Mixed Media: Pier Paolo Pasolini

Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-75) was murdered forty years ago on 2 November 1975. He was a heterodox Marxist, a poet, novelist, and film director of exquisite poetic cinema where he showed a natural sympathy for the sub-proletariat and peasantry.

Pasolini was a member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI). His 1948 novel Il sogno di una cosa (The Dream of Something) derived its title from Marx’s letter to Ruge in September 1843; ‘It will then become evident that the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality’. Because of a homosexual scandal, Pasolini was expelled from the PCI in October 1949 ‘for moral unworthiness.’ He retorted ‘I am and will remain a Communist’, and in every election Pasolini declared his support for the PCI. Enzo Siciliano writes ‘to be a Communist was for Pasolini almost a fact of nature … he believed with the strength of faith, that it was in communism that the instinct of self-preservation and the will to survive took form. For him … communism had to do with love, and also making love.’

His formative ideological influence was Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), a founder of the PCI, whose Quadermi dal carcere (Prison Notebooks) were published in 1948. Pasolini’s poem Le ceneri di Gramsci (The Ashes of Gramsci) written in 1954 ‘outlining the ideal that illuminates’, is also a paean to Gramsci’s ‘rigour.’ Like Gramsci, Pasolini believed in the idea of unifying consciousness through history. His poem is also a demand for a new morality whereby the individual would be salvaged in his entirety, in his specificity, and the pressing need for economic justice. Maurizio Viano in The Left According to the Ashes of Gramsci writes ‘what attracted Pasolini was Gramsci’s idea that intellectuals must engage in a pendular motion across the vertical spectrum of a class society, the duty of suturing high and low, mind and body.’ This is what Pasolini aimed for in his first two films, Accatone (1961), and Mamma Roma (1962). They are naturalistic studies of dispossessed Roman sub-proletarian lives in slums using authenticity, and uncompromising raw poetry, depicting pimps, prostitutes, petty thieves, and the illusion of petit-bourgeois redemption.

Teorema released in 1968 demolishes bourgeois ideals, showing the aridity of the modern bourgeoisie where sexual repression and taboos hold the family and the capitalist social structure together. Teorema portrays a stranger who seduces the members of a bourgeois family; the maid, the son, the daughter, the mother, and the father. The father appears to be jealous but it is not clear if he is, as in the Oedipal scenario, jealous of the son, or whether he is jealous of the stranger for being able to do to the son what he, as the boy’s father, incestuously desires. With seduction of the father, the whole patriarchal and capitalist structure collapses. The father is stripped of his illusion, and strips himself of his property handing over his factory to the workers.

Pasolini shared Gramsci’s faith in the revolutionary potential of the Italian peasantry. Gramsci wrote in L’Ordine Nuovo of 2 August 1919 that ‘the peasant has always lived outside the rule of law, he has never had a juridical personality, nor a moral individuality. He lives on as an anarchic element, an independent atom in a chaotic tumult’. In his Prison Notebooks of 1935, Gramsci wrote ‘folklore should be studied as a ‘conception of the world and life’ implicit to a large extent in determinate strata of society and in opposition to ‘official’ conceptions of the world.’ Pasolini’s 1970-74 Trilogy of Life which includes Il Decameron, I Racconti di Canterbury (Canterbury Tales), and Il fiore delle mille e una notte (Arabian Nights) portray his delight and celebration of demotic folk tales and peasant life of pre-capitalist worlds. The Trilogy depicts a lost world of prelapsarian sexuality with no Freudian or religious guilt. Arabian Nights are dreamlike stories of love, potions and betrayal, filmed in Eritrea, Iran, Nepal, and Yemen. Here, Pasolini strips away Islamic proscriptive ideology to show a relaxed and euphoric delight in the act of love, appreciation of the human body, scenes of carnality smothered in the sounds of laughter in a magic universe watched over by ‘Qada’ or fate.

In 1975 Pasolini went from joy and vitality to deep mourning when he made Salòo Le centoventi giornate di Sodoma ( Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom) which transposed the Marquis de Sade’s ‘psychopathia sexualis’ to Mussolini’s Fascist state of Salò in Northern Italy of 1943-45. Pasolini links Fascism with sadism, sexual licence and oppression, portraying the sadistic impulses of the bourgeoisie. A banker, a duke, a bishop and a judge inflict upon imprisoned teenagers in a series of Danteesque circles of hell – increasingly cruel sexual tortures ending in executions using four modes of current judicial killing – hanging, shooting, the garrotte, and the electric chair. Salò is transgressive cinema, full of brutality and despair.

Shortly before his murder, Pasolini wrote, ‘never has Marx’s statement that capitalism transforms human dignity into exchange goods made more sense than today’.


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