Pasolini: Art or Exploitation

(An alternate version of a story published in Vol. 2 of  ParaCinema Magazine)

It’s hard to say if being remembered for what is often said to be the most controversial film of all time is a good thing. Italian director Pierre Paolo Pasolini, who is one of the most misunderstood and fascinating filmmakers in celluloid history, to this day carries the cinematic burden of controversy; a burden that may have even been the catalyst for his murder.

Pasolini’s final film Saló O Le 120 Giornate Di Sodoma (Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, 1975) was banned in over a dozen countries upon its release (many of which still hold the censorship), often considered a dangerous piece of film. Original prints were at one point stolen only to be rediscovered, minus lost and now infamous footage. Critics have labeled it exploitative trash, with some tagging it the most disgusting film ever made (even today with genre films pushing the envelope of bad taste with violence and sex, Saló holds its shock value). 

Supporters argue for the film’s artistic merits and staunch political protest messages, particularly the director’s longstanding contempt with Italian fascism and his support of homosexuality. Hard to find DVDs of his films are coveted (The Criterion Collection’s short-lived 1998 release of Saló for example is one of the rarest DVDs on the market with copies on eBay and other online auction sites ranging from $500-$1000) and his films have been studied and debated for years. 

While the storm of controversy and mysterious cult following/curiosity-surrounding Saló will always leave it as Pasolini’s most notable film there is more to the brilliant and underappreciated director than merely his final film. 

In many ways its safe to say Pasolini was a poet first and filmmaker second. Poetry, theater, literature and political propaganda were the embodiment of Pasolini’s early career and in many ways opened up the doors for his film career (before Saló Pasolini had over 20 films under his belt). The director was always interested in the classics often adapting literary giants such as Chaucer, Boccaccio and in the case of Saló the equally controversial Marquis de Sade. 

His early films dealt with the Italian proletariats–everyday characters seldom chronicled on screen during his time. In 1962’sMamma Roma Pasolini weaves a tale of a middle-aged prostitute trying to break away from her unforgiving life on the streets of Rome and does it was a level of grace and compassion normally not given for such an “undesirable” sect of society. 

In 1969’s Medea Pasolini tackled Greek mythology with the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece (a story often chronicled on film most notably in the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation cult classic Jason and the Argonauts). Like all the films in Pasolini’s cannon, this is not a kid’s version of the classic tale but rather an adult themed take on the story.

Similarly to Medea, Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life–his penultimate trio beginning with cinematic interpretations of Boccaccio’s The Decameron, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights, a loose adaptation of A Thousand and One Nights–was a unique and mature take on three literary classics, heavily exploring themes of sexuality (both hetero and homosexual). Pasolini’s films, particularly Canterbury Tales, also served as vehicles for his scathing criticism of religion, specifically the Catholic Church, an establishment commonly scorned in films during Pasolini’s heyday.
Then there is Saló, which deals above all with the themes of power, lust and greed. Upon its release viewers saw in the film Pasolini’s contempt for the Italian fascist regime. While one can easily pick out Pasolini’s overall disgust for the fascist movement, specifically the intolerance for homosexuality, Saló is more an exploration of the abuse of authority. The film examines the destruction of the human psyche and body and does so with dark and disturbing visual images that are not for the squeamish, but serve as an eye-opener to the mankind’s darkest capabilities (aspects of Saló are frighteningly similar to the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib prison back in 2004, which makes Pasolini’s vision all the more horrifying).

I was recently reminded of Pasolini, whose films I discovered during a film class in college, when I was reading an article on the numerous failed cinematic protest films released this year–RedactedThe KingdomRenditionLions For Lambs etc.–regarding the current state of Iraq and our presence in the Middle East. One of the biggest complaints by critics is that gone are the days when film served as a medium for true or effective political and social dissent. Sure Al Gore won a Noble Peace Prize and an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth but one could argue that not much has changed in the battle against global warning since its release and that the use of protest and controversy in art is fading. 

Pasolini was killed following the release of Saló. While the investigation into the homicide is still open many believe that Pasolini, like the late great and equally controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gough, was killed because of his art and the beliefs that fueled it. His final film was scathing towards Italy’s political infrastructure, the Catholic Church, and above all human intolerance. The film stirred things up but that was its point. 

Legacies are a funny thing. It’s unfortunate that Pasolini will no doubt always be remembered as “that director of that disgusting film” since there is more to the highly underrated director than merely a shroud of controversy surrounding his films’ visual content. On the surface many of his movies could be viewed as extreme or risqué but unlike the no-holds-barred torture porn tactics of the modern horror movie (SawHostel etc), Pasolini used this in-your-face form of filmmaking to comment on the grim state of the world. He was not alone. Fellow filmmakers like Spain’s surrealist auteur Luis Buñuel or French master Jean Renoir spent much of their careers making controversial films that weren’t afraid to criticize the state of affairs whatever the cost may have been. Seldom today do we see that kind of radical devotion to films with motives and seldom do films have the power to bring that kind of passion and anger out in audiences. 

Pasolini’s films are not for everyone but should be viewed with an open mind, despite the controversy surrounding them. Like all great art his films are difficult, require a lot from the audience but are important landmarks in cinematic history.