Pasolini: Rebellion, Art and a New Society – by Susan Macdonald

Pier Paolo Pasolini is a versatile Italian poet, novelist, filmmaker, philologist, translator and critic. Born in Bologna in 1922, he has proved to be the most controversial figure in modern Italian art. His unrelenting attacks on bourgeois Italy and its institutions, together with his use of ‘obscene’ language and situations, have made him a target for reactionaries.

by Susan Macdonald

Pier Paolo Pasolini is a versatile Italian poet, novelist, filmmaker, philologist, translator and critic. Born in Bologna in 1922, he has proved to be the most controversial figure in modern Italian art. His unrelenting attacks on bourgeois Italy and its institutions, together with his use of ‘obscene’ language and situations, have made him a target for reactionaries. He has been prosecuted for blasphemy or obscenity on several occasions, in 1951 for his novel Ragazzi di Vita (Children of Life), in 1963 for his film La Ricotta (The Curd Cheese) in which a starving extra dies from indigestion on the cross, and in 1968 for Teorema (Theorem). In 1958 one of his poems published in Officina after the death of Pope Pius XII caused a scandal that resulted in the magazine’s demise.

His rebellious attitudes derive from his own Oedipal difficulties, from his hatred of his father and his excessive love of his mother. They dominate his work right up to the recent autobiographical film of Oedipus Rex, which seems to have released his unconscious drives, and enabled him to write the verse play Affabulazione in which he recognizes his early love for his father. It also accounts for the change of style in Teorema.

Pasolini first became known as a poet. At seventeen he began writing in Friulan, the language of the Italian peasants, from whom his mother was descended, though she herself didn’t speak it. His reasons for writing in Friulan were partly rebellious, for his father, a fascist of noble origins, disliked any language other than pure Italian. Pasolini dedicated his first book of Friulan verse (1942) to his father. His reasons were also aesthetic, having grown up in the 20’s and 30’s, during the era of hermetic poetry in Italy. This movement was dominated by Ungaretti and Quasimodo who sought to find a new language for poetry, a language stripped of ornament, with a minimum of words and punctuation that could more appropriately express the anguish of the time. Pasolini, while rejecting this obscurity, felt the need for a new poetic language and turned to Friulan. Fie even founded a small academy of Friulan poetry.

He moved to Friuli during the war. There he became actively aware of the class struggle, personified by the Friulan braccianti (day-labourers) and the wealthy land-owners. He joined the Communist Party for a year, 1947-48, and assimilated various Marxist texts. The Marxist writer who exerted the most influence on him was Antonio Gramsci, the leading theoretician in Italian communism, who helped to found the Party in 1921 and led it from 1923 until his arrest in 1926.

Gramsci differed from Marx in looking at the whole complex of political, social and cultural institutions and ideas, rather than at the economic foundations of society. He saw cultural problems as especially important in periods following revolutionary activity when the cultural front becomes the principal area of conflict in the class struggle. Therefore, he stressed the role of the socialist intellectual as a teacher who educates the masses prior to rebellion. It was views like these that endeared him to the Italian intellectual.

Pasolini also achieved a close understanding of the pre­bourgeois peasant way of life. In their religion, with its faith in miracles and the mystic, he found a similar approach to his own, a way that he describes as sacral, reverential and child-like. It is this sort of religious attitude that he believes is totally alien to the bourgeoisie, and it is this sort of religion that permeates his works, and mystifies those who know him only as an affirmed agnostic and Marxist.

When he came to Rome in 1950, he found further fuel for his Marxist views. After a year of poverty, he started teaching in a school in Ciampino and went to live in Ponte Mammolo, a slum in the outskirts of Rome. Here he found a more primitive world than that of the peasants, a world in which bourgeois morality counted for nothing and the only code was self-preservation. Much of his work during the fifties and early sixties, novels, poetry and films, centres on it. He aimed to achieve an exact description of this sub-proletarian world.

His first novel Ragazzi di Vita was published in 1951. Pasolini was brought to trial for literary obscenity. The supposed obscenity lies partly in the language, the sub­proletarian dialect that is unashamedly physical and mainly anal, and partly in the lives that Pasolini depicts. He describes an under-privileged segment of society who live in an ammoral limbo, stealing, whoring, drinking, smoking, their ways through life, till they meet their violent, seemingly arbitrary deaths. They rarely work: jobs are hard to come by and stealing is easier. They have little loyalty to each other, stealing from so-called friends, while the sick and the disabled are fair game. They have little respect for anyone – only fear of the police: Alduccio attacks his mother with a knife when she calls him a good-for-nothing; Amerigo dies in his desperate attempt to evade a second dose of prison, nearly drowning, slashing his wrists, then jumping from a window. Death means little; there are violent deaths in most chapters. Once dead they are soon forgotten: ‘They haven’t any respect for the living, so what should they have for the dead?’ remarks Pasolini, describing Amerigo’s funeral.

The novel is built round a series of episodes in the lives of boys in the area, going from war-time to 1950. There is no well-defined hero, though Il Riccetto is more closely followed than the others. In some ways his progress resembles that of Tommaso in Pasolini’s second novel Una Vita Violenta (1959, translated as A Violent Life, 1968). Both change after a spell in prison, becoming more aloof and detached from their gangs. Both achieve a sort of morality, though this is far more marked in Tommaso. Il Riccetto swims lazily across the river and back, a feat that symbolizes his attainment of manhood. His taunts at Genesio and his brothers cause a tired Genesio to attempt the return journey. As Il Riccetto sees him struggling for his life and realizes there is nothing he can do, he runs from the river, close to tears.

Tommaso, in Una Vita Violenta, passes through several stages as he grows up. His early ammoral and fascist existence changes after his imprisonment, helped by his family’s move from their derelict shack to a council flat. At first, he revels in his near bourgeois life, but his ideals change when he develops T.B. In hospital, he becomes a Communist sympathizer, helping the patients who are organizing a revolt against their conditions. Once back in civilian life, his new views of humanity are challenged by the flood which wrecks the slum where he used to live. Tommaso heroically helps with the rescue work, but this proves too much for his health and he dies soon afterwards from a violent attack of T.B.

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. While Tommaso and Lello are waiting for the tram in the early hours of the morning, he describes their surroundings, then the abrupt horror of Lello, his hand and foot ‘a mashed heap of blood and bone’ where the tram has run over him. ‘Meanwhile, around Lello now, the walls of the damp houses, the walls of the station, the faces of the people, the stones, everything has become lighter, almost white, in the first rays of the sun, which was slowly coming up, as always, over the city.’ He seems to emphasize the inevitability and seeming arbitrariness of his characters’ lives, manipulated by a sort of fate that they cannot overcome.

Homosexuality often features in the sex lives of his characters> an easy way of making money in Rome, though Tommaso has little luck when he needs money to take out his girlfriend. ‘Dirty whore,’ thinks Tommaso furiously as he watches a prostitute succeed where he has failed, though he later viciously relieves her of her earnings. Girl-friends mean little. Il Riccetto gets engaged at one point, but the girl is a status symbol with whom he is readily bored. Tommaso is more involved with Irene, but his affection tends to be based on his own needs rather than hers and he, like Il Riccetto, prefers the company of his own sex.

Apart from the occasional girl-friend, Pasolini’s female characters are whores or mothers, sometimes both. When Shitter in A Violent Life discovers his mother is a whore, he threatens to kill her unless she gives him a regular share of the takings, which she does. And this is typical of their attitudes. In Pasolini’s first film Accattone, Accattone lives off his girl-friend’s takings, and, when she is jailed, he attempts to put his new girl, Stella, on the streets.

His poetry like his novels depicts the lives of the sub-pro­letariat, poignant, haunting, often outspoken, their imagery and impact tend to be superior to that of his novels:

‘Beneath shut eyelids, among his
lice laughs the boy from Cassino,
sold by his parents, on the raging
banks of the Aniene, a killer
and a whore nurse him, through
the colonial nights when Ciampino
blinded with washed-out stars
hums with the airplanes of kings,
and along the boulevards, the beat
of sex’s sentinels, in devastating
waits around the earthy latrines, . . .’ 1

Pasolini himself sometimes echoes his character’s excesses. He has been taken to court for helping a gangster escape; convicted of trying to hold up a gas station attendant, and accused of homosexual offences in his private life. Each of his early works is an act of rebellion against a bourgeois society he hates, a hatred which he admits has an emotional and not a moral basis.

Pasolini’s style is that of ‘a pasticheur. His novels operate on three levels: the characters’ speech is in dialect; their interior monologues are in free indirect speech; lastly, there is his own narrative. In his poetry he uses a mixture of material: dialect poetry, decadent poetry and socialist poetry. The most obvious influences are the nineteenth-century poets Carducci and Pascoli, while among modern poets Saba stands out. He tends to use traditional forms and meters, but seeks to lower ‘the language to the level of prose, that is, of the rational, the logical, and the historical’. Through this combination he discharges his passion and indignation, but always in a controlled manner so that words and form achieve a balance of poetic intensity.

Pasolini turned to film-making because he saw it as the most immediate medium in which he could express his passion for life, for sensual reality. He claims that the cinema represents reality with reality, that unlike literature it has no need of metaphors. For this reason he dislikes using actors, save for the parts of actors. In his early works, he chose his characters by the ‘rule of analogy’, his peasants are genuine peasants, his sub-proletarian characters come from the sub-proletarian world, his bourgeois characters are bourgeois in real life, and so on.

But 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. He often shoots them in stylized poses: shapes and faces that register an astonishing range of successive emotions, like the mother in the first part of Oedipus Rex as she feeds the baby in the field. Adoration, apprehension, joy, sadness, fear, pass over her face as she gazes past the camera, till she finally shrugs away her doubts.   .

When Pasolini made Accattone in 1961 he had no technical knowledge of film-making. He had written a few scripts for Soldati, Fellini, and others, on the strength of his first novel, but that was all. Thus the style in Accattone is very simple. He shot each episode in two or three takes, at the most, and never varied his camera position. He achieves a stationary, brutal directness, a succession of images that etch the violence, squalor, and pathetic nobility onto the memory. Through the most violent scenes he plays the music of Bach, to remind the audience that beyond this ugly façade there are people who see and feel, who are part of the complex of humanity. He was severely criticized for using ‘inappropriate’ music, for degrading Bach and religion. But the criticisms are irrelevant to the shocking impact of the combination.

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 a point of view that is absolute, essential and, in a way, sacral. This is the same way in which Pasolini sees things: ‘My view of the world is always at bottom of an epical-religious nature.’2 Dreyer’s influence shows in his use of the close-up with its sense of figurative, visual severity: ‘Visual severity and austerity are indeed the dominating value in my films,’ says Pasolini. ‘I try … to avoid all that is ornamental … I try to reduce my own exiguousness to one object only because my inspiration … is above all else painting and, specifically, the painting of Masaccio, an exceedingly visual painter in that the matter he presents to us has a chiaroscuro violence of shocking plasticity . . .’2

Accattone’s world is the world of the borgate, the sub-proletariat of Pasolini’s hovels: ‘The world of the borgate is pre­Christian,’ says Pasolini. ‘It has been preserved by the structure of the Papacy, which imposed itself upon this culture and froze it protectively in time. The face of it is baroque, but the understructure is simple; it is built not on love but on a code of honour.’3

In a sense Accattone is a regressive step for Pasolini. Tommaso in A Violent Life became a Communist, but Accattone turns away from this, for the film was conceived during the era of the Tambroni government when Pasolini was disillusioned about the state of Communism in Italy that had inspired the ideological optimism of A Violent Life.

Like the characters in Ragazzi di Vita, both die violently, Tommaso coughing blood from his tubercular lungs, Accattone crashing a motor-cycle while trying to escape the police. This is characteristic of Pasolini, who believes that death determines life, and only through death can life acquire a sense. For him death is the maximum of epicness and myth. It is irrational and this is why his characters’ deaths so often seem arbitrary. It is also a way of coping with his own aggressive impulses.

The role of death is also stressed in Pasolini’s second film, Mamma Roma (1962), when Mamma Roma’s son, Ettore, dies in prison. But Mamma Roma differs from Accattone in that the main characters strive for material, petit bourgeois ideals. Mamma Roma sees that Ettore is brought up with these ideals. When he discovers she is a prostitute, he can’t accept it as would a member of the sub-proletariat, but has a traumatic collapse which is instrumental in causing his death.

Christ dies violently on the cross at the end of Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, 1964), screaming and accompanied by cut-in shots of tumbling buildings. Like Pasolini’s other heroes he is a rebel. His Lenin-like figure, neurotic and fanatic, moves among the peasantry, a passionate revolutionary, threatening and cajoling, a man with a mission who has ‘come not to bring peace but a sword’. There is little, or nothing, of the gentle divine in Pasolini’s Christ. This is the Christ who calls the temple a ‘den of thieves’ and hurls the stalls to the ground; the Christ who is obsessed by his beliefs in his divinity, by his constant need to prove himself worthy of his father, by his need to be worshipped: ‘I have come to set a man against his father . .. He who loves father and mother more than me, is not worthy of me.’ He is a homosexual Christ, needing the adoration of his disciples, but isolated and able to give little affection in return. He is a Christ who spurns his mother with the words: ‘Who is a mother, who are brethren to me?’ but who suffers from his own act of rejection as he strides away in tears.

Pasolini’s Christ is both Marxist and religious: ‘My film is a reaction against the conformity of Marxism. The mystery of life and of death and of suffering – and particularly of religion – is something which Marxists do not want to consider. But these are, and always have been, questions of great importance for human beings.’4

Like his other works it has the ingredients of autobiography: ‘I was fascinated by the contradictions in myself: the pre-Marxist element, the seeds of Christian culture which is part of all of us, part of our childhood and the Marxist outlook. They view Christianity historically and would have us remove the mythical, superstitious part. But in reality this is impossible. In two thousand years the gospel has become embellished by the tradition of piety – surrounded by human beings.’4 Because of this tradition Pasolini sets out to ‘remythicize’ the story, giving a representation of Christ’s life plus 2,000 years of myth. He does not attempt a historical reconstruction, but finds his characters and settings by his rule of analogy. In Southern Italy he found primitive settings that he saw as analogous to ancient Palestine, with the city of Matera representing Jerusalem. Christ was played by a Spanish student, Enrique Irazoqui, a Marxist sympa­thizer; Judas was a Communist truck driver; John the Baptist was a Communist university professor in literature. Each was carefully selected from the appropriate strata of society and ability. The casting of his mother, by analogy, as the mother of the older Christ underlines the element of autobiography.

The Gospel is more complicated stylistically than Accattone. Pasolini found that the sacral style with its simplicity and consistency did not work. He combined it with documentary scenes that approach cinema verité in the trial scene, for example. He shot each scene from two or three angles using two cameras. Then he composed the film in the cutting room. Many of his shots are in close-up: there are some pans and some tracking shots, but basically his shooting technique is simple. He based this work on several styles in painting. The pharisees’ costumes are taken from the paintings of Piero della Francesca and there are numerous references to Byzantine painting. This demonstrates his way of showing Christ as he has been mythicized by various cultures over the past 2,000 years. His musical analogies play a similar role. He used Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, works by Prokofiev, Mozart and Webern, and Odetta’s version of the Negro spiritual ‘Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child’.

Pasolini is the sole creator of his films, the writing, directing, sets, locations, characters, costumes, music, are all ordained by him, though he has collaborators like costume designers to realize his ideas. In spite of the fact that he has had no training his methods are remarkably successful. The Gospel won five awards at the Venice Film Festival, plus the International Catholic Film Office Award. It also caused a certain amount of uproar in Catholic countries at the thought that a confirmed Marxist and disbeliever could attempt such a subject. With memories of La Ricotta (1963), which led to a four-month suspended sentence on a charge of public defamation against the nation and against Catholicism, he was pelted with rotten eggs at the Venice Festival. But the undeniable religiousness of the film silenced all but the Marxists.

Marxist criticism of The Gospel may have influenced Paso­lini’s next film Uccellacci e Uccellini (Hawks and Sparrows, 1965). The two main characters, father and son, live in a pre-bourgeois, a-historical state, while Italy changes around them. They are introduced to Marxism in the shape of the crow, and finally assimilate the ideology by eating it, for good teaching remains inside; it is an act of communion. The crow is an autobiographical figure, says Pasolini, there is almost total identity between me and the crow.

With Edipo Re (Oedipus Rex, 1967) Pasolini reaches the peak of his autobiographical rebellion. He consciously reconstructs the origins of his Oedipus complex, exploring his relationships with the father he hated and the mother he adored.

The first part of Oedipus is set in modern Bologna and is intended to be a fairly exact evocation of Pasolini’s birth and early childhood there. His own father was a nationalistic army officer, an authoritarian, egocentric, tyrannical fascist, according to Pasolini, so the young father in the film appears in soldier’s uniform. He shares none of the mother’s delight in the baby, eyeing it with hate, jealousy and thoughts of murder: ‘You are here to take my place in the world … to rob me of all I possess … In fact you are already robbing me of her love,’ he thinks as he gazes into the pram, while the baby gazes back, aware of his hate. Later the baby watches his parents dancing, and a sudden explosion of fireworks describes the tensions that have built up inside him. When his parents make love later that evening, he seems well aware of what is happening.

Pasolini is crudely emphasizing the super-ego represented by the father repressing the child. But if Pasolini’s ideas on psycho-analytic theory are naive, he is here artistically effective and convincing, more so than in the rest of the film. When Pasolini abruptly cuts from the modern father clutching the baby’s ankles in a fit of hate to the baby bound by wrists and ankles being carried across a Moroccan desert, the connections seem too tenuous. Pasolini is attempting to move from his own Oedipal situation into a generalized concept of the Oedipus complex, based on the myth of Oedipus. He has said that the basic operation in the film is to reproject psychoanalysis onto the myth. But it doesn’t work on this level. Parts of the central part of the film work only as an extension of the first part: the vicious killing of Laius and the passionate love-making with Jocasta are the most obvious features, with the latter echoing the parents’ love-making in the beginning.

The death of Laius is enacted with a semi-conscious awareness, a ritualization of Oedipal hate. It is the affirmation of the desire expressed in the script of Orgy (1965) in which the only words occur at the end as the ‘hero’ tells of his incomparable pleasure in killing his father. Oedipus, tormented by seemingly irrational guilt and fear that is only explicable by his knowledge of the situation, kills each soldier in Japanese samurai style. But when he finally confronts an unarmed Laius who raises his symbolic crown of authority to his head, he laughs jeeringly and kills with vicious relish.

Much of the film operates on this aggressive, passionate level: the attack on the prophet, Tiresias and the confrontations with Creon and the sphynx. Oedipus is innocent, says Pasolini, he has no desire to discover the truth; he is a victim of his emotions and his life. But this Oedipus is not innocent: he is tormented under the surface, and refuses to accept it: ‘The abyss into which you thrust me is in you,’ the sphynx tells him, but Oedipus would rather not know. As the truth slowly unfolds, he is forced to accept it. In full knowledge of the facts he convinces Jocasta, then passionately makes love to her, with the conscious incest hammered home by his cry of ‘Madrel’ Gestures like this mar the film by their obviousness. But his anguish when he finds Jocasta hanging, strips oil her clothes, and symbolically castrates himself by stabbing out his eyes, is more effective.

Much of the film is in silence, the main dialogue being the Sophocles’ text, for Pasolini believes that ‘an image can have an allusive force equivalent to that of a word.’ It is one of his main skills as a director that he can in fact achieve this: he does not need words to express his characters’ thoughts. His images are painted in the powerful reds, blues, yellows, greens and browns of Morocco. The Japanese music drums and screams to act as metaphors for Oedipus’ inner conflicts, music that is deliberately chosen to be outside history. He also uses Rumanian folk music for the same reason, both are almost impossible to locate without prior knowledge.

Oedipus Rex is a patchy film, moments of violence and power are spoilt by naivety and overstatement, and, for Pasolini, parts are surprisingly insensitive. The central sequence, which Pasolini sees as a kind of dream, jars with the beginning and the end, when the modern blinded Oedipus tries to re-enter society, sublimating his faults by playing his pipe. (This is also a deliberate Marxist gesture, for Oedipus plays first to the bourgeoisie, then, disgusted, plays an Italian Resistance tune, Russian in origin, to the factory workers.) In itself the central sequence gains measurably in effect and pace when the Sophoclean text begins. He would have been better advised to concentrate on this, or on his own complex, and not try and combine the two with a generalized treatment of psycho-analytic theory and the myth.

This personal climax constitutes an artistic turning point for Pasolini. In Teorema his approach to his characters is markedly different, and his style is closely reminiscent of Antonioni. For the first time, he concentrates equally on a whole series of characters, superbly observing each one’s inner conflicts, instead of concentrating on the conflicts of a single rebellious figure. The tormented violence in Teorema is more subtle than the fury of Christ in the temple, or the savage enjoy­ment of Oedipus’ patricide. Mysterious, impenetrable, isolated by their fears and obsessions, the characters gaze through the camera, fighting their own particular hells.

The characters comprise a bourgeois household in Milan. Their lives are abruptly changed by the sudden arrival of a young man. Each member of the household is fascinated by his exceptional qualities, but can only relate to him sexually. Each in an agony of indecision, guilt and apprehension begs his physical love, and each is unable to recover from the experience. Not even Pasolini knows who he is: ‘He has something of the divine, but he’s not Christ. Maybe he’s an angel, maybe the devil, maybe God . . .’5 Whoever he is, his role is to show to each of them the desert of their existence. Pasolini sees sex as a basic cause of emotional disturbances in bourgeois society and, therefore, the easiest way through which they could be revealed.

When the Young Man announces his departure, the effect is traumatic: none of them feel capable of continuing without him, of coping with the evil he has shown them. The maid, Emilia, returns to the peasant village of her youth, where she sits in the farmyard, eating nettles and refusing to speak. To the villagers she becomes a sort of mad saint, capable of healing and levitation. Being non-bourgeois in origin, she is more capable than the others of receiving divinity. But her supposedly supernatural powers bring her little comfort, and she finally elects to be buried alive on the boundary between peasantry and bourgeois society, where a new road is being built. She rejects the materialism she has known in Milan, but her rejection is not complete. In dose shot her burial ground looks like the desert with which Pasolini illustrates each character’s interior.

The neuroses that Pasolini reveals to his characters are typically bourgeois: the boy becomes withdrawn and tries to escape from himself by creating perfection in his painting: ‘It must be perfect,’ he says, frantically slapping paint on to glass, ‘so no one can find out that the author is no good.’ But escape cannot work and his painting becomes less meaningful, less satisfying, until, blindfolded, he throws paint at the canvas and lets chance determine the shape. The girl has been shown her fear of men and feels she can only conquer this through her relationship with the Young Man. When he goes she becomes psychotic, measures out her grave on the lawn, and takes to her bed, stiff and staring in a catonic trance until she is carried off to hospital. The mother sees that her life is a void, full of false values and mistaken ideas, but her attempt to escape reveals her sexual insecurity, her basic lack of identity. She picks up a succession of young men, but fails to get what she wants from any of them. She turns to religion, but to the bourgeois religion of Catholicism that Pasolini sees as superficial, external rather than internal. The father, a wealthy industrialist, is harder hit than the rest: ‘You have destroyed me utterly,’ he says to the Young Man. ‘I can’t see any way of recovering my identity.’ Totally self-absorbed and unable to cope with external events, he gives his factory to the r people, a Marxist gesture done for non-Marxist reasons. Ashamed and intrigued by the homosexuality that has been revealed in him, he resists the advances of a pick-up on Milan station, undresses, then staggers naked across the desert.

Pasolini was prosecuted on a charge of obscenity, though for artistic reasons he was acquitted. His frank treatment of sexual desire was considered permissible. Often the camera dwells in close-up on the crutch of male trousers, particularly on the Young Man, and on his discarded clothes which the mother eyes longingly. Homosexual desire is treated as overtly as heterosexual: the phallic paintings of Francis Bacon are used as metaphors for the boy’s desire. Also, there are shots of the boys in bed together.

Like all his work Teorema is strikingly effective with its dignified, austere shots and its pastel shades. They contrast markedly with the harsh colours in Oedipus Rex. In the first part the pace tends to flag as the Young Man moves inevitably from one character to the next, but the beautifully controlled passion of the second part, as each struggles to cope, is observed with a minute awareness and sympathy that sometimes seems lacking in his work. It is almost a silent film, the main dialogue coming in the confessions. Like The Gospel it received the Catholic Film Office’s Grand Prize at the Venice Festival.

Throughout his work Pasolini is searching for a way of life that is both Marxist and embraces his feelings about religion. Often the two are confused. He originally intended Marxism as the unifying theme in his work. The artist, said Pasolini, ‘must apply to his work that critical and conscience-minded ideology which will enable him to penetrate the reality of his time, interpreting it through the ideology in which he believes. In Italy, at this moment, I maintain that the only possible ideology is the socialist philosophy, Marxism.’5 This was said in 1961, but by the time he filmed The Gospel Marxism had become an insufficient answer. Nevertheless, deliberate traces remain, often appearing as contrived gestures hanging awkwardly on an ideology that is almost out of context, like the father’s gesture in Teorema or the blinded Oedipus playing to the workers. In his work he probes for the ‘truth’. ‘Something’s always missing, there’s a void in all my intuitions . . .’ he says in one of the poems in Poesia in forma di rosa (Poetry in the form of a rose, 1964), adding ‘And it’s vulgar . . . this “not having Christ”.’

This search for ‘truth’ is more plausible as the unity that permeates Pasolini’s work. It is a truth that can be summed up in the Socratic ‘Know thyself.’ Pasolini recently said that he eventually hoped to make a film of the life of Socrates and he regarded this as the ultimate in film-making, to be attempted when he has exhausted all the marginal motives that push him to make films. He sees this ultimate in terms of a totally disinterested, completely pure cinema, which achieves a purer relationship with the audience. Although this concept of purity is far from clear in stylistic terms, there is a sense in which Socrates embodies all that Pasolini seems to be striving for. For Socrates self-knowledge was the ultimate goal and this, for him, meant moral goodness, knowledge of good and evil. Throughout his life he verbally fought the material values and arrogant confidence of the Greeks, displaying his belief in his views through his own way of life, caring little for money, position or material comfort, finally dying in prison.

His way of life is closely connected with Pasolini’s ideas and hopes, for Pasolini (like Gramsci) sees the intellectual as the saviour of society, the means by which the workers can be educated to self-awareness. The intellectual can escape his bourgeois chains by his humanitarian impulse which leads him to adopt another ideology. In order to do this he must reach a state of self-awareness that enables him to see the nature of good and evil. The characters in Teorema achieve a degree of self-awareness that is not present in Pasolini’s earlier work (for Oedipus became aware of what he’d done not what he was). But-each tries to escape and is doomed to live in a limbo of increasing despair. It is, apparently, through the Socratic notion of self-knowledge that Pasolini sees the salvation of his characters.

Susan Macdonald is a free-lance writer, currently working for Mid-Century Authors and various journals


1. ‘L’Appennino’ in Le Ceneri di Gramsci (The Ashes of Gramsci, 1957). This book won Pasolini the Viareggio Prize.
2. Film Quarterly, Summer 1965.
3. New Yorker, April 21, 1962.
4. Guardian, December 1, 1964.
5. Guardian, March 6, 1969.
6. Films and Filming, January 1961.

Published in Screen, Vol 10 # 3, May/June 1969


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