In watching Accattone and subsequently reading about it, what's almost inescapable is the exploration of how the film connects with its creator Pier Paolo Pasolini. There's an emphasis on viewing the film as part of an artist's larger body of work. Every theme and idea becomes an extension of Pasolini's displayed interests, and nothing is allowed to be simply incidental. The strong depiction of the underclass seen in the film and the feeling of pessimism displayed for breaking this existing cycle seems to resonate in much of Pasolini's art during this period. At the same time, the reluctance to romanticize their plight or their actions further complicates the situation. If Pasolini was attempting to court sympathy for these denizens of the shacks and streets of Italy, he was probably affording few favors by representing them as layabout men who laugh at those who work and steal when given the opportunity.
The idea behind a film like Accattone instead seems to be based more on exposing what was going on rather than celebrating it, and yet doing so in a manner that refused to sensationalize occurrences which often remain shocking to witness even today. Pasolini showed a deep interest in these sorts of characters, and much of his early career in film was spent pursuing a fascination with this sub-proletariat milieu. Later, Pasolini would characterize his subjects in Accattone as being "enormously sympathetic" but such a description relies heavily on the viewer's own ability to consider actions in regards to surroundings. The characters in the film do some repulsive, indefensible things. Their rationale would probably be one referencing necessity but an alternative view might see laziness. That Pasolini is showing their actions at all might be the main idea. Any sympathy felt for the protagonist and his acquaintances is surely owing to their circumstances ("products of a criminal environment," was the phrase Pasolini used) rather than how they react to what has or hasn't been afforded to them.
As the director's debut feature, Accattone would ordinarily be viewed as a fair enough starting point for the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini. And it perhaps is, at least as good of one as anything else might be. However, this is a filmmaker who adhered very lightly to the expected trajectory. He helped signal the death knell to Neorealism with both Accattone and its follow-up Mamma Roma, and later made a Trilogy of Life from three distinctive historical sources. The notorious Salo, perhaps his best known film, turned out to be his last, after Pasolini was murdered under circumstances which are still not entirely clear in 1975. In a film career that spanned just fourteen years, Pasolini managed to explore a remarkable spectrum of saints and sinners while always remaining true to his own distinct ideals.
The protagonist in Accattone is clearly one of Pasolini's sinners. Named Vittorio (and played by Franco Citti) but answering to the film's title, a nickname translated roughly as "scrounger," the character has no job and instead relies on the income of a prostitute. He is, in a very crude but true way, a pimp. This lack of employment affords him the time to sit around with similarly loafing men all day. Their discussions are never shown as resembling anything constructive, and instead seem to retain an eternal adolescence in both subject matter and approach. Following the rather disconcertingly spare opening titles, an introductory scene in which Accattone insists he can jump from a bridge and into the water after eating a plateful of food becomes the perfect distillation of the lack of ambition contained in these men. What's less apparent at this point is how dangerously conniving Accattone can be. Any hint of simply being a benign layabout will fade by the film's end.
Pasolini injects an almost oppressive bleakness here. If the film has a significant strike against it, the (perhaps intentional) lack of focus or discipline would be one possibility and the mournful absence of anything which the viewer can latch onto would be another. The arc given to Stella, a naive and shapely young blonde Accattone meets when visiting his ex-wife's place of work, feels like a tragic sacrifice that is difficult to shake. She appears mainly in the second half of the film, but the time we spend with her almost makes what had come before retain less significance. In a way, Pasolini uses the initial portion of Accattone to build his protagonist in the character study sense. The viewer is allowed to become acquainted with Accattone, even strangely drawn to him, prior to seeing his coldest acts. And here the struggle begins. Pasolini creates an antihero. Accattone carries numerous characteristics which are difficult to support even in the film's first half, but none are so repulsive as to make the audience turn away entirely from him. By the second hour, we've become sort of hooked and, at the very least, emotionally invested in what occurs.
If pity is part of what we feel for Accattone then it's likely a byproduct of his own self-loathing. During his most base betrayal of Stella, he suddenly freaks out and runs for another bridge, though the situation takes on a much different tone than what occurred in the film's opening. Instead of jumping, he alters his route and sprints to the water. Accattone then splashes the cool liquid on his face before immediately placing it in the sand. He emerges covered in dark, muddy grit. The ambiguity, of both this scene and other actions taken by Accattone, is essential. Pasolini's reluctance to paint his antihero too negatively, or as lacking any self-awareness, allows the viewer to feel enormous conflict about seeing what is a rather desperate character. Nothing Accattone does should really be condoned, but the totality of the circumstances tends to turn what might seem black and white into something shaded far more heavily with grey.
How we process Accattone's actions, and the work as a whole, might be colored by the films which have followed in the fifty-plus years since its release. In 1961, there would have been few pictures in such a similarly combative yet still poetic vein. The remainder of Pasolini's career was very much in tune to his own sensibility and growth as an artist. Yet, the argument could be made that Accattone perhaps influenced other filmmakers more than it actually did Pasolini, considering the pictures he would go on to make. Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets and Raging Bull both strongly come to mind as owing a debt to this film. Painter turned director Julian Schnabel lifted the title of Pasolini's film for a painting he did in 1978. Bernardo Bertolucci, who served as an assistant on the set of Accattone, soon went on to make Le commare secca, based on a script written by Pasolini, as his debut feature in 1962, and it more closely resembles its screenwriter's interests than what Bertolucci would explore during the remainder of his own career.
The prevailing feeling that comes from watching Accattone is one of twisted, urgent conflict. It becomes a struggle trying to make peace with both the politics and the particulars of what we see. To stress the value in this requires an assurance that such emotions are very much okay, that cinema is allowed and indeed should make us experience the intelligent sort of confusion. If Accattone is neither a traditional protagonist nor one whose actions are easily understood or come to terms with then it seems necessary to actually express some gratitude for the amount of trust Pasolini gave his audience. Here we have a character who might attain some semblance of redemption, who might confirm the Dante quote which begins the film, and yet also someone who might simply exist as the "scrounger" his nickname implies and be quickly dismissed by those around him as soon as he's no longer there. That Pasolini created a figure we can't shake as the film ends very much feels like the point. Accattone haunts the viewer regardless of how sympathetic or likable he is.
Both Accattone and Comizi d'amore were previously released on DVD in the UK, along with the omnibus film RoGoPaG containing a contribution by Pasolini, in a set which was reviewed on this site by Noel Megahey. (RoGoPaG, also containing segments directed by Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, and Ugo Gregoretti, should be forthcoming on Blu-ray from the Masters of Cinema Series.)
This Dual Format Edition contains a Blu-ray with both Pasolini films in high definition, as well as a DVD. Pasolini's The Gospel According to Matthew is being released simultaneously. The dual-layered BD is locked to Region B. The DVD was not included for review purposes.
Accattone is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The black and white high definition image is striking in its clarity and lack of damage. Some grain has been left intact, though not at what one would consider to be pervasively thick levels. The picture is generally quite bright, yet also looks very impressive in darker scenes as it shows blacks to be pleasingly deep and inky. Movement and ease of motion is consistently smooth and fluid. It would honestly be a chore to come up with anything even slightly negative about this image. To call it merely "competent" is close to being an insult. It's grand - brimming with detail and blessed with visually superior contrast.
The audio deserves less praise, though MoC bears none of that burden. An Italian LPCM mono track is spread across the front two channels. Pasolini dubbed his actors, as was the custom in Italy for so many years. Some minor synchronization issues are the result. This tends to come and go, and doesn't prove overly distracting. Between the dialogue and the heavy amount of Bach found on the soundtrack, there's plenty in the track to keep it active throughout the film. The lossless audio provided does a fine job as necessary, but it's simply not a stand-out and it probably couldn't be under any reasonable circumstances. Still, no real complaints in terms of damage or inconsistencies can be made. The optional English subtitles provided are more than adequate. They're white in color.
Special features found on this Dual Format release include a full-length commentary track by Tony Rayns for Accattone. I kind of dislike Rayns' tendency to almost mumble at times, and his broad recounting of postwar Italian cinema leading up to Pasolini's debut seemed like a waste, but the commentary on the whole once again shows his wide knowledge of film and generous spirit in sharing many things which might remain otherwise unknown or unrecognized by the viewer. Those craving more about the film after a viewing would be advised to give the commentary a listen.
Ostensibly a supplement, Comizi d'amore (Love Meetings) (91:56) is a feature-length documentary made by Pasolini in 1965. It chronicles the sexual and relationship-related views of contemporary Italians, with Pasolini covering many sections of the country as an on-camera interviewer. The basic format is to ask regular people what they think of various topics, including divorce, virginity at the time of marriage, and the extent of women's rights. Also interviewed, and shown at various times during the film, are the psychologist Cesare Musatti and writer Alberto Moravia (whose books were the bases for films such as Godard's Contempt, or Le Mepris, and Bertolucci's The Conformist).
The documentary is presented in 1080p HD, in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The entire thing has a dated feel to it while still remaining oddly, even depressingly, timeless and universal. Pasolini sometimes almost baits his subjects but the results are never less than compelling. Image quality here is more or less fine, with far more grain on display than in Accattone. It's nonetheless shown as clean to the eye and full of detail.
Original Italian theatrical trailers are included for both films. The lengthy one (4:40) for Comizi d'amore seems to show clips not in the final cut, including an appearance by Vittorio De Sica, while Accattone's preview (2:03) features a jazzy score which contrasts oddly with the frequent use of Bach found in the actual film.
We also are treated to a lengthy 36-page booklet from MoC. The writing of Pier Paolo Pasolini dominates this insert. His poem "To a Pope" or "A un papa" was published in 1959 after the death of Pope Pius XII and is reprinted and translated here across three pages, including an introduction. An excerpt from Pasolini on Pasolini, a 1969 book in which the director was interviewed by Oswald Stack, concerns Accattone and runs for seven pages. A 1975 remembrance of the film, entitled "My Accattone" and written by Pasolini, then follows for five pages. This piece came just prior to his death, and was published in a Milan newspaper as the film was being readied for a television showing. Pasolini's original treatment for Comizi d'amore, then called A Hundred Pair of Oxen, has been reprinted across four pages in the booklet. Lastly, we have another excerpt from Pasolini on Pasolini, this time concerning Comizi d'amore. It's three pages of text. MoC has generously outfitted the rest of the booklet with various images, film and disc credits and even a few relevant quotes. It's a superb, highly relevant part of this overall package from the Masters of Cinema Series.