BOLOGNA – In the early morning of November 2, 1975, in Idroscalo, a terminally dreadful shanty town in Ostia, outside Rome, the body of Pier Paolo Pasolini, then 53, an intellectual powerhouse and one of the greatest filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s, was found badly beaten and run over by his own AlfaÂ Romeo.
It was hard to conceive a more stunning, heartbreaking, modern mix of Greek tragedy with Renaissance iconography; in a bleak setting straight out of a Pasolini film, the author himself was immolated just like his main character in Mamma Roma (1962) lying in prison in the manner of the Dead Christ, aka the Lamentation of Christ, by Andrea Mantegna.
This might have been a gay tryst gone terribly wrong; a 17-year-old low life was charged with murder, but the young man was also linked with the Italian neo-fascists. The true story has never emerged. What did emerge is that “the new Italy” – or the aftereffects of a new capitalist revolution – killed Pasolini.
‘Those destined to be dead’
Pasolini could only reach for the stars after graduating in literature from Bologna University – the oldest in the world – in 1943. Today, a Pasolini is utterly unthinkable. He would be something like an UFIO (unidentified flying intellectual object); the total intellectual – poet, dramatist, painter, musician, fiction writer, literary theorist, filmmaker and political analyst.
For educated Italians, he was essentially a poet (what a huge compliment that meant, decades ago …) In his masterpiece The Ashes of Gramsci (1952), Pasolini draws a striking parallel, in terms of striving for a heroic ideal, between Gramsci and Shelley – who happen to be buried in the same cemetery in Rome. Talk about poetic justice.
Then he effortlessly switched from word to image. The young Martin Scorsese was absolutely gobsmacked when he first saw Accattone (1961); not to mention the young Bernardo Bertolucci, who happened to be learning the facts on the ground as Pasolini’s cameraman. At a minimum, there would be no Scorsese, Bertolucci, or for that matter Fassbinder, Abel Ferrara and countless others without Pasolini.
And especially today, as we wallow in our tawdry 24/7 Vanity Fair, it’s impossible not to sympathize with Pasolini’s method – which veers from sulphuric acid critique of the bourgeosie (as in Teorema and Porcile) to seeking refuge into the classics (his Greek tragedy phase) and the fascinating medieval “Trilogy of Life” – the adaptations of the Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1974).
It’s also no wonder Pasolini decided to flee corrupt, decadent Italy and film in the developing world – from Cappadocia in Turkey for Medea to Yemen for Arabian Nights. Bertolucci later would do the same, shooting in Morocco (The Sheltering Sky), Nepal (his Buddha epic) and China (The Last Emperor, his formidable Hollywood triumph).
And then there was the unclassifiable Salo, or TheÂ 120 Days of Sodom, Pasolini’s last tortured, devastating film, released only a few months after his assassination, banned for years in dozens of countries, and unforgiving in extrapolating way beyond Italy’s (and Western culture’s) flirt with fascism.
From 1973 to 1975, Pasolini wrote a series of columns for the Milan-based Corriere della Sera, published as Scritti Corsari in 1975 and then as Lutheran Letters, posthumously, in 1976. Their overarching theme was the “anthropological mutation” of modern Italy, which can also be read as a microcosm for most of the West.
I belong to a generation where many were absolutely transfixed by Pasolini on screen and on paper. At the time, it was clear these columns were the intellectual RPGs of an extremely sharp – but utterly alone – intellectual. Re-reading them today, they sound no less than prophetical.
When examining the dichotomy between bourgeois boys and proletarian boys – as in Northern Italy vs Southern Italy – Pasolini stumbled into no less than a new category, “difficult to describe (because no one had done it before)” and for which he had “no linguistic and terminological precedents”. They were “those destined to be dead”. One of them in fact, may have become his killer at Idroscalo.
As Pasolini argued, the new specimens were those who until the mid-1950s would have been victims of infant mortality. Science intervened and saved them from physical death. So they are survivors, “and in their life there’s something of contro natura“. Thus, Pasolini argued, as sons that are born today are not, a priori, “blessed”, those that are born “in excess” are definitely “unblessed”.
In short, for Pasolini, sporting a sentiment of not being really welcomed, and even being guilty about it, the new generation was “infinitely more fragile, brutish, sad, pallid, and ill than all preceding generations”. They are depressed or aggressive. And “nothing may cancel the shadow that an unknown abnormality projects over their life”. Nowadays, this interpretation can easily explain the alienated, cross-border Islamic youth who joins a jihad in desperation.
At the same time, according to Pasolini, this unconscious feeling of being fundamentally expendable just feeds “those destined to be dead” in their yearning for normality, “the total, unreserved adherence to the horde, the will not to look distinct or diverse”. So they “show how to live conformism aggressively”. They teach “renunciation”, a “tendency towards unhappiness”, the “rhetoric of ugliness”, and brutishness. And the brutish become the champions of fashion and behavior (here Pasolini was already prefiguring punk in England in 1976).
The self-described “rationalist, idealist old bourgeois” went way beyond these reflections about the “no future for you” generation. Pasolini piled up, among other disasters, the urban destruction of Italy, the responsibility for the “anthropological degradation” of Italians, the terrible condition of hospitals, schools and public infrastructure, the savage explosion of mass culture and mass media, and the “delinquent stupidity” of television, on the “moral burden” of those who have governed Italy from 1945 to 1975, that is, the US-supported Christian Democrats.
He deftly configured the “cynicism of the new capitalist revolution – the first real rightist revolution”. Such a revolution, he argued, “from an anthropological point of view – in terms of the foundation of a new ‘culture’ – implies men with no link to the past, living in ‘imponderability’. So the only existential expectation possible is consumerism and satisfying his hedonistic impulses.” This is Guy Debord’s scathing 1960s “society of the spectacle” critique expanded to the dark, “dream is over” cultural horizon of the 1970s.
At the time, this was radioactive stuff. Pasolini took no prisoners; if consumerism had lifted Italy out of poverty “to gratify it with a wellbeing” and a certain non-popular culture, the humiliating result was obtained “through miming the petite bourgeoisie, stupid obligatory school and delinquent television”. Pasolini used to deride the Italian bourgeoisie as “the most ignorant in all of Europe” (well, on this he was wrong; the Spanish bourgeoisie really takes the cake).
Thus arose a new mode of production of culture – built over the “genocide of precedent cultures” – as well as a new bourgeois species. If only Pasolini had survived to see it acting in full regalia, as Homo Berlusconis.
The Great Beauty is no more
Now, the consumerist heart of darkness – “the horror, the horror” – prophesized and detailed by Pasolini already in the mid-1970s has been depicted in all its glitzy tawdriness by an Italian filmmaker from Naples, Paolo Sorrentino, born when Pasolini, not to mention Fellini, were already at the peak of their powers. La Grande Bellezza (“The Great Beauty”) – which has just won the Golden Globes as Best Foreign Film and will probably win an Oscar as well – would be inconceivable without Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (of which it is an unacknowledged coda) and Pasolini’s critique of “the new Italy”.
Pasolini and Fellini, by the way, both hailed from a fabulous intellectual tradition in Emilia-Romagna (Pasolini from Bologna, Fellini from Rimini, as well as Bertolucci from Parma). In the early 1960s, Fellini used to quip with friend and still apprentice Pasolini that he was not equipped for criticism. Fellini was always pure emotion, while Pasolini – and Bertolucci – were emotion modulated by the intellect.
Sorrentino’s astonishing film – a wild ride on the ramifications of Berlusconian Italy – is La Dolce Vita gone horribly sour. How not to empathize with Marcello (Mastroianni) now reaching 65 (and played by the amazing Toni Servillo), suffering from writer’s block in parallel to surfing his reputation of king of Rome’s nightlife. As the great Ezra Pound – who loved Italy deeply – also prophesized, a tawdry cheapness ended up outlasting our days into a Berlusconian vapidity where – according to a character – everyone “forgot about culture and art” and the former apex of civilization ended up being known only for “fashion and pizza”.
This is exactly what Pasolini was telling us almost four decades ago – before an eerie, gory manifestation of this very tawdriness silenced him. His death, in the end, proved – avant la lettre – his theorem; he had always been, unfortunately, dead right.