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 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...
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[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...
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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...
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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...
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[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...
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["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,...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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[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...
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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...
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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...
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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…....
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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...
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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.
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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...
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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...
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[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...
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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...
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[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...
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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...
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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...
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[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...
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[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…....
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[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....
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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...
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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...
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