Pasolini Volume 1 Review

Tartan’s first Pier Paolo Pasolini collection contains three films from the period 1961 to 1965, some of them widely regarded as being among Pasolini’s finest work. Pasolini: Volume 1 includes the director’s debut film Accattone; his notorious contribution to the RoGoPaG film, ‘La Ricotta’, condemned by the Vatican as blasphemous and banned, and leading to Pasolini being arrested and awarded a prison sentence; and his documentary Love Meetings on Italian attitudes towards sexuality. As well as being important and fascinating films in their own right, these early films mark out the distinctive direction of a unique and important director. Pasolini’s writing and poetry, his Marxist leanings, his homosexuality, his challenging and humanistic outlook on religion and his lyrical championing of the poor, the marginalised and the criminal classes of thieves, pimps and prostitutes without any falseness or sentimentality, combine to propel Italian cinema into a new age. As well as being an important figure with the directors arising out of Italian neorealism, writing scripts for Franco Rossi and Federico Fellini among others, Pasolini’s aggressive and progressive approach to filmmaking would also mark out a path for directors like Marco Bellocchio and Bernardo Bertolucci, who would make his debut in cinema as Production Assistant on Pasolini’s Accattone.

Accattone (1961)

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s first film as a director is every bit as hard-hitting, ugly and brutal as you might expect from the director, yet infused with a sense of beauty and poetry for the low-life characters that so fascinate him, largely portrayed here by non-actors. The central character of Vittorio "Accattone" Cataldi is played by Franco Citti, a non-professional actor who would however go on to appear in many of Pasolini’s subsequent films. Accattone, a nickname which indicates a job-shy scrounger, is rather proud of his appellation, one that could equally apply to many of the friends he hangs around with outside the local bars.

Living in one of the outlying communities in the slums and built-up housing developments on the outskirts of Rome, constructed to house poor migrants from country villages looking for work in the city, Accattone and his friends are no Fellinian “vittellone” out in the provinces, dreaming their lives away without actually getting off their backsides to achieve anything. For these hard-edged Roman boys, to actually be forced to get a job would be a shameful thing to do, an admission that they are not real men who can live of their wits and their women. Inevitably, it’s a violent lifestyle with no sense of social conscience, each of the men constantly on the make, on the pull after women and on the run from the police.

Accattone, true to his name, is a crook and a bum and proud of it, making a living pimping out his girlfriend Maddalena (Silvana Corsini). He doesn’t take particularly good care of her either, allowing her to be taken out to some waste ground and beaten up by a group of thugs from Naples, only to end up in prison herself. So when Accattone meets and falls in love with a young woman called Stella (Franca Pasut), an innocent girl who is still a virgin, his friends reckon she’ll be walking the streets within a fortnight. If he doesn’t want to starve, it’s either that or he’ll have to get a job.

Accattone shows that there’s no place for love or sentiment in such a world, or at least not in the conventional sense that we know it. Pasolini however finds an underlying level of truth of feelings amidst all the brutality, and while on-screen it’s not quite as uncompromising as his novels, he finds other ways to draw out the absurdity of life and love in such circumstances. The film abounds in religious references, from the starving men talking about having a “last supper” to a prostitute being described as making a “pilgrimage” along the Appian Way. Previous to making his first film here, Pasolini had a hand scripting for Fellini on La Dolce Vita and Nights of Cabiria - most notably writing the famous Divine Love sequence in the latter - but there is none of Fellini’s irony evident here. The uncommon yet, typically Pasolinian mix of the sacred and the profane – even a squalid brawl in the dirt being scored to a stately, elegant arrangement of Bach music – only serves to represent the film’s sense of brutal poetic realism.

RoGoPaG (1963)

Like any compendium of films by different directors, RoGoPaG is inevitably a bit of a mixed bag. Actually titled Laviamoci Il Cervello (“Let’s have a Brainwash), but more commonly known by the acronym made up of the beginnings of the names of the directors - Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Ugo Gregoretti - RoGoPaG is described as “four stories by four authors who limit themselves to recounting the joyous beginning of the end of the world”. An impressive line-up of directors, each of them approach the subject very much in their own fashion, but with varying degrees of relevance and success.

Nominally about man’s search for a protective womb, Robert Rossellini’s opening segment ‘Illibatezza’ (“Chastity”) is an uncharacteristic and inconsequential light comedy about a modest, but beautiful Italian airline hostess, Anna Maria, who finds she can only shake off the unwanted attentions of a US salesman who is pestering her, by acting more sluttish. Jean-Luc Godard’s short twenty-minute piece ‘Il Nuovo Mondo’ (“The New World”) conflates the breaking up of a relationship with the Cold War, when a super atomic explosion is carried out over Paris and the narrator’s relationship with his girlfriend similarly turns frosty. People in the city fail to recognise or just ignore the significance of what has taken place, but the world is subtly changing and nothing will ever be the same. A lovely concise little piece, Godard’s segment is filmed and narrated in the style of Alphaville, carrying the same beautiful melancholic tone of Le Mépris. The final piece by Ugo Gregoretti, ‘Il Pollo Ruspante’ (Free Range Chicken) tackles consumerism as its sign of the end of the world, and although rather heavy-handed in places, it’s well performed and quite amusing.

Nestled between Godard’s piece and Gregoretti’s, it’s Pier Paolo Pasolini’s segment ‘La Ricotta’ however, that is certainly the most notable piece in the film, not least because its irreverent depiction of the Passion of Christ angered the church, led to the whole film being banned and astonishingly even earned Pasolini a four-month suspended prison sentence for blasphemy. Orson Welles stars as a Marxist film director who is making a movie about the Passion of Christ, while on the set Stracci (Mario Cipriani) is a starving actor playing the part of the Good Thief, constantly frustrated and tormented in his attempts to get some food to eat.

Mixing the sacred and the profane, again with references to the Last Supper – so hungry is he that Stracci tells the actor playing Christ that he’d settle for the kingdom of earth over the kingdom of heaven if only he could get something to eat – Pasolini totally demystifies the distancing nature of religion and gives it back to ordinary people. Contrasting the elegantly posed colourful tableaux-vivants of the film-within-the-film with the black-and-white sections of Stracci’s dilemma, often filmed comically speeded-up, Pasolini brings an incredible sense of humanism to his depiction of The Passion. The Catholic church clearly didn’t see it that way however, doubtlessly finding some of the more irreverent suggestion of actors playing religious figures seeking out rough trade, others jiving at the table of the Last Supper and one extra performing a striptease, quite inflammatory and a step too far.

Love Meetings (1965)

Pasolini’s interest in examining the underbelly of Italian society that few wanted to even openly acknowledge, led him in 1965 to make the documentary Comizi D’Amore (Love Meetings). Travelling across Italy and speaking to people of all ages and classes, Pasolini is seen throughout pushing a microphone in front of people’s faces, questioning them about their attitudes towards sex. Sitting down at points in the documentary to talk with the great Italian thinkers of the time, Alberto Moravia and Cesare Musatti, Pasolini reviews his findings and, largely unsurprised by the results, suggests that if he achieves nothing else he at least will tackle a taboo subject by getting Italians to actually talk about sex.

Divided into four parts, Love Meetings is nothing if not comprehensive in the manner in which the director sets about this objective. Covering the length and breadth of Italy, Pasolini questions young and old, soldiers, country people, city people, intellectuals, sport stars, celebrities, working class and middle class on their personal attitudes towards sexuality and their perception of how it is regarded in Italian society. The first part compares and contrasts attitudes towards equality of sexual behaviour between men and women, and how those attitudes differ between classes and between modern ways of living and those of the past. Also covering concepts of personal morality and those dictated by church and society, this takes us towards the second part, where Pasolini tries to get people to speak about their feelings towards “abnormal” sexual behaviour such as homosexuality, sadism and masochism. After an interval, since “nothing is more tiring than talking about sex” (he isn’t wrong in this case), part three looks at sex as a social concept, questioning attitudes towards the family, marriage and divorce.

Reviewing the material gathered so far in part four, Pasolini senses that his vox populi survey and snappy questioning hasn’t really revealed anything one didn’t already know about Italian attitudes towards sexuality – and that is that people have different views towards love, sex, family and marriage. One suspects that it was never Pasolini’s intention to probe deeply and discover the truth about people’s attitudes, since few in a sexually repressed Catholic country during the 1960s are prepared to reveal their true thoughts on the topic when speaking in public, in a large crowd, in front of a movie camera. Further doubt on the motives of the film is cast by the fact that any strong use of language or description of sexual activity is furthermore necessarily auto-censored, otherwise the film could not have been screened. From the superficial and patronising tone of many of the questions which are designed to provoke a particular leading response - “Have you heard of that terrible thing called “sexual abnormalities?” - it would appear that Pasolini’s intention is not to learn anything or open up a taboo subject for debate, as much as show his superiority and mock the apparent small-mindedness of his subjects.

This rather distasteful and superficial approach rather invalidates any worth the documentary might have as a social study. Early in the film Pasolini sets out his agenda to break taboos by getting people to talk about subjects they are reticent to confront, describing this as a “crusade against ignorance and fear”. It turns out to be a one-man crusade that rather capitalises on and fans the flames of such ignorance and fear for the director’s own ends. There is certainly entertainment to be found in Love Meetings’ vox pop survey, but little that really stands up to any serious academic scrutiny.

Pasolini Volume 1 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 and contained in a slipcase along with a reprint of Pasolini’s 1959 novel, ‘A Violent Life’ (Una Vita Violenta).

The picture quality on Accattone is astonishingly good. It has a crisp, clear image with perfect black-and-white tones, showing fabulous detail. The print furthermore shows not a single mark or a scratch. The opening titles seem to suggest a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but the film itself is presented in 1.33:1. It seems perfectly composed for this ratio however, neither showing too much headroom nor appearing to be cropped for pan and scan. This looks practically flawless.

RoGoPaG also looks about as good as could be expected, with any flaws appearing to be inherent within the original materials, and it’s only Godard’s section that shows some minor marks of that sort. The remainder of the pieces have crisp, sharp black-and-white tones, with only a low-level of visible grain. The film-within-a-film sequences in Pasolini’s La Ricotta are in eye-popping colour, which only fluctuates slightly in a frame or two. Packaging indicates that the film is presented anamorphically at 1.78:1, but it is actually at the correct ratio of 1.85:1.

The picture quality on Love Meetings is variable, but doubtlessly inherent in the documentary film-making method, making use of what natural light could be obtained and using a portable handheld camera. Some scenes are consequently a little bit soft – surprisingly, these are more often the round table discussions than the out-on-the-street footage, which is often quite clear, sharp and well-toned. Again the packaging gets the aspect ratio wrong, stating that it is 1.66:1. It may well ought to be at this ratio, but it is actually presented as 1.78:1. On a film like this, the difference would not be of major significance.

The original mono audio tracks on Accattone and RoGoPaG are presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and are about as clear as they are ever likely to have been. There may be a few minor crackles here and there, normal for the age of the films, but even so, dialogue is perfectly clear, with no background noise, analogue hiss or distortion. The documentary Love Meetings necessarily uses a live recording and is consequently not quite as polished as the other two tracks, but is nonetheless clear and presents no serious problems.

English subtitles are optional on all films and presented in a clear white font. There are few problems. I noticed one minor typo in Accattone (“thing the wrong thing” instead of “think the wrong thing”), but nothing else on any of the other films. The dialogue and slang can sometimes be extremely difficult to translate, but the tone seems to be just right here, translating each of the films quite thoroughly. Some fixed subtitles in Italian remain on Love Meetings to translate dialect expressions.

There is a Trailer (1:58) for Accattone, which heavily features stills and press notices for the film, a longer Trailer (4:57) to cover the various films that make up RoGoPaG - or Let’s Have A Brainwash as it is referred to here throughout - and a Trailer (4:31) for Love Meetings, which makes use of a lot of unused footage, even promising views on the subject from Vittorio De Sica, who is not actually in the finished film.

The main extra however is a 320-page reprint of Pasolini’s 1959 novel A Violent Life. Essentially, you are getting another complete work by Pasolini here, and it’s one that is highly relevant as it immediately precedes Pasolini’s debut as a film director. The novel is set in an urban slum similar to the one seen in Accattone, but here the tone is much darker, more violent and strongly worded than anything Pasolini could achieve on the movie screen. Relating the story of a young man caught up in a life of drinking, crime, delinquency and prostitution with his friends, Tommaso will even try to sell himself for sex and eventually violently beat up and rob a prostitute just so that he can pay to have his girlfriend serenaded. After a spell in prison and having witnessed many of those friends lives come to sad and violent ends, Tommaso tries to change the direction of his life when he meets a young girl, Irene, but life has other plans for him. More than just a chronicle of a violent lifestyle however, the novel sets the background against which the changes in political awareness and activism are drawn out. Una Vita Violenta was made into a film in 1962, scripted but not directed by Pasolini.

There are a couple of notable omissions in Tartan’s first Pier Paolo Pasolini collection. During the period covered in Volume 1, 1961 – 1965, Pasolini also made two of his most important films, Mamma Roma (1962) and The Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964), and it is a pity they couldn’t be included to make this a more complete set. The three early films that are included here are however no less interesting or worthy of attention, covering essential characteristics that would remain prominent in Pasolini’s later work, and they are often just as powerful and controversial as the director’s better known films. Tartan’s Pasolini: Volume 1 package doesn’t have any features that examine the films or put them into any kind of context but, well presented with strong transfers and the addition of an original Pasolini novel, this is nonetheless a fine collection.

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