The more Pasolini becomes provocative and troublesome, the greater his public grows; the greater the middle-class scandal that surrounds him, the more sellable he becomes, both sellable and sold. A character who “makes news”, who “makes opinions” and always consulted when anything happens, whatever the problem to be faced
He flew to Paris to see Maria Callas, then to Venice for a court appearance. He then races to Catania to shoot the first part of “Pigsty”, a film in two parts: protagonists, a civilised cannibal and a youth afflicted by bestiality, who can only fall in love with pigs. He then leaves for Turin to direct the theatrical production of “Orgy”, and then to Grado to supervise the works on a house he is building. He phones New York to see if Marlon Brando is available in the second half of 1969 to take on a role in his new film dedicated to Saint Paul. He is feverishly impatient, avid and his insatiable overlapping of projects and work is due to his overriding necessity to act, to move, to be present. Pier Paolo Pasolini has always been victim to this type of agitated fever, and it has undoubtedly made him the most discussed intellectual of the year: an exasperating and contemporaneously irksome figure in Italian culture. Now we will take a closer look. A portrait of the almost 50-year-old artist Pasolini at home. His house is beautiful, full of light, and silent; a new construction in one of the silent tree-lined avenues of eur in Rome, close to a severe and monumental modern church. The view from his house is of the still-grey, flat and wild Roman countryside but protected by a barred iron gate, interphone, and a watchful uniformed doorman. Obviously, a private garage where the author’s cars are kept: a Ferrari for long journeys, a Giulietta for friends, and a Mini Morris for city runs. The apartment is large, with an imposing main entrance and another service entrance, a vestibule, vast living room, studio, bedroom, two bathrooms, and kitchen with Formica units. All furnished according to the rather outdated canons of an illuminated bon viveur and middle-class affluence: 1800s furniture, exotic ornaments of his travels to Africa or India, velvet sofas, carpets, works by well-known painters, mother-of-pearl ashtrays (untouched as he is a non-smoker). A rocking chair, just like Kennedy’s, with flower-patterned cretonne cushions and light-coloured candid curtains. A portrait of the owner – like Beloyannis – with a carnation in his mouth. Shining floors, neat and almost clinical cleanliness. In this house (a model of rigorously planned respectability to counteract any nostalgic regret of an unrealised petit bourgeois dream), Pasolini lives with his mother and a young niece who occasionally stands in as his secretary.
In this house (or at least, in the studio) this morning Pasolini is seated straight-backed in an old armchair behind his dark desk. He is very thin, with a sort of haggard but youthful look which makes his cheekbones even more pronounced, his worried eyes even deeper, his hollowed face more profound. A very singular and photogenic face. Even without his innate curiosity and exhibitionism, he could have been an actor: his roles would be of the poor, a Saint, a professional gangster or boxer past his heyday in an American 1940s film: he could even play the part of a poet or a symbolic apparition (Destiny, or Death) in a French 1937 film. He has acted, however, but in minor roles as a small-time Roman bandit trafficking on the black market, and a more “gringo” than Mexican killer with a sombrero in two films by Carlo Lizzani. In his film “Oedipus Rex”, he played the part of a Senator with his head and face enveloped in a headdress of seashells. Pasolini is seated behind his desk with extreme and perhaps excessive composure: his small feet – in short boots with antiquated but fashionable elastic fasteners – barely touch the white carpet. As always, his mood is notoriously difficult to pin down. Fresh, debonair, and at ease: his hair is carefully combed, and has the air of a well-groomed person, his recently-ironed clothes seemingly worn for the first time. He likes being elegant, but sometimes his elegance is unconventional: flowered shirt or ties, tightfitting voile shirts with darts at the back, waist-hugging trousers with bellbottoms, broad leather belts with metallic buckles, short tanned kid leather jerkins. Every so often he dons something predictably eccentric: when travelling to the States he buys a college sweatshirt or a red bomber jacket, a private detective raincoat or a prison inmate’s shirt with numbers printed clearly on the front, but these are more caprices of a traveller and are soon forgotten.
Today, with his geometrical pattern gold and yellow shirt and dandyish boots, Pasolini talks of things that he feels strongly about. His voice is low, educated and suave; so mellow that it verges on affectation, yet serious enough to give the impression of a pedantic sermon. His sentences are beautifully constructed and dense with cultured expressions; a rich and important choice of words (existential, Marxist, cruelty, diversity, enunciation, archaic, inspiration, belief, beauty), and a masterful use of uncustomary adjectives (atrocious, blazing, heart-breaking, theological, sublime, mischievous) used with great ease. His words are laden with proposals free from cynicism, confessions or contradictions he expresses freely. His fervid passion and frequent outbursts of common-day expressions makes his conversation anything but boring or academic. He totally lacks verbal vulgarity or a sense of humour: something that can mechanically relegate the interlocutor – especially if Italian – to a position of inferiority. His manner of addressing others is open and trusting; simple, yet far from naive. Pasolini seems profoundly and emotively involved in everything he says, or at least in that moment when speaking. His conversation is never barren, casual, nor distracted; he is alert, involved, full of patience and reason. His passion and sincerity make him a skilled orator with an extraordinary capacity to convince the other. Like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, whenever he speaks he usually manages to influence his public, to enchant and lead them wherever he wants. The middle-class conventionality of his house, clothes, mannerisms and the more obvious part of his life is as singular as his repugnance for class and bourgeoise mentality (“an infamous stain, an illness”). This characterises his morals, aesthetics, and political views and is in apparent contrast with his recent works in which lyrical populism, ecstatic mysticism and emotive civism have been substituted by violence, provocation, horror, and tragedy. This morning we also speak of this.
“Some time ago”, says Pasolini, “I was ill. I had an ulcer that almost killed me and kept me bedridden for a month. In that month I read some books, and then later – a bit confused – I wrote six tragedies. This was the period of violent protests of Blacks in the us. The previous summer I had seen the violence in the Village in New York. Perhaps some psychological factor or even a physical trauma was involved. I’m not sure. These elements gave me some inspiration for a film that I could define as cinema of cruelty. I mean, cinema that expresses an irrational, violent, and physical existential revolution: something in contrast with the rational Marxist revolution against society. ‘Theorem’ shows some elements of this violence: perhaps the plot is way over the top, and the second part is terrible as it introduces a series of embarrassing sentiments and characters; the protagonists shout, undress and cry with their desperation, making the film rather disturbing. We could say the same about my new film ‘Pigsty’. Naturally, the fascist press has gone to town with the title: it hasn’t even occurred to them that they are the pigs. The film talks of two atrocious stories, but the issues of cannibalism and bestiality are only the external manifestations. The film ‘Medea’ – that I am currently planning to direct and starring Maria Callas – follows the same theme: cruelty, violence, massacre, destruction, self-destruction. The reasons for this choice… Well, one could be the desire to provoke and to shake things up: to re-propose the horrendous but real dimension of tragedy in a tragic world that hides under the veil of false civilisation, rationality, and opulence. But there are also other more profound reasons”.
“Theorem” is the only film of this new series that has been released for public viewing, but it was immediately censored by the moralising intervention of the Judiciary Authorities. “I don’t feel guilty of any crime” says Pasolini “and censorship affects me up to a certain point. I’m interested in making films and I want certain people to see them. Everything else is the problem of the producer. Naturally, I understand why ‘Theorem’ was considered scandalous. Today’s moralists are terrorised by any truth about the family. The defenders of today’s social order cannot stand the image of a family torn apart by unhappiness and the ‘unfamiliar’ things shown in ‘Theorem’. I have nothing against families: you can see that I live with my mother. But I do believe that family is an archaic structure, a den of pathological and archaic sentiments of humanity and moralists are always frightened of any type of theological argument”.
Despite the discomfort of the theological issue, Pasolini is already preparing his next film which will be shot immediately after or before “Medea”. “The title” he says “will be ‘Theological history. It will tell the life of Saint Paul but in a modern context, with the plot told through analogies. Instead of Rome, the capital of power will be New York; instead of Jerusalem, the capital of culture will be Paris. Indeed, the film starts in Paris during the Nazi occupation: it shows the problem of resistance against the oppressors, and the active and passive revolt against the foreign invader: the same problem faced in those days against the Romans. The situation of Blacks in the usa or today’s poor is the same as that of the slaves of those days. The film poses a series of interrogatives about contemporary society, and the response is always that of a saint. I’m interested in the contrast between the two personalities of Saint Paul: on the one hand, the organised cleric, a legalitarian former Pharisee, prudish and conformist to the core: on the other, he is simply a Saint”.
And therefore we have the Paleochristian society of believers in opposition with the ecclesiastic hierarchy, the priest as an organisational instrument instead of the sole depository of truth, a direct link to God instead of mediation through authorised interpreters, sainthood as the only salvation. Pasolini considers this issue as one of the core problems of contemporary Catholicism. Indeed, last year he intervened heatedly on other current issues. With the university students revolt, Pasolini had his say with his famous poem against the uprising that attracted distain, humiliating empathies and bitter polemics. On the eve of the Strega Prize, had the idea of contesting the literary contests, despite just a few days before having sent the 12-member jury an impassioned letter invoking their support for his book “Teorema”. Again, a few months later, he was member of the literary jury of the Zafferana Prize. At the inauguration of the Venice Film Festival, Pasolini led a group in protest against cinema festivals: once again, his actions were tormented by instinct, second thoughts, and contradictions. He joined up with the student movement of Ca’ Foscari to organise their winter activities and attended their assembly: again – as foreseeable – he was rejected, insulted, and even beaten up. Student protest grew worldwide, neo-revolutionary Maoist extremism, Guevarist intransigence, and still Pasolini was ready to take them all on, also inventing an ideological slogan: “My choice is against left-wing fascism. Old academic and establishment conformism is foreign to me: I manifest a repugnance towards it. The new conformism is an intellectual movement that will dominate the future, but in the short term it will bring discrimination, cowardice, condemnation, blackmail, lynching, calculation, exaltation: in other words, terror. My choice is against left-wing fascism”.
Like François Mauriac, he runs a column in a weekly magazine in which he expounds on, informs, examines and studies facts and people of the moment. Despite his affirmations of being “a dissident communist to the left of the Italian Communist Party” and his solitary and undoubtedly free nature, his judgement and opinions sound often more radical, and sometimes in agreement with the ideals of common sense. Nenni? “For me, he is the most likeable person in the entire Italian political scenario”. Are intellectuals fascinated by the students protest? “Some of my companions suddenly rediscover life and they come up to you laughing ironically, as if you had remained old and they had suddenly been reborn. There is a very characteristic light in their eyes, often seen in the eyes of madmen. Probably this is why they are sometimes so likeable, but other times that look in their eyes is horrible; it is blackmailing and hostile, and they would be only too pleased to see you finished. It is an uncapitalized neurosis that makes them the hitmen of terrorism”. And homosexuals? “I too have had –overcoming my consciousness but still caught up in that fatal trap of education – a sort of racial aversion towards homosexuality. For a fleeting moment, I believed that homosexuality created in the other an inferior human. You can see how powerful the terror of a terrorised public is”.
Avant-garde poetry? “The transgression of rules that we tend to follow when speaking – frequently used by avant-garde poets – has inadvertently led to the preservation of these very same rules. Sometimes we even miss them”. The readers of his weekly column are luckier than the author’s friends: they can get to know his opinion on everyone and everything, while his friends find it ever more difficult to have a true discussion with him. When interrogated on any argument, very often Pasolini will refer to one of his recently written articles, one of his recently released films, or an essay about to be published or a recent preface to a book. In reality, every idea, reflection, sensation, judgement, or experience of the writer can be used publicly or immediately transformed into a film, article, interview, essay, column, preface to a book, or even a television interview. The market is more than ready to receive it. Curiously, the more Pasolini becomes provocative and troublesome, the greater his public grows; the greater the middle-class scandal that surrounds him, the more sellable he becomes, both sellable and sold; the greater his eccentricity and divergence from other Italian intellectuals, the more Pasolini becomes a public figure. And thus, he is someone photographed wherever he goes, consulted whatever happens or whatever the problem in hand, followed by curiosity, and always considered in some way as an authoritative voice. He is seen as someone who “makes news” and “makes opinions”.
Curiously – or perhaps not so much. The French literary milieu has always been dominated by similar “scandalous” and yet popular and authoritative figures; André Gide could be a serious variation, Jean Cocteau a frivolous one.
Since 1961, when he debuted as a director with “Accattone”, Pasolini has turned seven films and three cinematographic sketches. Since 1964, when his book “Poesia in forma di rosa” was published, Pasolini has not written any more works in verse. Since 1965, when he published “Ali dagli occhi azzurri”, an anthology of his recently written prose, Pasolini has not written a book. “Teorema”, written in 1968, is more a script of the film Theorem than a novel. Vanity and the defence of his personality welcome celebrity; his presence and frenetic dynamism are perhaps a way of keeping up with or perhaps blocking his youth that is slowly slipping away.
Being a public figure always implies a great risk: that of losing contact with oneself. Thus, his extroversion, the need of others, his continual necessity for company and a public. Thus, his repugnance and unsurmountable hatred for that solitary and ungrateful fatigue of any author.