively, is used by each of them to sublimate their unconscious, repressed needs. He is the catalyst they use to confront in themselves that 'self' which has been denied fulfilment by their family social situation. For a brief moment, each one is gathered into the artifice of eternity … they experience fulfilment of their entire beings….
The lack of any sense of meaning, religious or otherwise, is compensated for, in each of them, by perilous, private crusades … each must seek the existential solution to his own spiritual needs. The common denominator of the theorem is the desert, the void … and each member of the splintered group fulfils his private suffering….
The only theorems ever evolved to explain the tragic insult that we resemble mere animals, fornicating and doing dirty things at night in bed for years and years and years, goddammit, were evolved by two sets of people … those who admitted to emotions as they are, the artists, and those admitted to them, by default as it were, in negative … the Church. (p. 38)
If you go deep enough into the myths and taboos of any individual mind, you go through all time and reach the equations of mystery and fear that will never, never be solved. We shall always be individuals, yet we shall always need to build institutions to protect us from our Godless solitude. Clearly the present solution, for the privileged few, who we see here in this film, or for the under-privileged many who have politics as their religion, is not the right one. So deeply moving and pessimistic is this film, showing as it does that we project our inner need of God only so briefly on to the world, having so little faith to keep it alive, for such a short time. I can only speculate that the Catholics who voted Pasolini his well-deserved prize (it deserves all the prizes) must have said, 'If this won't drive them in, then nothing will.' Nothing … will. (p. 39)
Peter Whitehead, "'Theorem'" (© copyright Peter Whitehead 1969; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 15, No. 9, June, 1969, pp. 38-9.
There are only two reasons for taking a myth and re-working it. Either because a variation on it will communicate a new depth of understanding about that particular myth … or simply because myths are 'true'. They tend to be true in a way that we still do not understand. They work! But Pasolini seems to have done neither with [Oedipus Rex]—except to take the story and set it in Arabia and drag his hero through a series of parodies of Japanese samurai movies. This is Accatone telling a camp joke to the blokes back at the ghetto, about how the other half lives … (pp. 39-40)
Pasolini missed a chance that could have led to a whole new interpretation of the myth. Sophocles never explains why poor old Laius had to get killed by his son; it was not merely for being jealous of his arrival and taking his place in his wife's affections. What had he done? We know what Oedipus did. Oedipus was destroyed because he could not accept the horror of having killed his father, etcetera … (I think if Pasolini wanted to really bring the myth up to date, he ought to have set it in Puerto Rica and have Oedipus proud as hell that he bumped his impotent father off, and tickled pink that this female he just can't for the love of him stop … something so archetypal about her bone structure! His only problem on discovering it was his Mother would be to know if he can still claim benefit for her as his 'wife'. His eyes are wide open.)…
The tragedy seems to be that the more we 'evolve', the more we fall away from resolving the deepest taboos with which we mystify ourselves, and as society becomes so complex and so utterly dedicated to the present, the secrets of the past—scarred across more than just our dreams—will be abandoned as redundant….
I'd like to think that Pasolini is suggesting something like this, the relevance still, of our ignorance of our compulsions, our taboos, our fears, our emotions (dirty word), by re-making Oedipus Rex and setting it with prologue and epilogue in present day time. But there is little sign of any real existentialist rethinking of the myth. It is more of an Italianising of it….
The landscapes are beautiful, the buildings like a dream we would have liked to think Kafka had about Castles, the costumes are weird, surprising, fun, and some of the set pieces are fascinating. But the whole film is lost, its purpose somewhere else … it is slow, and never for a second moving, never really surprising once you've said—ah, Arabia!—and intellectually boring. Methinks he doth protest too much. It is a travelogue. And a pity. (p. 40)
Peter Whitehead, "'Oedipus Rex'" (© copyright Peter Whitehead 1969; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 15, No. 9, June, 1969, pp. 39-40.
[Pigpen] abounds in symbols so extravagant and so abstruse that they continually appear to be shifting ground and flouting interpretation. No doubt, a number of interpretations are intended, and there is also no doubt that they are meant to be on several different "levels." Considering the incessant affectations of the film, interpretation seems hardly worth the effort….
[However, a] viewer cannot help but be impressed by a sense of Pasolini's acuteness and the ambitions of his analyses. He sees European civilization as having learned little from the worst catastrophe it ever experienced. Instead of evolving to a higher plane of social development (Pasolini is a Communist), men cynically repeat themselves or rationalize their impotence. The moral vacuum created by this purgatory is Pasolini's justification for wrath. (p. 4)
In the film's modern drama all the characters are too facile and in the medieval, too alien…. The medieval story never clarifies the identity of the cannibals nor their awesome attraction and frightening repulsion engendered in the viewer. If Pasolini is accusing, we are all implicated, but the artist is too involved in the film's metaphorical devices to keep the accusatory finger from falling limp. The viewer is left puzzled rather than excited and concerned.
Since Pasolini is quite sincere about what he does, it cannot be smugness or charlatanism that leads to the obscurity of his allegories. Originally a poet and novelist, Pasolini's most recent films bear the marks of literary formalism. It is not explicit talkiness that makes for a literary film, but a stylistic and structural preconception that does not really trust the inherent quality of the image itself to convey meaning. (pp. 4-5)
In Pigpen's medieval story the camera tracks up and down and angles in from distant shots, possibly implying dramatic involvement ironic to the barren background. In the modern narrative, the images are presented with formal balance—a central figure with equal weight on either side—as in a Renaissance painting. In both cases, the style is intellectually absorbing but does nothing to elucidate the overall theme of the film. (p. 5)
Calvin Green, "L'homme politique: Man and the Revolution at the N.Y. Film Festival," in Cinéaste (copyright © 1969 by Gary Crowdus), Vol. III, No. 2, Fall, 1969, pp. 2-5, 36.∗
With the conclusion of Theorem, Pasolini left us in the company of today's bourgeois paterfamilias, stripped of all save his despairing confusion, wandering distractedly across the acid volcanic wastes that had been glimpsed previously throughout the film like almost subliminal reminders of his cryptozoic ancestry. As if resuming the tale, Pigsty [or Pigpen] … begins in the same setting, with an identical outcast struggling across the lifeless ash-dunes; the pangs assailing him now, however, are no longer those of conscience or doubt but simply those of an excruciating hunger. Pasolini gives us no time to consider this apparent simplification before he has once again broadened the metaphor alarmingly by cutting in the first glimpses of the parallel story of which the film is composed. In direct balance to Theorem …, Pigsty punctuates the primitive with the ornate; although this time the two separate narratives are of roughly equal length, if not of equivalent complexity….
Pigsty continues to chart the course of Pasolini's detachment from the ideology of his Accattone days….
Pigsty, like Theorem, draws both comfort and despair from the gratified hungers of humanity, blames no one for their actions or their inactions, and ultimately adopts a fatalistic standpoint (the connection with Edipo Re is hinted enigmatically by the cannibal's final words) which concludes that other forces than man's are behind all that he attempts to do. (p. 99)
The wilful interlocking of two utterly different narratives has its own strange ambiguity. It can be argued that the exercise is meaningless, yet the results never are. The contrasts and clashes between [Willard Maas's] Orgia and Porcile set up disturbing, often indefinable echoes…. Since we know far more about the porcophile Julian than we do about the cannibal, the relationship between them is difficult to determine—particularly as the former is hardly as anti-social as the latter. But relationship there undoubtedly is, in their passion, in their detachment, and finally in their deaths.
Originally, Pasolini had planned that Julian would be visited by the ghost of Spinoza, assuring him that his love for the pigs is equivalent to a belief in God; this splendidly ambivalent interpolation is gone, but the sense of the self-destructive nature of any dedication remains, the theological aspects being brought out more by the cannibal's ceremonial disposal of heads in the marvellously gaping mouth of the volcano and his condemnation at the hands of some dishevelled clerics than by Julian's more amiable martyrdom. (pp. 99-100)
If one can conclude anything from the film, it is that Pasolini has transcended the efforts of any of his contemporaries to define the Italian dilemma in both poetic and cinematic terms. (p. 100)
Philip Strick, "Film Reviews: 'Pigsty'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1970 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 39, No. 2, Spring, 1970, pp. 99-100.
Pasolini is no austere modernist carving out a resolutely independent style but an artist whose principal stylistic device is pastiche. His films, like those of Jean-Luc Godard, are thus extremely heterogeneous and rely on the force of his personal involvement for their effective coherence. Despite the referential quality of his imagery and music, Pasolini's works bear the stamp of their author. (p. 55)
The basic polarity which gives tension to Pasolini's style and which, on the crudest level, can be expressed as the attempt to reconcile Freud and Marx, is very apparent if one compares … Theorem and Oedipus Rex. It is even more clearly expressed in Pigsty, which combines two episodes, the one modern and satiric, the other mythic and orgiastic. (pp. 55-6)
The Freudian element in Pasolini is most obvious in his own Oedipal situation, quite explicitly expressed in his version of the Sophoclean tragedy but implicit in much else, from Mamma Roma to The Gospel According to St. Matthew…. Pasolini does not concern himself with dogmas and heresy or formulate a critique of the Christian ethic. Rather he adopts a much less sophisticated attitude and expresses a deep sense of awe at reality, most clearly expressed in the Colchis sequences of Medea….
The mythic stories of man's attempts to come to terms with his own religious sense and complicated sexuality have certain qualities that set them apart from the rest of Pasolini's work, in the kinds of emphasis they receive if not in the actual content…. One striking aspect of The Gospel, Oedipus Rex and the 'Orgy' episode of Pigsty is the combination of narrative simplicity and total ambiguity of meaning…. The films show men of enormous personal authority, but leave in doubt the divine nature of Christ, the moral implications of Oedipus's acts and the impulses behind Pierre Clémenti's acts of savagery, and this genuine mystery adds to the film's religious quality. As if to compensate for the simplicity and violence of the action, these works are given the most striking imagery to be found in Pasolini…. The ease with which Pasolini can find, in the Mediterranean, analogies for these primitive societies, makes clear that the modern predicament is not simply that of coming to terms with an urban environment. It is also that of mastering the basic and irrational forces within all of us…. (p. 56)
Pasolini's concern with Marxism has much the same origins as his Freudian obsession. In a very real sense it is part of his revolt against the values of his father who was both a Fascist and a petit-bourgeois…. [Pasolini's] first films, like his early novels, show the impact of the Roman slums and their inhabitants upon his artistic sensibilities. A film like Accattone self-consciously idealises the Roman thieves, whores and layabouts, but despite the novelty of its tone it lacks the originality of Pasolini's mature style. Because of Pasolini's inadequate technical command the various elements do not totally blend and for much of the time one is confronted with a run-down version of the neo-realist approach. (pp. 56-7)
[In Theorem and half of Pigsty], Pasolini has confronted the problems of bourgeois society which are more closely linked to his own deepest preoccupations. Here he has evolved a style that is in marked contrast to his studies of Freudian myth. In this urban environment Pasolini presents stories built around elements of irony and parallelism. Unconcerned with mere reportage of social behaviour, he presents satiric portraits of middle-class families which disintegrate under the impact of self-realisation….
For Pasolini the essential difference between cinema and literature is that the language of film lacks metaphor, it expresses reality with reality. Pasolini has … a reverential approach to reality itself as it is experienced, but his awareness of the qualities of film as language make him very distrustful of naturalism as a form of expression. He rigorously avoids the mere imitation of life. He likes using, in neo-realist fashion, non-actors chosen because of the appropriateness of their faces and figures. But he does not use them naturally: he poses them in positions taken from Piero della Francesca and dubs them with actors' voices. For him the only means which allows the cinema to compensate for the lack of metaphor (and hence, at a certain level, of poetry itself) is the notion of analogy…. Pasolini is concerned to rediscover the mythical element of reality. He does not demystify Christ—i.e., show him to be simply a man—he gives us, in The Gospel, Christ and two thousand years of Christian legend and art. Similarly, he does not unravel Greek legend in terms of modern psychology: he gives us in Oedipus Rex the mystery of Sophocles plus the ambiguities of Freud and his own personal involvement. (p. 57)
Roy Armes, "Pasolini" (© copyright Roy Armes 1971; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 17, No. 9, June, 1971, pp. 55-8.
Pier Paolo Pasolini's very free, very barbaric "Medea," which is less an adaptation of the Euripides play than an interpretation of it, is not completely successful, but it is … full of eccentric imagination and real passion….
If your priorities are such, Pasolini's "Medea" can be an excellent argument for the kind of literal movie made by [Michael] Cacoyannis….
"Medea" is something else entirely. Pasolini has the monumental and marvelous presumption to put himself ahead of Euripides (who was not, after all, a moviemaker), in an attempt to translate into film terms the sense of a prehistoric time, place and intelligence in which all myths and rituals were real experiences….
Pasolini's Medea is no longer a rather ill-tempered woman spurned, an early Women's Liberationist, a mother guilty of the sort of murders that were … appalling to the ancient Greeks….
In Pasolini's conception, Medea is a primeval soul who erupts almost spontaneously when transplanted into a civilization ruled by order. And this, I think, is where the film goes awry.
There is no real conflict between Pasolini's conception and Euripides's. Pasolini's supplements the other's, but because nothing in Pasolini's imagery in the scenes in Corinth is equal to the passion of the original text, or to Pasolini's own scenes early in the film, the movie seems to go thin and absurdly melodramatic….
"Medea" is uneven, but I admire the reckless courage of its conception, even when it goes wrong. When it is right, as in the poetic and funny prologue, delivered by the centaur …, and in its eerie evocation of Medea's world, which (according to Pasolini) is our subconscious world, it is superb.
Vincent Canby, "Callas Stars in 'Medea'," in The New York Times (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 29, 1971 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1971–1972, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1973, p. 163).
If you found that by the end of nearly two hours of The Decameron you'd had enough medieval bawdiness for quite some time, then be warned: miss out on The Canterbury Tales. It's not just that Pasolini's latest feature … is concerned with roughly the same themes and similar characters, but it lacks any indication of his very considerable talent. (p. 46)
Pasolini would seem to have selected the tales he uses … with a view merely to creating as bawdy a picture as possible of the chosen period. His underlying theme of the rise and development of the middle class might have been far more acceptable had it not necessitated such tampering with Chaucer's poetry. Apart from this concentration upon a particular social stratum, there is little unity and the links between tales are extremely weak….
The Canterbury Tales is lengthy and tedious…. [One] feels cheated when such an exercise in medieval mediocrity is served up by a director capable of a master work of the force of The Gospel According To St Matthew. (p. 47)
Alexander Stuart, "Reviews: 'The Canterbury Tales'" (© copyright Alexander Stuart 1973; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 19, No. 9, June, 1973, pp. 46-7.
Pasolini's The Canterbury Tales is the first film to come my way in which the protagonist is the Fart. And even that has every aural sign of being dubbed in…. Chaucer was not above specific gags about breaking wind, bums, queynts and the normal processes of mankind. Pasolini, however, has somehow ended up below them during this lamentable excursion. You could say he turns up rumps. I have nothing against the male posterior, either figuratively or literally, but this disconnected succession of visual flashes, with the stress on buggery and women present, one feels, on sufferance, is of unmanageable vulgarity…. Words do not fail me about this pitiful travesty: contempt cuts them short.
John Coleman, "Jackal and Hide," in New Statesman (© 1973 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 85, No. 2204, June 15, 1973, p. 901.
Medea is something of a relief in that it asserts an ideological dimension whose willed abandonment has rendered the trilogy a charming exercise in fausse naïveté. In this five-year-old work, Pasolini is still conceding a social dimension to his elected myths: not, in this instance, an imaginative world "earthy, frolicsome, crowded with people and full of light" (his description of Decameron) but a stark confrontation between cultures sacred and profane, agrarian and bourgeois, 'epical-religious' and 'Western-pragmatic'…. On a formal level, Pasolini is refining a style evident in much of his previous work, but especially in Oedipus. Slow pans across palace walls and expectant lines of men; the blank, immobile scrutiny of an unchanging scene; set-ups which enclose the same piece of reality in two successively closer shots. The allegorical complexities of Theorem and Pigsty are eschewed, as are the evasive simplifications of the films to follow; balanced between them, Medea indeed effects Pasolini's intended "blend … of a philosophical reflection and a love intrigue"—a work which, like its heroine…, can be said to face in two directions at once but draws its major strength from past achievements.
Nigel Gearing, "Feature Films: 'Medea'," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1975), Vol. 42, No. 497, June, 1975, p. 142.
The butchery [of the first twenty minutes of Medea] provides a neat excuse for Medea's later actions: infanticide is shown to be merely her innate (socially acceptable) function as a Colcian priestess resurfacing many years later for more personal reasons. Within Pasolini's intensely schematic telling, this works quite well; likewise his use of non-professionals, their natural gaucherie complementing his liking for static groups of people arranged like icon-portraits in passageways and arches. What, in his recent trilogy, has degenerated into untidiness, in Medea is still valid because of a rigid, completely unself-in-dulgent mise-en-scène….
[It is Maria Callas's] physical presence which propels the rest of the film—a film badly in need of propelling to prevent it going into reverse. In retrospect one can see Medea as the last in a long line of films which became increasingly sparer and more static; what Pasolini has now lost in self-control he has gained in pace. Medea (1970) is beautiful to watch, baffling to follow, and interesting to analyse on paper. As a piece of filmmaking, presumably aimed at attracting audiences, it is unnecessarily slow, emotionally sterile, and extremely boring.
Derek Elley, "Reviews: 'Medea'" (© copyright Derek Elley 1975; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 21, No. 10, July, 1975, p. 45.
[Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo is the most serious, sober, and] deeply reverent film about Christ the cinema has given us. And yet, in a way, these are negative qualities: their presence does not necessarily mean that the director has come to terms with the central problems of his subject. It is not frivolous to say that the story has no suspense (everyone knows how it turns out); this is a problem in any dramatic representation of the life of Christ—the more so since it is all too easy to rely exclusively on the emotions that inevitably color it in the spectators' minds, instead of trying to make some positive contribution. It would not be fair to say that Pasolini has done this, but the film sometimes looks perilously like it…. The film is at times pictorially beautiful, and the nonprofessional players act with striking restraint: it is all quite distinguished, in a wan sort of way, but also, truth to tell, more than a little dull.
At least so it seems to me, though for many it is one of Pasolini's finest achievements. (p. 50)
Oedipus has a splendid opening sequence in pre-war Italy, which implies a whole Oedipal situation. But the body of the film, set in primitive Morocco and following Sophocles fairly closely, comes over as much more decked out than felt: one chafes at Pasolini's insistence on telling the story as though we had never heard it before, instead of taking some knowledge of it for granted and going on from there. (p. 55)
It is difficult to feel that in Edipo Re—except in the prologue and the brief coda that shows Oedipus walking through the streets of modern Bologna—Pasolini has done much more than take the myth, and Sophocles' telling of it, for granted, instead of rethinking it or reexperiencing it. And, given this feeling, the unlikely trappings he has found for the Sophoclean past seem far more arbitrary and dandyish than integral to his conception of the story…. The force of the intellectual notion—insisting on the universality of the myth by situating it outside history, beyond any specific cultural framework—can be appreciated intellectually, but it is not sufficiently felt, and the film remains, the prologue and coda apart, a clever but empty exercise in style.
[Not so the] contrasting (yet also closely related) … Teorema. This I believe to be Pasolini's masterpiece, the single work that triumphantly brings together all his talents at their highest, all his preoccupations at their most intense…. Teorema is the sort of film that makes one think what a nuisance it is that, in the cause of intellectually respectable criticism, one must pretend to be interested in what films mean. That is not true, of course: part of the fascination of this extraordinary, intricate, and teasing film is to work out exactly what Pasolini thinks he means by it. But the first thing that strikes one is its mastery as a piece of storytelling, the way it keeps its audience agog to know what will happen next. It is far and away Pasolini's most entertaining film to date. (pp. 56-7)
Teorema shows a new and complete mastery of means on Pasolini's part. The style is pure, simple, and direct, in Pasolini's familiar "reverential" manner. There are no fireworks, and sometimes, as in the episode of the maid's levitation, or in her eventual self-sacrificial act of burying herself alive, the effect is deliberately analogous to that of primitive painting, the filmmaker withdrawing into an apparent naïve literalness that leaves us to supply our own comment, should we feel any comment is necessary…. Teorema is Pasolini's first dramatic foray into the middle classes—something he had always avoided before, because of his ingrained dislike of the bourgeois and his unwillingness to spend any time with them, even on the set of a film. But the bourgeois background is simplified and stylized, with no attempt at realistic detailing; their world is hermetically sealed off from the world around them. (p. 59)
Visually [Porcile (Pigpen)] is of extraordinary splendor; it is beautifully photographed in color which makes the most of the alternation between the bare volcanic uplands of the first story (like the wasteland in which the father in Teorema ends his journey) and the glittering baroque palace where the family in the second story lives. The slow revelations of horror and bestiality in both are impeccably filmed and synchronized. And the structure of the film as a whole is built with the inevitability of a piece of great music, a pattern that is completed with perfect emotional logic by the last "say nothing" gesture of the winning industrialist when he has satisfied himself that the aberrant son has been consumed, hair and hide, down to the last button.
The internal logic and emotional coherence of the film are so perfect that the last thing one wants to do is to look for meanings, to search for symbols and equivalences that, put together, could provide a clear, noncinematic statement on the human condition. (pp. 60-1)
If we really must find a formula for interpreting the film, the most useful is to see it in terms of an argument for the necessity of extreme solutions, of following through one's own logic to the end without flinching. The bandit is reduced to a state where the only way he can survive is to prey on his fellows, so why not follow this through to the extreme of actually eating them, and if he does, why should he be superstitiously ashamed? The industrialist's son lives in a world of human pigs—his parents are frequently compared to pigs, and the world around him is represented as a pigsty—so why shouldn't he follow this through to the extreme of literally living like a pig? In both cases, the central characters achieve a heroic integrity that the others lack: they are the only ones who manage really to live, by piercing through the outworn conventions and subterfuges of a society ripe for destruction. (pp. 61-2)
But then the great advantage of the film is that we do not have to label it, and probably do not want to label it. As private myth made public, it is sublimely self-sufficient, and stands alongside Teorema as one of Pasolini's most magisterial cinematic statements…. (p. 62)
In Il Decamerone [The Decameron] the air of joyful relaxation and good humor is complete: it is the loosest, most warmly human of all Pasolini's films, and also, obviously, the most commercial, a consideration which may or may not be coincidental. (p. 64)
[While] the interest of Il Decamerone at least is not negligible, it is hardly surprising if we choose to continue thinking of Pasolini as the fascinating combination of intellect and instinct revealed in Teorema and Porcile, the ingenious recreator of ancient myth in Edipo Re and Medea, the discoverer of the mystical in the heart of the ordinary in Accattone, and the whimsical fabulist of Uccellacci e Uccellini. If his later films are far less distinguished, that can hardly be more than a temporary accident of fate and film politics, bound sooner or later to be put unerringly right with a new masterpiece from one of the most extraordinary filmmakers in the world today. (pp. 67-8)
John Russell Taylor, "Pier Paolo Pasolini," in his Directors and Directions: Cinema for the Seventies (reprinted by permission of Hill & Wang, a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; in Canada by A D Peters & Co Ltd; copyright © 1975 by John Russell Taylor), Hill & Wang, 1975, pp. 44-68.
Pasolini's Medea exemplifies how an artist uses a discernible conceptual structure as the formative and organizing principle of his work. For Pasolini, this conceptual structure is a nondogmatic Marxist mode of analysis of individuals in society and cultures in history. (p. 54)
Free from a dependence on dialogue and verbal imagery, Pasolini presents a larger mythic world in a way that film does best: by portraying powerful visual imagery in action. (pp. 54-5)
In the film as a whole, Pasolini presents not only a psychological/personal drama but also a cultural/historical drama concerning the way culture operates and influences individual consciousness and behavior. He is interested not just, as the playwrights have been, in revelation of character by dramatizing Jason and Medea in conflict, but in illustrating the growth of consciousness in both characters in the context of formative cultural influences….
Within the larger mythic world of his film, Pasolini successfully presents the two major kinds of myth: what is mythopoeic—the genuine ritual and sacramentalism which are expressions of the primal mode of consciousness that sees everything in the world as sacred; and what is mythological—the organized, unified artistic construct produced by the literary or aesthetic consciousness. While the film as a whole, of course, belongs to the second species of myth, Pasolini's triumph is the cinematic immediacy of his epic mythology which represents how primal mythopoeic consciousness operates. The directly presentational medium of film is precisely suited to represent this non-rhetorical and pre-analytical view of the universe. (p. 55)
What Pasolini shows us is the primal consciousness of the universe, which Medea embodies, and which does not see things symbolically or metaphorically as mere analogies, but sees things sacramentally as identities and integrated wholes in which a living spirit is unified with the thing. (p. 56)
Pasolini emphasizes how the contrasts and conflicts between "primitive" Colchis and "rationally advanced" Greece affect Medea and Jason. This emphasis is particularly evident from comparisons with the notable prior dramatizations of the myth. While Euripides' prototype play, to which Pasolini acknowledges his debt, involves the issue of cultural conflict to some extent, almost all of the playwrights who follow are primarily concerned with character study. Pasolini's thematic emphasis is not simply attributable to the greater visual capabilities of film. Rather he uses these capabilities to make the specific content of his interpretation of the myth visible. The specific content of his interpretation is the product of a conceptual structure which organizes and unifies the specific form of the film. (pp. 56-7)
According to Pasolini's Marxist-humanism evident in the conceptual structure of his film, an individual's perceptions and values, as well as social structures and activities, are determined by the particular modes of consciousness and states of social organization in a given historical situation. As this principle applies to art, the work of art reflects the artist's particular consciousness which has been determined by his historical/cultural situation. Therefore, the specific content of Pasolini's interpretation of the Medea story is produced by the very same process of culturally determined conceptual structures that his film enacts as the myth of that process. (p. 61)
Pasolini presents a myth of what happens in Western culture and individual consciousness. At certain points in the historical cycles of self-consciousness as well as social organization, human existence must follow the inevitable route from the consecrated to the desecrated. But this need not be a myth of no hope. If we recognize the historical process as cycles of dialectical conflict and change, we see Pasolini's film as the opportunity to experience and understand a story about this process in the past.
Thus his Medea shows where he is in the contemporary situation, and perhaps where we are. As at the end of The Hawks and the Sparrows (although a more whimsical and didactic film), Pasolini cannot say what the content of the new synthesis is to be; he simply maintains, according to his Marxist humanism, that there will be that new synthesis. Thus in Medea he provides for us the secular ritual, the aesthetic and intellectual experience, the myth and the images to move to a higher state of awareness and organization, where we may strive for a new synthesis of consciousness and culture. (p. 62)
Nathaniel Teich, "Myth into Film: Pasolini's 'Medea' and its Dramatic Heritage," in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1976, University of Utah), Vol. XXIV, No. 1, Winter, 1976, pp. 53-62.
[Salo: 120 Days of Sodom] is perhaps the most appalling fictional film I have ever seen (and I want the adjective to retain its ambiguity). I shall doubtless be haunted by it for a long time, but I'm not convinced that the haunting will be very profitable. It is a very difficult film to cope with, because it plays so disturbingly on the most dangerous ambivalences. The torments Dante imagined for sinners in the name of religion, the overtly erotic cruelties of de Sade, Nazi atrocities, and the ambiguously liberating/obsessive fantasies of Pasolini himself, all merge here until they become inextricable. One can perceive two clear, conscious strategies at work in the film, which constitute an effort towards purity of impulse: the attempt to distinguish cleanly between sexual acts based on mutual response and those based on power and degradation; and the struggle for a rigorous stylistic distancing of the whole catalogue of abominations the film comprises, Pasolini eschewing his habitual spontaneity for the deliberate execution of a carefully pre-planned scenario.
Yet the film's very obsessiveness undermines the attempted objectification: one quickly senses that it was Pasolini's own nightmares that he was striving to objectify, and the distinction between a film about obscenity and an obscene film becomes blurred. The division of the characters into ugly Fascist-bourgeois parent-figures and beautiful, young, innocent victims seems simplistic and sentimental, and the victims' almost total lack of protest at the atrocities inflicted on them seems to extend the sadism of their oppressors to a sadism of the film.
Robin Wood, "Notorious and Notable," in The Times Educational Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Educational Supplement by permission), No. 3211, December 17, 1976, p. 18.
The film of The Decameron is not a fusion of Pasolini and Boccaccio, nor does it necessarily reflect Pasolini's view of Boccaccio; it merely reveals Pasolini's own imaginary experience derived from a particular reading. It is Pasolini who is the sole creator of his film. (p. 24)
The treatment of the subject-matter in the film attests both a desire to offer an authentic picture of man in the Middle Ages and, further, to delineate what is elementary and continuing in Man on an a-temporal level, beyond any specific historical figuration….
For Pasolini the consciousness that formulated The Decameron was inseparable from the one which composed De genealogia deorum gentilium, that huge repository of Greek and Roman mythology which is one of the monuments of early classical scholarship. It is, therefore, not surprising that in his wish to re-discover the vitality of the Middle Ages Pasolini found it necessary to strip his written source of all of its rhetorical trappings, artifices of plot, and recitative structure. Couched in elegant, refined, bourgeois language, Boccaccio's Decameron seemed to raise an inadmissible screen between the addressee and the original experience. Pasolini renounced the approach of the lettered author that was Boccaccio's and substituted a candour and a naiveté which were for him much closer to the predominant spirit of mediaeval man. Beyond the sophisticated narratives of an a-typical educated scholar, Pasolini sought to touch the human pulse. (p. 26)
Early in the film a bustling, noisy, street-scene shows a wandering bard relating verbatim a tale from Boccaccio's Decameron. This delightful ploy enables Pasolini to insist within a single sequence on the gulf between the polished literary version and the brutally immediate cinematographic. Moreover, the book has become, significantly, a subordinate element in the primary phenomenon of the film. This hierarchy is further emphasised when, on several occasions later in the film, Pasolini himself appears as Giotto. The painter's brief appearance in Boccaccio's work is amplified on the screen to the point where Giotto, working on his religious fresco, comes to symbolise the creator-artist, comes to symbolise Pasolini himself since the latter is the creator-artist of the film. Nor is it only the palpable physical identity of both, which Pasolini's features suggest, that is noteworthy, but also the subject-matter of their respective creations….
The conclusion would seem to be that the artist's task—be it Giotto or Pasolini—is to distil from man's experience that which is enduring and fundamental, and to give it expression. (p. 27)
It has been claimed that Pasolini introduces gratuitously his very personal idiosyncracies into his films and that, in these cases, he is guilty of a falsification and an individualisation of the original experience. However, all of the aspects commonly mentioned in this respect—misogyny, anticlericalism and homosexuality—figure already in Boccaccio, and any additional emphasis that there may seem to be is often due to the irreducibly concrete nature of film itself….
Pasolini preserves in most respects the image of the Middle Ages that is contained in Boccaccio, but … divests it of the deceptive discretion of presentation. (p. 28)
David G. Bevan, "Pasolini and Boccaccio," in Literature/Film Quarterly (© copyright 1977 Salisbury State College), Vol. 5, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 23-9.
Where Sophocles has succeeded in making his Oedipus Rex topical and relevant, Pasolini has aimed at making his Edipo Re strange and indefinite, outside any specific set of cultural references. In Pasolini, the mythic is equated with the unfamiliar; the universal, with the particularly grotesque. (p. 32)
Pasolini's view of myth as an a-historical, symbolic reality … influences his conception of Oedipus. He seems to ascribe the intellectuality of Sophocles' Oedipus less to Oedipus the mythic archetype than to the critical spirit and scientific outlook of fifth century Athens, to the outstanding achievements of a generation of sophists, scientists, and philosophers, that is, to a precise moment in history. Consequently he has deliberately and, one might say, perversely chosen to create a non-intellectual Oedipus. (p. 34)
[Pasolini, a Marxist], sees the emergence of the petit bourgeoisie with its attendant moral code as being a decidedly historical and temporal phenomenon. He maintains that in place of the soul, which is a transcendental reality, it has substituted conscience, which is at best a shadowy social convention. And so, in order to capture the mythicness of Oedipus, Pasolini attempts to reconstruct a pre-bourgeois mentality where conformity in conduct to a prescribed moral standard is not taken for granted. He has tried to place Oedipus in a more mythic, subproletarian world completely stripped of any traces of bourgeois morality…. Finally, by exploiting the spatio-temporal freedom of film, Pasolini is able to introduce into Edipo Re scenes and images that seem designed to speak directly to his audience's unconscious, to penetrate the labyrinthine recesses of their collective selves. (p. 35)
Pasolini's Edipo Re is, then, an attempt to inhabit the realms of myth and dream. Pasolini has worked through the medium of film, believing as he does that images are closer to myth than words. Whereas Sophocles took the myth of Oedipus and clothed it in history in order to interpret the times, Pasolini has taken the myth and stripped it of history in order to enter more fully into the myth. Taken together, the two approaches bear eloquent testimony to the Protean nature of myth. (p. 36)
Robert J. White; "Myth and Mise-en-Scène: Pasolini's 'Edipo Re'," in Literature/Film Quarterly (© copyright 1977 Salisbury State College), Vol. 5, No. 1, Winter, 1977, pp. 30-7.
[Salò] joins the list of little-seen but much-written-about oeuvres de scandale which fuel the fires of the censorship debate. This is perhaps the greatest pity, since the film is one of those works which is undoubtedly more horrifying in print than it is on screen. A mere catalogue of its more scandalous moments gives a totally false impression of its overall qualities, and, particularly in the case of Salò, those moments are far from being the sine qua non of its existence. Much of the content may be obsessive and much of it indecipherable to a reasonably balanced mentality, but its construction is far from haphazard and its logic, on its own terms, perfectly coherent. That logic is summarised early on by one of the Fascist overseers: 'All things are good when carried to excess.' And Pasolini invites the viewer into a downward spiral of humiliation and degradation pursued to the ultimate extreme of eventual death….
[The] film is consistently pleasing to the eye, and Pasolini's mise-en-scène, visually discreet, mostly reliant on the long shot, and replete with controlled, geometric set-ups, is about as lip-smacking as a desiccated prune. A general heartlessness, a total unconcern for the individual, pervades the picture; this is not new in Pasolini, but some human concern would have given his scenario some justification…. Pasolini's grafting of Fascism on De Sade's theories is gratuitous at the least, but such deliberate provocation by the film-maker is rapidly neutralised by the steer monotony and obsessiveness of the argument. The film's thesis is made clear in the opening reel, and the remainder of the time is merely spent in demonstration and elaboration rather than development…. Pasolini was always a highly literary film-maker—and, for me, a writer and theoretician rather than a natural cinéaste—but in Salò even the literary artist plays second fiddle to private obsessions. The latent (and sometimes not so latent) homosexuality in his oeuvre here devours reason; the coprophilia and proctophilia is gloried in per se. No amount of wordy intellectualising can obscure the barrenness of Salò. In sum it is as pointless a waste of film stock as anything in the Confessions series.
Derek Elley, "Reviews: Pasolini's 'Salo: 120 Days of Sodom'" (© copyright Derek Elley 1977; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 24, No. 1, October, 1977, p. 31.
[While] relatively modest in depicting more or less conventional (oral and anal) sexual acts, Salò is painfully explicit in areas previously unexplored on American screens—specifically, urination, defecation and sexual torture. That New York audiences can calmly tolerate Pasolini's cinematic excess offers compelling testimony about a liberal society's power to accommodate (or inability to resist) the most extreme repudiations of its own underlying values, like decency….
[This] kind of tolerance undermines the film's raison d'être. When Sade's notions lose their power to shock, or are no longer taken seriously, they also lose their political and moral significance….
I cannot help concluding that Pasolini was less interested in the overall point of his adaptation (if there was any) than in its obscene details. But I do not think the reason for this is, as he suggests, that before Pasolini's death in 1975 …, his homosexuality and radical politics were warped by alienation into an impotent rage against society. I would look, instead, to the tension in Salò between Sade's material and Pasolini's technique, between the disgusting content and the stern formalism of its expression. Pasolini's sensibility, I believe, became its own primary object; and this estheticism was evidence of self-indulgence rather than estrangement….
With such an inhuman detachment from inhumanly indecent acts, what Salò exhibits most is an extreme preciosity. Pasolini is simply too "elegant" to hate—or, in fact, to manifest feeling of any kind….
Salò, in short, really has very little intelligent to say about either sex or politics. (p. 24)
Robert Asahina, "A Weak Italian Trio," in The New Leader (© 1977 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LX, No. 23, November 21, 1977, pp. 24-6.∗
[The Arabian Nights fails] to resolve the immense contradictions already bequeathed by the director. Why did one of the world's least popularist, most problematic filmmakers expend so much energy visualizing the enduring, seminal folklore of several cultures? Again we are regaled with an ambitious production that gorges the eyes with a sumptuous diorama beautifully filmed in exotic locales, but whenever we get in close, the mind is stupefied by wooden amateurs sleepwalking through a simplistic dress pageant. The arrogant whimsy of Pasolini, obvious in his bold strokes, never led him to master the simple basis of film grammar so that as far as dramatic involvement is concerned, the film is frequently a bore.
Fortunately, The Arabian Nights does have elements that play to Pasolini's strengths. These are ancient tales that are based on piquant twists of fate, ritualistic trials of will, and erotic flourishes rather than on the emerging bourgeois psychology of Boccaccio and Chaucer in which even the bawdy episodes are pinned to latent character insights. Without Scherezade or Ali Baba or Sinbad, there is still ample opportunity in the volumes of Arabic lore for Pasolini's strange, documentary-based poeticism to flourish. For those who can hurdle the plodding foreground, The Arabian Nights is revealed as considerably more than a curiosity though considerably less than a masterwork.
Tom Allen, "A Date Which Will Live in Fantasy" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXV, No. 31, July 30, 1980, p. 40.∗
More than a curiosity, but less than a fully realized work, Pier Paolo Pasolini's feature-length Notes for an African Orestes is an intriguing item that's almost invariably omitted from the late director's filmography. It shouldn't be. While Orestes has a general interest for anyone curious as to how a director's mind works, it is key to an understanding of the particular Freudian-Marxist-Christian world-view that was Pasolini's.
Having recently completed versions of Oedipus and Medea Pasolini planned to film his Oresteia in the third world. Aeschylus's myth of the first human tribunal—with its climactic transformation of the archaic Furies into the civilizing Eumenides—had, Pasolini thought, a special relevance to the situation of underdeveloped societies in the throes of modernization….
Many of Pasolini's ideas are truly inspired. He uses a wounded lioness to represent the Furies and interpolates grisly newsreels of the Biafran war as Cassandra's vision. Other ploys are blithely goofy—half the film is accompanied by the Slavic anthems of the Red Army Chorus. Although disarmingly casual, Orestes is far from unstructured. Parts are extensively edited and Pasolini even roughs out a few scenes….
Mixed in with the African film are Rome-shot sequences in which Gato Barbieri rehearses the film's score, and others wherein Pasolini interrogates a classroom of African students. His questions are leading ones: What do they think of his idea? Do they identify with Orestes? … These scenes are crucial, because they crystallize the film's problem. For all of Pasolini's progressive views, there's a subtly patronizing aspect to his project. Did he give it up when he realized that the end result of the "epic folk drama" he planned might have been something akin to a leftist's Porgy and Bess?
Actually, the essay form that Orestes takes suited Pasolini far better than his overblown glosses on Chaucer or The Arabian Nights. Like the Godard films of the late '60s, Orestes is a movie that requires an active viewer. The deconstructed narrative demands that you put Pasolini's film together in your head. (p. 40)
J. Hoberman, "Unfree Radicals" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1980), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, December 31, 1980, pp. 40-1.∗
While, in life, [Pasolini's] hunger for the "rough trade" of the Roman slums ended in a violent death, in film, his metaphor of life-as-ingestion ("devour") assumed the monstrous proportions of a last supper of feces…. The compelling salience of the supper image in its stubborn and variegated reincarnations would suggest it commanded a station of prominence in the imagination of the filmmaker…. [The] dining metaphor does recur in Pasolini's work in a number of contexts, as an expression of spiritual hunger (The Gospel According to Matthew), as an act of assimilation or communion (The Hawks and the Sparrows, 1966), as a direct expression of the bodily hunger of poverty (La Ricotta), or as a natural metaphor of the animality of consumerism (Salo, Pigsty). (p. 19)
The filmic metamorphosis of his gastric metaphor captures the process by which his movies seem to grow out of each other, in the manner of a cocoon opening onto larger, more colorful creatures, each united by a common genetic inheritance, yet infused with novelty and uniqueness. One finds in his films a biological evolution, the later works still enlarging upon the territory opened in the earlier ones.
The sorting out of all the genetic strands involved is hopelessly complicated by Pasolini's insatiable eye and creative energies which sought to ingest all matters of life that came their way. (p. 20)
[His] spiritual sensibility cannot be stressed enough. It precedes and encapsulates his Marxist affinities with the result that his films cannot be approached with the simpleminded assumption that they are, or should be, political statements meant to illustrate Marxist ideology. In most cases, the political dimensions of the films are submerged in the dramatic heart of the narrative. What Pasolini takes from Marx is his criticism of capitalist mentality, specifically its reduction of man to a product, a piece of merchandise. He shares with him, also, the sense that the degree of freedom in a society is largely a measure of the freedom of its women. Thus, there is a strong sense throughout the canon of Pasolini's films that the exploitation of man by man inherent in capitalist economics (at least for Pasolini) begins with the exploitation of women by men. The relationship of prostitute to pimp becomes a defining model of sexual relationships generally. (p. 22)
With The Gospel According to Matthew, it becomes clear that Pasolini's natural commitment as an artist is less to intellectual abstractions via ideology than to the incarnate spirituality of life itself…. In one sense, Pasolini's achievement in this film is the release of the individual's capacity for a spiritual vision (neither institutionalized nor Platonic) from within himself, by which he keeps faith with the life of this world rather than striving to break from it. (p. 25)
The spiritual element liberated in The Gospel According to Matthew is not necessarily that of fundamentalist Christianity which perceives man only as a fallen creature in an arena of toil, whose salvation lies in detaching himself from earth to fly to an abode in the sky. Because he is both God and man, Pasolini's Christ is an affirmation of the director's own commitment to life and, hence, to the concrete world….
What Pasolini proclaims is that the world itself, despite its surplus of misery and toil, is a spiritual event, and the capacity to perceive this transposes that world in a new light….
[Reality] in Pasolini's vision is a holistic event—a unified process in which the distinctions between spirit and flesh, or the denial of either, emerge as symptoms of a withered imagination, a contraction of psychic life, a fragmentation in the soul which manifests itself as a desire to retreat from a confrontation with the total mystery of existence. Dualisms become symptomatic of a disease which wishes to control reality by narrowing its dimensions to manageable units. This disease constitutes the actual "fall of man" in Pasolini's works, the progenitor of the conditions of human misery.
Holistic consciousness is thus probably the most inclusive concept one may apply to Pasolini's work as a means of appreciating its opulence. In some manner the events and images which preside over his work—eating, sexual integration, seeing—receive special ordination from his sense of the crucial nature of holism in human development. (p. 26)
[Ultimately] for Pasolini, the cinema is an act of love which confirms man's creative spirit to be not only a part of life, but the power within life, a measure of his capacity to love. (p. 29)
Stephen Snyder, in his Pier Paolo Pasolini (copyright © 1980 by G. K. Hall & Co.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, a Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1980, 199 p.