Carlos Valladares is a writer, critic, programmer, journalist, and video essayist from South Central Los Angeles, California. He studied film at Stanford and began his PhD in History of Art and Film & Media Studies at Yale University in fall 2019. He has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Film Comment, and the Criterion Collection. Photo: Jerry Schatzberg
Death lies not
in not being able to communicate
but in no longer being understood.
—Pier Paolo Pasolini, “A Desperate Vitality,” 1964
The type of people I love the most, by far, are perhaps the people who never even reached fourth grade. Very plain and simple people—and those aren’t just empty words on my part. I say this because the culture of the petit bourgeoisie always brings corruption and impurity along with it, while the illiterate, or those who barely finish first grade, always have a certain grace, which is lost as they’re exposed to culture. Then it’s found once again at a very high level of culture. But conventional culture always corrupts.
—Pier Paolo Pasolini, TV interview, 1971
In the cinema of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the human experiment finds its redemption in the face. What an eye for faces he had: chapped, imperfectly curving lips, burnt or curly hair, dark skin tones, pupils staring off at some off-screen miracle. Pasolini approaches his faces tenderly, with a quivering camera that suggests the mortal body hoisting it from behind, in distance-melting close-ups unhampered by stylish cuts. The face of a lover, or of martyrs or radicals caught in the throes of heady poetic talk: one is enlivened looking into the eyes of Pasolini’s queer outsiders, whose faces will be projected in their proper, iconic, original size at New York’s Metrograph cinema from May to July 2019, as part of a comprehensive retrospective of the director’s feature films. Whether it’s Anna Magnani in a fit of pietà agony (Accattone, 1961), the blind and blank-faced seer Tiresias (Oedipus Rex, 1967), or the naked boy who raises his fist and cock in freedom before being gunned down by four sadistic neofascists (Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, 1975), in Pasolini the face is where one rediscovers humanity’s beauty, the awful truths and the Edenic innocence lost in the countless Falls over time—and the countless Falls to come.
The main draw in The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964; the best film about the life of Jesus Christ) is not the cinéma vérité look, which treats the miracles and the Crucifixion like events caught on the fly by the documentary camera of Albert and David Maysles, but the simple choice to lavish so much adoring, fetishistic attention on the becalmed face of Jesus. He is played by Enrique Irazoqui, a nineteen-year-old Spanish Marxist and economics major who probably never realized how toweringly mythic his features were until Pasolini picked him out, almost at random. There’s his narrow, collapsing-inward jawline, a nose with the contours of an unexplored canyon, a scary blank-lizard stare stuck in permanent sermonizing mode, a soothing and rational harmony in the arrangement of nose-eyes-lips in stark contrast to the character’s antirational, revolutionary words. One of Pasolini’s many inspired moves is to offset this pristine, virginal face with an unexpectedly booming male voice (dubbed in by a different actor, Enrico Maria Salerno), the voice of a martyr at birth who has endured a hundred lives’ worth of trauma, sin, and suffering. Christ’s tirades against the money changers and the Romans are convincing in Pasolini’s rendition precisely because Pasolini nails one of the key Christian dialectics: cool, everyday love for the lowest of the low and weakest of the weak (Irazoqui’s face beams like Chaplin’s Little Tramp at a group of leprosy-addled kids) and hot, righteous anger at the ruling class’s hatefully antihuman policies (Salerno’s hell-raising voice, coarse like gravel and sure of what it’s saying: “It is written: My temple shall be a house of prayer, but ye have made it a den of thieves!”). Especially when Irazoqui meditates unblinkingly with his disciples in pauses that seem to stretch for minutes, his default mode of intensity never relaxes or dissolves. Pasolini lets his Christ writhe and breathe. His Jesus, saddled with the vigor of a teen idol, is at core a genuine being whose extraordinariness is downplayed by the roving documentary camera. This dynamic performance could only be born out of the mangy, choppy, true-to-life rhythm that Pasolini cultivated in his entire oeuvre, from Accattone to Salò.
While the Christ of Matthew has his grace Frankensteined from a fussy mashup of exterior effects, the face of Anne Wiazemsky’s Odetta in Teorema (1968; the peak of Pasolini’s freakishly mannered late-1960s allegories, from The Hawks and the Sparrows of 1966 to Medea of 1969) is unforced, natural, serene. Her protection against Pasolini’s grotesque late-capitalist world is her face—hard, smooth, ungiving, like a marble bust of Diana, Greek goddess of the hunt. Odetta’s face shows no real belief in the conventions of heterosexual courtship that she’s been encouraged (forced) to recite, with boys, by her prigs of parents: an industrialist father, Paolo (Massimo Girotti) obsessed with the pure act of Owning, and a housewife (Silvana Mangano, a Pasolini regular) who stares at the same sentence in highfalutin books over and over again, never advancing a page forward.
Wiazemsky is one of the five members of an uptight, repressed bourgeois family—mother, father, daughter, son, and the maid—who each find their release, both sexual and metaphysical, with a mysterious Visitor (Terence Stamp). When The Visitor leaves the family, each of its members goes mad in some irredeemable way: the son becomes a lonely abstract painter who can’t express what he really feels on the canvas, the mother starts picking up hustlers on the street to have sex with, the father strips naked in a train station and wanders in a desert screaming agonized to God (who does not respond), and the maid becomes a levitating, fasting legend in her rural village. Except for this latter punk saint from the lower classes, the family is cursed with awareness of their own inadequacy and spiritual malaise, which they can’t do anything to change. The only one who seems to be redeemed is Wiazemsky’s Odetta, who is awakened to the world’s sensuality—though under the most unusual circumstances. Shunning the bourgeois patriarchy that makes her useful only for procreation and looking content, she embarks on a vow of silence. She does not eat. She stays staring at the ceiling, her fist clenched as if ready to strike. (It is reductive to read her condition as an unwilled catatonic state, as many critics and viewers have.) The parents eventually cart her off to a mental institution, thinking her insane. She is anything but. This is the only morally valid path Odetta finds out of the home. She saves herself from her hellish destiny of being no more than the pretty progeny of Das Daddy Kapital (Girotti).
Wiazemsky’s monklike grace is shaped by the heavy, sculptural presence of her face in all of her scenes—a counterpart to the Jean-Luc Godard films in which, like most of his female actors, she recedes into a body no longer hers to control, drifting above Godard’s chunks of poetry-puns-theory like some papier-mâché plaything. In Teorema she does not become useful in the way Italy’s patriarchal family order demands of her: that is, as a passive vessel to be pawned off to an equally middle-class, equally pretty, equally dull male suitor. Rejecting her destiny of rotting in the high-operatic manner of her mother, Wiazemsky retreats within her face, into her mind. Pasolini lights her crazily to show this dramatic metamorphosis: in one unforgettably spiritualized close-up, she becomes Mary the Mother of God, Jeanne Falconetti’s Joan of Arc, a Vermeer woman lost in thought, and William Eggleston’s two Memphis hippie gals with the waterfalling hair all rolled into one. While the brother turns into a pontificating, pissing-on-the-canvas abstractionist (Pasolini projecting his worst vision of himself?) who can’t voice his unquenching desire for The Visitor, Wiazemsky takes the silent route cleared by Susan Sontag the year before Teorema, in 1967:
So far as he is serious, the artist is continually tempted to sever the dialogue he has with an audience. Silence is the furthest extension of that reluctance to communicate, that ambivalence about making contact with the audience which is a leading motif of modern art, with its tireless commitment to the “new” and/or the “esoteric.” Silence is the artist’s ultimate other-worldly gesture; by silence, he frees himself from servile bondage to the world, which appears as patron, client, audience, antagonist, arbiter, and distorter of his work.1
Pasolini, who was obsessed, tormented, by linguistics and the boundaries of power marked out by language, would have renounced all he possessed to attain the defiant purity of Wiazemsky in Teorema.2 Her performance is the ultimate “fuck you” to the mad world, from which she retreats while still confounding its arbitrary order. She declares herself a monument of sheer existence, nothing more. Reduction of her being becomes impossible. And the actor’s silently expressive face manages to express itself (pure Being) without Expressing itself (Being, mangled in translation by so many feel-good or antagonistic words, so many distorted signs).
One feels the surge of life pulsing through Pasolini’s uncensored faces. One feels in them what André Bazin saw in Carl Dreyer’s and Falconetti’s Joan of Arc, of 1928: “The movement of a wrinkle, the pursing of a lip are seismic shocks and the flow of tides, the flux and reflux of this human epidermis.”3 These faces obsessed and delighted the man who framed them. You’d be hard pressed to find a more philosophically demanding director in the history of modern cinema: Pasolini was an artist who resisted (and continues to resist) all attempts to whip his life into a conventional biographic shape. Understanding that to talk about him is a messy, atemporal affair, the Metrograph is running its Pasolini retrospective in backward order. It started in January with his last films, his best-known period, which includes his “Trilogy of Life”—his mystical, sexed-up romps through Boccaccio’s Decameron, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and the Arabian Nights, made between 1971 and 1974—as well as Salò, his premature final work, and his most perfectly pitched howl of rage at the collapse of modern morality in the age of late capitalism. (It’s also the most upsetting viewing experience I can bear to handle.) The next few months, May and June and July, will illuminate canonical masterworks—Accattone, The Gospel, Teorema—along with little-known but essential Pasolini films such as his pain-wracked, gorgeous 1967 adaptation of Oedipus Rex, the knockabout, scum-caked satire The Hawks and the Sparrows (the closest Pasolini ever came to slapstick comedy, with a talking-crow sidekick who spouts Marxist sayings to boot), and the vox populi documentary Love Meetings (1964), in which Pasolini takes to the streets to confront the Italian people on their progressive and regressive views of modern love: sex, homosexuality, machismo, prostitution, birth control, and more.
To think one has grasped Pasolini through one of these films, however—even when one has seen all of them—is like the blind man struggling to describe the elephant. One struggles to keep up with the lines of verse he feeds to his actors, the poetic found locations that seem to exist beyond civilization at the edges of the world, the shaky camera movements, and the lingerings on oddball details (Girotti’s bare feet, say, as he is purified Ivan Ilych–style in the train station) that any sane editor would have mercilessly pared down or cut entirely.
The films give but one way into the man, just as his faces give but one way into his films. Pasolini was always more than a director—a fact that often gets forgotten, especially in the United States, where his films are still far more known than the rest of the work he churned out steadily in a variety of media: the man was also a poet (first and foremost), a translator, a journalist, a composer, a painter, a dramatist, a linguist, a film theoretician, and a scrittore scomodo—that is, a writer who makes his readers uncomfortable. As a gay Catholic Marxist public intellectual who refused to subscribe fully to the dogma of any major institution, he was at any given point in time (and sometimes all at once) a thorn in the sides of the Fascists, the Christian Democrats, the Church, gay-rights parties in 1970s Italy, and the Communist Party. As a self-trained linguist who thought with his gut, he believed that reality is its own language and that cinema is “the written language of reality,” and therefore the closest thing to a universal sign system (what he called an “image-system”).4 Perhaps this explains his ardor in adapting canonical Western texts from different ancient languages: the Book of Matthew (Greek), Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Middle English), Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex and Euripides’s Medea (classical Greek), Boccaccio’s Decameron (the Florentine dialect of Tuscan Italian), The Thousand and One Nights (Arabic), and Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom (French). Pasolini tried to bridge the linguistic, textual, temporal gaps that separated these works by bringing them under the umbrella of his oddball, off-center compositions, and by revitalizing their poetry through a stream of unforgettable faces and voices.
A true history of Pasolini’s life would have to be either written in verse or shot in moving images. In the case of the latter, in order to capture even a sliver of Pasolini’s overwhelming thought process, his lightning-fast changes in style and in attitude toward what the cinema could do, one would need to use every conceivable film technique in the book: shardlike flashbacks, from the president’s daughter eating nails in bread in Salò to the haughty-and-she-knows-it teen girl demanding sexual respect from a flock of bashful, grinning, dumb boys on the beach in Love Meetings (1964), in which the joys of sex are theorized and then, much later (a flash-forward), put into explicit practice in The Canterbury Tales; double flashbacks; and false flash-forwards à la Richard Lester’s Petulia (1968), to suggest paths never taken, or storylines fruitfully developed over years (the “Trilogy of Life”) and then, just when the plot threads near a logical finale, suddenly dropped without warning (Pasolini’s 1975 repudiation of the “Trilogy of Life” in favor of Salò’s bleak vision).
Pasolini would not want us to hew to a linear reading of his life that would suggest that after the despondency of Salò, whose Italian release he did not live to see, he had nowhere to go. A grisly murder may have prematurely ended his working process, but the work itself continues to sound off its outrageous, radical overtones.5 Fifty years on, his faces—unbroken by postwar life and late capitalist misery—have lost none of their beauty.
Perhaps the most apt intuition of the meaning of Pasolini’s life, of how he saw himself, comes in the finale of Oedipus Rex, in which Oedipus (Franco Citti), blinded after realizing he has slept with his mother, walks out of the Ancient Greek past and into the Italy of 1967. Struggling to walk, he needs to be led around by more virile youth, a young servant named Angelo (Ninetto Davoli, Pasolini’s lover and curly-haired muse). His beard is scraggly, his stare into the camera (at us) upsettingly blank. His voice is cracked and hoarse from overuse; all he can shout is “Angelo! Angelo!” His lips eke out a pathetic tune on a shrill flute, while the people of the metropolis—in their snappy business suits, on their tandem bikes—peter on around him, ignoring his song against the degraded modern state. In Pasolini’s translation of the Sophocles play to modern times, Oedipus has become a contemporary Tiresias, crawling with knowledge of the world’s evils (all of which are set and known in advance) yet blind and ignored, his only sound a pained, animalistic shriek. He howls almost in vain, but nevertheless he howls—in the hope that, some day, a crowd will arise, eager to understand the pain in his eyes, to hear what he has to say.
1Susan Sontag, “The Aesthetics of Silence,” 1967, in Styles of Radical Will, 1969 (reprint ed. New York: Picador USA, 2002), p. 6.
2See Pier Paolo Pasolini, “New Linguistic Questions,” 1964, in Pasolini, Heretical Empiricism, ed. and trans. Ben Lawton and Louise K. Barnett (Washington, DC: New Academia Publishing, 2005).
3André Bazin, “Theatre and Cinema—Part Two,” in What Is Cinema? Part Two, ed. and trans. Hugh Gray (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967), p. 110.
4Pasolini, “Quips on the Cinema,” 1967, in Heretical Empiricism, pp. 223–32.
5Pasolini was found beaten to death with a nail-studded board and run over by his own car on November 2, 1975. Multiple bones were broken and his testicles were crushed with what appears to have been a giant metal bar. His body had been partly burned with gasoline after death. He was fifty-three. For a cogent summation of the theories that surround Pasolini’s suspicious murder and its motivation, see Stephen Sartarelli, “Introduction,” n. 82, in Pasolini, The Selected Poetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini: A Bilingual Edition, ed. and trans. Sartarelli (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), pp. 54–56.