Pasolini Volume 2 Review
The ground covered in Pasolini’s earlier films, three of which were included in the previous Pasolini: Volume 1, set the scene for the themes that the director would explore through a much darker and more experimental approach in his films of the late 1960s. In these films there is a gradual move away from the street youths and the condition of the poor struggling to find something meaningful to grasp onto in the post-war period of Pasolini’s early work, towards a darker exploration of the deeper and longer-term psychological impact of the barbarism they have been subjected to during the war and immediate post-war years.
While few would consider the three films included in Pasolini Volume 2 as being among the best of the director’s films, they are fairly representative of the broad scope of his work and each show significant progression of Pasolini’s themes and his narrative approach. In Hawks And Sparrows (1966) there is a deeper though playful exploration of the human condition though the religious and political ideology in modern-day Italy; Oedipus Rex (1967) is characteristic of Pasolini’s idiosyncratic adaptations of classical literature; while Pigsty (1969) exemplifies the director’s bleak, nihilistic meditations on the darker side of human nature which would be brought through to fruition in all its horror in the director’s final film, Salò.
Hawks And Sparrows (Uccellacci e Uccellini), 1966
Following on from his previous film, the documentary feature Love Meetings in which he investigated attitudes towards sexuality in Italian society, Pasolini took to the road again in a fictional manner in Hawks And Sparrows in order to consider two other subjects that preoccupy the director throughout his films – Christianity, Marxism and their relationship to the ordinary man.
Unlike Love Meetings which purported to be a serious study although in reality was anything but, the tone in Hawks And Sparrows is deliberately playful, with an inspired casting of the great Italian clown Totò in one of the lead roles. He plays an old man who, with his young innocent son Ninetto (Ninetto Davoli), wanders through the rapidly changing landscape around Rome, where the ancient aqueducts are giving way to housing slums and motorway overpasses. Along the road, which in this heavily symbolic film represents the long, journey down the road of life, the old man and the young boy encounter a Fellinian parade of unusual characters, most of them ordinary people struggling to cope with the challenges that life throws their way, searching for direction and meaning through belief in Christianity or Marxism.
The old man and the young boy find no easy answers, and to help them understand why the divisions in society are never healed by any of the proposed ideals, a left-wing intellectual raven tells them a parable about the hawks and the sparrows. Two 13th century Franciscan monks, Brother Ciccello and Brother Ninetto (Totó and Ninetto Davoli again), devoutly dedicate their lives to bringing the message of God to the birds, and manage to speak to both the hawks and the sparrows. While they manage to separately convert the hawks and the sparrows to worship of the Lord, they fail however to bring any reconciliation between the class-like divisions that lie between them and lead one to prey on the other. Unswayed by the arguments they hear towards one path or the other, Totò and Ninetto find their needs satisfied in more basic terms with a roadside prostitute and food in their mouths, which they obtain from eating the crow.
Superbly played by the two leads, particularly in their performances as the Franciscan monks, there is much to enjoy in the playful episodes of Hawks And Sparrows, which additionally benefits immeasurably from some spectacular cinematography and a delightful score by Ennio Morricone which suits the tone perfectly, right down to the film’s sung opening credits. The importance or meaning of the majority of the encounters however is hard to fathom and seems to be tied to a particular period in time and place. One of the final scenes of the film shows footage of the funeral of Palmiro Togliatti, one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party – but there is no context or obvious explanation provided for its inclusion here. Like many other scenes and encounters in the film, this may have had relevance at the time to its Italian audience – though I’m not quite sure what - but other than the comic performances and the formal beauty of the film, this lesser-known Pasolini film is unlikely to hold the interest of anyone but fans of the director. They at least however will find much to ponder in Hawks And Sparrows often far from obvious treatment and meaning.
Oedipus Rex (Edipo Re), 1967
Pasolini was certainly not afraid to tackle the classics and put his own individual stamp on the material. He had already demonstrated his ability to bring his deep humanism to The Gospel According To St Matthew (1964) and would go on to put his own unique interpretation on Boccaccio’s The Decameron (1971), Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1972) and even the Arabian Nights (1974). While there is perhaps a more reverential or faithful treatment demonstrated in his adaptations of the ancient Greek classics and little that is obviously related to Pasolini’s usual interests, they nonetheless present a number of intriguing touches that are characteristic of the director, not least of which is their crucial casting of the leads – the legendary opera diva Maria Callas in her only screen role bringing her incomparable presence to the film version of Euripides’ Medea (1969), and it’s Pasolini’s favourite street thug Franco Citti whose brawn dominates Pasolini’s 1967 film version of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.
Although it is strangely framed by anachronistic modern settings and costumes, opening in a pre-war Italian villa and ending with the blind Oedipus wandering through the square outside the Basilica de San Petronio in present-day Bologna, the majority of Oedipus Rex is set in antiquity. It’s in Thebes that a child is born to King Laius (Luciano Bartoli) and the Queen Jocasta (Silvana Mangano). Laius regards the child as a threat, not only for the attention it receives from its mother, but somehow he has a premonition that the child represents his redundancy in the world, and will eventually usurp his position. The child is taken away by a servant who has been ordered to throw him off a mountain, but unable to carry out the order the servant merely abandons the boy in the desert. He is discovered by a shepherd, who brings him back to Corinth, where he is adopted by the King and Queen there (Carmelo Bene and Alida Valli) who regard him as a gift from God.
The child is called Oedipus (Franco Citti), and he grows up to be a strong warrior, albeit one who doesn’t always play by the rules. Oedipus knows nothing of his past, but is tormented by dark dreams. He undertakes a pilgrimage to the Oracle of Apollo in Delphi to try to understand what they mean, but the premonitory nature of the dreams is worse than he could ever imagine – he is destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Hoping to escape such a fate, Oedipus avoids returning to Corinth, but the random path he follows takes him back to Thebes, where to his horror, what has been foretold comes to pass.
Although there are a few eccentricities in the settings and in the costumes, on the surface Oedipus Rex would appear to be a fairly straight telling of the ancient Greek classic, and it’s one that never falters for a second to be gripping and purposeful, making tremendous use of the incredible Moroccan locations. Competently made, there would however appear to be little that is characteristic of Pasolini in the film, but there are telling touches that leave room for a great deal of interpretation. The twentieth-century opening and closing scenes that frame the film obviously must be significant, even though there would appear to be no evident connection between them. The opening would seem to be in an idealised period before the barbarism of the first and second world wars, while the ending brings us up to the modern-day consequences of where that has taken us.
In between, Pasolini finds in Franco Citti his Oedipus the Barbarian. Even though the actions of Oedipus are apparently innocent - the killing of his father an act of self-defence, the marrying of his mother an act of ignorance - there is a certain mindless brutality in his murder of Laius, pride in his belief that he can thwart the consequences of events, and an unwillingness to accept responsibility for his actions. The story represents a crossing the line into the darker impulses of human nature, and the actions and events that arise out of the most heinous of crimes follow a course that is to have unimaginable consequences.
Pigsty (Porcile), 1969
Pasolini’s study of the darker side of human nature with a particular emphasis on sexuality would continue through his next couple of films - Theorem (1968) and Pigsty (1969), both of them also taking his experimental approach to filmmaking a little bit further into abstraction. Broaching cannibalism, bestiality, rape and Nazi crimes within its bleak subject matter, Pigsty reaches a level of pessimism and horror that is not far behind the director’s most deeply disturbing film, Salò (1975).
Pigsty is split across two interweaving storylines, and although one of the characters links the two, they remain separate throughout and appear to take place in very different worlds. In the one most resembling the real-world, Ida (Anne Wiazemsky) attempts to persuade her rich German bourgeois boyfriend Julian (Jean-Pierre Léaud) to take part in the youth movements springing up across Europe and join her on a march to piss on the Berlin Wall. Julian however is uninterested in the affairs of the outside world, and is determined to remain in the mansion where he intends to indulge in an obscure personal interest or activity that he cannot speak about. Julian’s father Klotz (Alberto Lionello) meanwhile, a wealthy German industrialist, hopes to eliminate his rival Herdhitze (Ugo Tognazzi) through documents that have come to his attention which prove his involvement with the Nazis during the war. As a countermeasure however, Herdhitze threatens that he will reveal what he knows about Julian’s terrible secret. In another place, a man (Pierre Clémenti) wanders through a dangerous and barren land that shows signs of volcanic activity. Living outside society according to his own rules, the man gathers a group of cannibalistic bandits around him who rape prisoners and behead trespassers, throwing their heads as an offering into the volcano and eating their remains.
Both parts of the story deal with dark, taboo subjects, revealing aspects of human nature that are far from pleasant yet exert an irresistible force over the characters, bringing them to the edge of an abyss. What lies behind this descent into barbarism for the two young men is far from clear, but does again, as with Oedipus Rex, seem to be tied to events set in motion in the past for which there is a price that must be paid. Youthful idealism and protests against the injustices of the past don’t seem to be enough. For Julian, it is necessary to confront the true nature of mankind that has been revealed within himself - a side that he tells Ida she would frighten here if she were able to see inside him - one that draws him to the filth of the pigsty to behave like the other animals there. The young man on the hillside is also given the chance to repent his actions. Confess he does, but repent and turn to the cross he does not – for him also the truth that lies within cannot be denied and the price for that knowledge must be exacted.
Being much more symbolic and apparently removed from the real-world, it is perhaps the youth on the hillside that represents the darkness inside Julian that can’t be expressed, but Pasolini makes no clear connection between the two stories or place one inside the other. Taken together however, both sections of Pigsty present a deeply unpleasant and uncomfortable view of the depths to which humanity can sink. Interested in all aspects of human nature and capable of showing true compassion and humanism in his films, this deeply pessimistic outlook is also part of our make-up and it’s one that Pasolini consequently could not deny. A fascination with this aspect would drive him to even greater lengths and be expressed to its utmost in the obscenity of his final film Salò in 1975, and it was perhaps this fascination that led him to pay the ultimate price in his own personal life with the suspicious circumstances surrounding his death shortly afterwards.
Pasolini Volume 2 is released in the UK by Tartan. The three films in this set are each presented on a dual-layer disc in PAL format and are encoded for Region 2. Attractively packaged, each of the DVDs is housed in a thinpak slim case featuring the gorgeous original poster art for each film, and contained in a slipcase along with a reprint of Pasolini’s 1955 novel, ‘The Ragazzi’ (Ragazzi di Vita).
Presented anamorphically, the transfer for Hawks And Sparrows is most impressive. Other than a very faint and scarcely noticeable flickering - perhaps through the telecine process or just from aging of the print itself - the image is close to perfect with scarcely a mark visible anywhere. The only artefacts at all would appear to be put on the original negative itself with the addition of Italian narrative subtitles that are part of the film. Black and white levels are impressive - not overly contrasted, but showing a full range of tones nonetheless. Clarity and sharpness could hardly be better.
The picture quality on Oedipus Rex is also just about perfect. Colours are beautifully presented, capturing the essential tones without over-saturation. Generously occupying a dual-layer disc, the image furthermore exhibits no evidence of grain, dot crawl or macro-blocking and is stable throughout. Edge enhancement can however be seen in a number of scenes. As with Hawks And Sparrows, contrast is again not too strong, but sharpness and shadow detail are both fine. Overall, particularly with the strength of the photography, the costumes and set designs, the image looks very, very impressive and it would be hard to imagine this looking much better in standard definition.
Pigsty also looks impressive for the larger part of the film. There are however some minor issues in one or two scenes where the colour levels fluctuate slightly for a brief second or two, and other scenes exhibit some minor shakiness. These issues would seem to be unavoidable and are rare enough not to matter greatly. Otherwise, the colour, sharpness and tone of the film is excellent and, on a dual-layer disc, there are again no problems with digital artefacts.
The original audio track each of the film is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and none of the films have any evident problems. Dialogue is clear in every case and there is no trace of background analogue noise, hiss or distortion on any of the films. Hawks And Sparrows demonstrates a pleasant warm tone to Morricone’s original score, and Oedipus Rex tests the limits in some louder passages, but each soundtrack is admirably clean and clear and about as good as they could possibly be.
Optional English subtitles are provided for each of the films in a clear white font. There are quite a few narrative interjections that make use of subtitles and intertitles in Hawks And Sparrows (as well as translations of bird dialogue!) and these are retained in the original Italian as it is intentionally fixed on the print. The optional English subtitles in this case are moved to the top of the screen to prevent them being obscured.
Included on the Hawks And Sparrows disc is Pasolini’s 1968 short documentary film Notes For A Film On India (33:00). In Pasolini’s proposed film outline, an Indian Maharaja travelling through the country comes across a starving tiger and gives up his own body to save it. His death plunges his wife into poverty where she is obliged to consort with ‘untouchables’. Travelling to India, the documentary is an attempt to test the authenticity of these ideas by speaking to the people there. A fascinating film, the notions are particularly apt for Pasolini – Communist, humanitarian – and the interviews illuminating on the condition and mindset of the Indian people. A Trailer (3:15) for the “thrilling wave of hilarity” that is Hawks And Sparrows, is also included.
For Oedipus Rex, the only extra feature is the Trailer (3:28).
Pigsty contains another rare short work from Pasolini, The Walls of Sana’a (12:47), made in the form of a plea to UNESCO to help prevent the destruction of a beautiful medieval town in Yemen, under threat from modernisation due to a recent socialist revolution. A Trailer (2:38) for Pigsty is also included making artful (and arty) use of stills to convey the disturbing nature of the film. All extra features on the discs, including trailers, are presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Also included as part of the set is a reprint of Pasolini’s first novel, ‘The Ragazzi’ (Ragazzi di Vita) from 1955. Like ‘A Violent Life’ included as part of Pasolini Volume 1, the setting for the novel is in the post-war slums of Rome, where Riccetto and his half-starving friends are forced into a life of criminal activity, violence, gambling and prostitution due to the poverty of their circumstances. Creating a scandal when it was first published, the apparent crudeness of the writing and lack of structure in the novel nonetheless still carries a sense of harsh authenticity – “At Pietralata, simply as a matter of good breeding, nobody showed sympathy for the living. You can imagine whether they gave a fuck for the dead.”
There are few who would regard the three rarely seen films included in Pasolini Volume 2 as among the controversial Italian director’s best works, but seeing them presented in sequence like this may throw new light upon their often obscure motives and unusual treatment. While these are hardly lightweight or easy viewing material, Tartan’s superb presentation of these films makes the effort more than worthwhile with transfers that are close to perfection and a selection of good extra features which, if not extensive, at least also contribute to the filling in of important gaps in Pasolini’s brief but fascinating filmography.