A Violent Life: The Prophecies of Pier Paolo Pasolini

In the early hours of 2nd November 1975, a mutilated body was discovered on the Lido di Ostia, a district of Rome by the Tyrrhenian Sea. Badly beaten, burnt and crushed, having been repeatedly run over by a car; it was a violent and ignoble end to the life of a man whose artistic and intellectual valour had made him an Italian cultural icon. Pier Paolo Pasolini was born in Bologna on 5th March 1922, his mother was a teacher and his father an Italian army lieutenant with Fascist sympathies, who was credited with identifying and capturing Anteo Zamboni, a 15 year-old anarchist who attempted to assassinate Mussolini during a March on Rome celebration parade in Bologna on 31st October 1926. The shot fired by Zamboni missed the Prime Minister, and the teenager was set upon and lynched by a Fascist squad. Today, the Mura Anteo Zamboni a street in Bologna, bears his name, and a plaque marks the spot where he was found.

Like many scholars and poets before him, such as René Daumal and Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, Pasolini idolised Arthur Rimbaud and began writing poetry as a way of coping with the family’s frequent relocations. Returning to the city of his birth to enrol at the Literature College of the University of Bologna in 1939, Pasolini developed a passion for the cinema as well as poetry after attending a film club. Failing to establish his own poetry magazine with his friend and fellow poet Roberto Roversi, Pasolini self-published a volume of his own works in 1941, entitled Versi a CasarsaWritten mostly in Friulian, a language spoken in the Friuli area of North-East Italy, where his family were then living in the commune of Casarsa, Pasolini developed a lifelong affinity with the unique identity and culture of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region.

A trip to Nazi Germany in 1941 gave Pasolini further cause to question the political regime in Italy, and he concluded that his own outlook was best represented by Communism. In September 1943, Pasolini was drafted and taken as a prisoner of war by the Germans. However, he soon escaped and made his way back to Casarsa. To make ends meet, he began tutoring students whose educations had been disrupted by the war, and it was with one of these students that he engaged in his first love affair, having previously suppressed his homosexuality.

Following his brother Guido’s death on 7th February 1945 – a victim of The Porzûs Massacre, Pasolini was left devastated and threw himself into his work. Within weeks, he co-founded the Friulan Language Academy, and in 1946, he published a second collection of his poems, I Diarii. Other works followed including a further volume of poetry, I Pianti, and the drama Il Cappellano. Joining the Italian Communist Party in late 1946, on 26th January 1947, in a statement that was both bold and shocking in post-war Italy, Pasolini made headlines by proclaiming in the newspaper Libertà, ‘In our opinion, we think that currently only Communism is able to provide a new culture.’

Pasolini’s unpopular opinions, and his sexuality attracted condemnation from local Catholic priests, one of whom tried to blackmail him to force him to abandon Communism. In September 1949, he also found himself involved in a scandal in which it was alleged that he had been heard making inappropriate comments to three 16 year-old boys. Pasolini was charged with ‘corruption of minors and obscene acts in public places.’ When questioned by police, Pasolini claimed to have been discussing the work of André Gide the French author and winner of the 1947 Nobel Prize in Literature. He was later acquitted.

Moving to the more cosmopolitan Rome in January 1950, Pasolini took a job at the Cinecittà, a film studio founded by Mussolini in 1937, and the home of Italian cinema at that time; he also worked as a teacher in Ciampino. By 1954, he was employed by the Italian state radio station, and in 1955 he published his first novel, Ragazzi di vita, whose main protagonist, a homeless young man named Riccetto resorts to robbery and prostitution to survive on the streets. The Italian government objected to the book’s gritty themes and charged Pasolini and his editor with ‘obscenity.’ Again, he was acquitted, but was expelled from the Communist Party as a result, and also received much negative press attention on account of his ‘moral indignity.’  

After collaborating with Federico Fellini on Le notti di Cabiria (1957) and La Dolce Vita (1960) in 1961, Pasolini directed his first film, Accattone. Based upon his own 1959 novel, Una vita violenta it centred around the story of Vittorio “Accattone” Cataldi, a pimp and member of Rome’s underclass, who foresees his own death shortly before he is killed by a motorcycle crash.

Above: Trailer for Accattone (1961)

Pasolini’s second film, Mamma Roma, about an ex-prostitute who starts a new life as a grocer was released in 1962. Subsequently cinematic offerings were: Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964), Uccellacci e uccellini (1966) and  Edipo re (1967); the latter was nominated for a Golden Lion at the 1967 Venice Film Festival. Appearing in several of Pasolini’s pictures, was the Italian actor Ninetto Davoli. Davoli met the director in 1963, when he was only 15 years-old; they became close friends and eventually lovers, with Pasolini describing the younger man as ‘the great love of his life.’

In 1968, Pasolini directed Teorema, a film version of his novel by the same name. Starring Terence Stamp as a strange guest who unexpectedly arrives at the home of a wealthy Milanese family, and then proceeds to seduce all of its members, the film earned Pasolini his second Golden Lion nomination. A year later, he released Porcile and also Medea, in which Maria Callas took the title role.

Above: Trailer for Teorema (1968)

Though Pasolini continued to express anti-consumerist sentiments, telling the magazine L’Espresso ‘I consider consumerism to be a worse form of fascism than the classic variety’ his previously staunch Communism beginning to waver during the 1960s. By 1968, as student protests were erupting at campuses across Europe and the United States, he found himself sympathising not with the disgruntled students, whom he considered to be largely bourgeoisie, but with the police who were sent to deal with the disorder they caused. As Pasolini struggled to understand contemporary Italy and a younger generation ignorant of the harsh realities of war, he sought answers from the past, a pre-occupation reflected by his next three films, Il Decameron (1971), I racconti di Canterbury (1972), and Il fiore delle Mille e una Notte (1974).

For the film that was to be his last, Pasolini examined the more recent past, a time that haunted his own memory. Influenced by Les 120 journées de Sodome ou l’école du libertinage the sexually explicit and disturbing tale penned by the infamous Marquis de Sade in 1785, Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma was set in 1944 and depicted the capture and savage torture of a group of eighteen young men and women by four ruthless and depraved Fascists. The film was highly controversial from the outset due to its scenes of rape and coprophagia. Filmed in 1975 and released early the following year, Salò was banned in numerous countries, including the United Kingdom, where it remained so until 2000.

Above: Pasolini’s last interview (31st October 1975)

Its director would never know of the furore caused by Salò. On 2nd November 1975, 20 days before the film premièred in Paris, Pasolini was found dead. Giuseppe Pelosi, a 17 year-old petty criminal, was caught by the police driving Pasolini’s Alfa Romeo and was charged with the theft of the car. Hours later, the director’s body was found and Pelosi also confessed to his killing. According to Pelosi, they ate at a restaurant together before Pasolini asked to sodomise him with a stick, and then struck him when he refused, causing him to retaliate and flee in panic, accidentally driving over the director’s body as he lay on the ground. Pelosi was convicted and imprisoned in 1976, but retracted his confession thirty years later. Theories ranging from a mafia hit to a politically motivated assassination surround the case, and although it was briefly re-opened in May 2005, it is now closed due to insufficient evidence. Pasolini is buried in the Cimitero di Casarsa.

Retaining their power to shock viewers and alter their preconceptions about the world around them, Pasolini’s films have ensured his legendary status. In 2014, the American director Abel Ferrara’s biopic, Pasolini, with Willem Dafoe as Pasolini explored his final day, and suggests that his work somehow anticipated his demise. It seems uncertain that the truth will ever come to light, but, forty years after his murder, rather than dwell upon the nature of his death, it is worth remembering how Pasolini himself believed, ‘The mark which has dominated all my work is this longing for life, this sense of exclusion, which doesn’t lessen but augments this love of life.’

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