Friday 23 February 2024

Sixty Years of International Art Cinema 1960-2020 - Bruce Hodsdon continues his series - 6 (23) Italy Part 6 - Pasolini, Rosi, the new generation

Pier Paolo Pasolini

Pasolini’s conflicted passions                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Poet, novelist, essayist, script-writer, auteur, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-75) dedicated much time to try and reconcile the Catholicism ingrained in him from childhood with Gramscian Marxism which gave him the tools to think through the problems of oppression. His intellectual development was also shaped by the humanism at the core of the Italian school program: the idea of history as the continual process of perfecting an abstract humanity. It nurtured his famed “myth of innocence” with which the peasantry, sub-proletariat and Third World represent existence outside of Western history. 

Pasolini deeply regretted the advent of technocracy and consumerism. By the mid 60s he enthusiastically subscribed to Freudianism which, like Marxism, constituted an attack on bourgeois ideology. Freud also offered him a clear and “scientific” theory of the cause and nature of homosexuality exposing Marxism's inadequacy in addressing sexual oppression and led him to highlight the private sphere as the location for struggle.  

This summary is based on Mauriziano Viano’s A Certain Realism:making use of Pasolini's Film Theory and Practice 1993  ch. 1.  (1-5)

When Pasolini started directing films in 1961, he had already worked on the scripts of some 15 other movies for directors like Fellini and Bolognini. it was on the strength of his well-received Roman novels, ‘Ragazzi di vita (1955) and ‘Una vita violenta’ (1959) that he was first asked to work on scripts set in the same milieu as his novels, also true of his first films as director, Accattone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962), which form a group with the two novels as much as with his subsequent films. It was the disappointment with the way his scenarios were directed by others, that gave Pasolini the push he needed to make films himself. (Viano 6)

Anna Magnani, Mamma Roma

He wanted to make his films as he wrote poems or novels, “to be author of my own work at every moment.” Pasolini did not want to co-author films in the industry sense of transferring a script to the screen, and this included generally not using professional actors. He nevertheless chose Anna Magnani for the role of Mamma Roma because she had been so identified with Rome since her appearance in Rome Open City. There were apparent tensions when he tried to tone down, without success, the ‘’excess’ of her playing in the part of Mamma Roma. (Stack 49-53,  ibid 97), Rohdie 79)

Pasolini’s Marxist credentials and his use of locations and non-professional actors such as Franco Citti in the portrayal of desperate lives, as in Bicycle Thieves and La Terra Trema, that first raised hopes amongst leftist critics of a socially conscious neorealist revival. (Greene  25)

Franco Citti, Accattone

Accattone, the title character of Pasolini’s first film, is a pimp in the lowest strata of the poverty- stricken Roman community - the ‘borgate’. He is linked by Pasolini to the figure of Christ and the events portrayed have a mythic quality. Mamma Roma, working the streets as a prostitute, is also on the lowest strata but unlike Accattone she has petit-bourgeois ideals and is trapped in the futility of petit-bourgeois morality “like a home, job, keeping up appearances, the radio, going to mass on Sundays.” Pasolini described Accattone’s dreams as “epic-mythic-fantastic.” (Stack 46)

In ennobling his lower classes Pasolini shows their contradictions: they are victims but not passive and, as such, are not without dignity and complexity. Far more haunted by death than most neo-realist films, both Accattone and Mamma Roma are also overtly Christian in the way they are portrayed (what Pasolini called the “epical religious”). This too must have disturbed the leftists. 

Death is stressed even more in Mamma Roma than in Accattone. The arrangement at the table at the opening wedding banquet in Mamma Roma suggests The Last Supper.  Mamma Roma’s son Ettore’s final agony, is likened to that of the dead Christ in Mantegna’s painting ‘Christo Motto’. The “epical religious” mixing of the Roman sub-proletariat with the music of Bach in Accattone scandalised the critics whereas the combination of Vivaldi, more Italian and popular, with the petit-bourgeois in Mamma Roma is less confronting. 

Naomi Greene refers to the precarious tension between passion and ideology inhabiting Pasolini’s first films which gives them a special tone as neorealist milieus and social concerns are filtered through a deeply religious, fatalistic sensibility (39). He agreed with Roland Barthes that the cinema should not try to make sense but suspend it. In keeping with this, his films “are not supposed to have a finished sense, they always end with a question" (Stack 56).

Orson Welles, La Ricotta

Pasolini contributed an ironic film-within-a-film, La ricotta (1963), to an anthology, RoGoPaG (1963), made up of four contributions (the other three by Rossellini, Godard, and Gregoretti). Pasolini uses the Crucifixion as a metaphor.  A poor, unemployed worker Stracci earns a pittance as a stand-in portraying “the good thief” in a cheap commercial picture about Christ’s life. Orson Welles plays the director of the film and reads a poem by Pasolini expressing nostalgic melancholy for eras long past.  

Stracci uses every free minute to take food from the set to his family while also overindulging (ricotta cheese his favourite) and dying of indigestion on the cross. His death is discovered as the producer visits the location for a luxurious banquet entertaining upper class guests. A sophisticated use of music - from a Gregorian chant ‘Dies Irae’ to Scarlatti, and the twist - “helps to hold together this outcry against the betrayal of religion, the consumer society, social injustice, and cynicism” (Liehm 240).  Neo-fascist youths assaulted Pasolini and others at the Roman premiere.  He was brought to trial, receiving a suspended four month jail sentence for “the defamation of the state religion.” This was especially harsh since, as Naomi Greene points out, “La ricotta deals less with religion per se than with the degraded position it occupies in contemporary society, and, especially with the way(s) it is represented” (Greene 61).

Pasolini had an aversion to the illusion of naturalism that was at the core of neo-realism. Rather than linking things in a natural flow he isolates them, breaking a sense of spatial and temporal continuity. When using long takes, as in Mamma Roma’s night walks, they are stylised in a way that breaks the natural flow of things sought by many of the neorealists. When characters are seated in groups he pans from one face to the other, each person speaking to the camera, non-naturalistically and abruptly, rather than to each other. Greene borrows a metaphor from French critic  André Bazin to highlight that “while the neorealists waited patiently for reality to unveil itself, a brutal Pasolini meets it head-on.”  Measured camera rhythms, slow camera movements, frontal shots, and long close-ups all create a stylised poetic universe that is, as Pasolini remarked, “a frontal, romantic, chiaroscuro world.” (see Greene 42-4)

The environments that were the settings in most of Pasoliini’s films of the early to the mid-60s are, as previously noted, set in the Roman periphery called the borgate where populations were moved into public housing during the Fascist period. This then developed into the progressive social housing experience of the 1950s. Apparently working within its tradition, Pasolini used the borgate to critique neorealism and the  “architectural neo-realism” of Roman urban planning under fascism, and during the post-war economic miracle, in what he saw as contemptuous treatment of Rome’s poor. (Rhodes 125)

While settling accounts with neo-realism in his first two films, Pasolini marked himself as the poet of the Roman borgate. His films in the mid-60s were markedly different from his first films but also from each other except in the shared denominator of stylistic experimentation. What all the films of this phase share is a Gramscian inflection in their social and political concerns. A founder of the Italian Communist Party Antonio Gramsci was rare among Marxist theorists in attributing a revolutionary role to the peasantry. He also urged intellectuals to abandon their traditional ivory towers to form “organic links” with the working class to lead battles in the domain of schools, the media and the arts with the intent of creating a new “national-popular culture” - “national” meaning not the nationalism of the nation-state but a sharing of history and traditions especially among the common people, and “popular” in the sense of a popular culture - not populism. (ibid)

The Gospel According to Matthew 

Pasolini said that “the key by which I conceived Il Vangelo secondo Matteo/ The Gospel According to Matthew (he deliberately removed Saint from Matthew in the title) and that drove me to make it, was Jesus’s sentence in the Gospel that he had come ‘not to bring peace on earth…but to bring division, a man against his father, a daughter against her mother“ (Matt. 10:34) (Viano 133).

Pasolini’s final film of this phase, Uccellacci e uccellini / Hawks and Sparrows (1966), was the director’s farewell to the world of the sub-proletariat as well as to the first part of his oeuvre, “a parting homage to the ideological and cinematic matrix of his formative years as a filmmaker. It is “a film about the end of ideology, the end of commitment. Hawks and Sparrows marks, for Pasolini, the final liquidation of neorealism, the fading of the political hopes first represented by Gramsci and the Resistance partisans and his moving progressively farther and farther away from neorealism in the adoption of the parable form (either modern or set in an antique past). He regarded Hawks and Sparrows as his “purest film” in the sense of being “the product of cinematographic rather than figurative culture, unlike Accattone.” (Bondanella 184, Stack 99))

After Hawks and Sparrows Pasolini entered a phase of political withdrawal that happened to coincide with the upsurge in left-wing political life in 1968. Pasolini’s isolation was probably motivated by despair with what he saw as the incapacity of the PCI or the ultra-left to halt the “death dealing capitalist embourgeoisement of the world he loved.”  (Nowell-Smith 18)

In his first major essay about film, Il Cinema di poesia (1965), Pasolini provided a theoretical map of his view of the poetic intuitions that marked his work. He always used the word “poetic” positively to refer to the superior status of the image that is not straight-jacketed into a single meaning, best describing the language as “spoken” by reality and by cinematic images. As previously mentioned, Pasolini  had an aversion to the illusion of naturalism that was the core of neorealism. He preferred to isolate things that were in a natural flow by breaking the sense of spatial and temporal continuity central to classical narrative (Rohdie 3-4).

“I love life so fiercely, so desperately, that nothing good can come of it” 1960  quoted in Siciliano p 32

“Pasolini (in his death) has successfully evaded the mortal synthesis, and reproduces around his corpse all the contradictions that characterised his multifarious activities.” -Don Ranvaud p 204

The above is drawn from a note in CTEQ Annotations on Film in Senses of Cinema which includes more information of the “conflicted passions” in Pasolini’s life, further discussion of Accattone and Mamma Roma, and footnotes as referenced in the above text.

Filmography  The national-popular phase based in Pasolini's “epical-religious poetry” and Antonio Gramsci's revisionist Marxism  (5 filmsAccatone 61, Mamma Roma 62, La ricotta in Rogopag 62, The Gospel According to St Matthew 64, Hawks and Sparrows 66) ; the self-styled “unpopular” phase (2 films from the appropriation of Greek myth in Oedipus Rex 67 and Medea 69, and 2 contemporary  fables in Teorema 68 and Porcile 69); the “trilogy of life”, a “dream world of guiltless sexuality “(The Decameron 71, The Canterbury Tales 72, Arabian Nights 73);  Salò 75  was to be the first of a trilogy based on Dante's model apparently in rebuttal of the trilogy of life : Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise.   



Naomi Greene  Pier Paolo Pasolini : Cinema as Heresy  1990                                                                                         

Oswald Stack  Pasolini on Pasolini  1969                                                                                                       

Sam Rohdie  The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini  1995                                                                                 

Enzo Siciliano  Pasolini A Biography 1982                                                                                             

Mauriano Viano A Certain Realism : Making use of Pasolini’s Film Theory and Practice 1993 

Don Ranvaud “Salo or 120 Ways of Remaining Heretical”  Monthly Film Bulletin September 1979                

John D. Rhodes Stupendous, Miserable City : Pasolini’s Rome  2007                                                   

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith “Pasolini’s Originality”  Pier Paolo Pasolini  ed. Paul Willemen  BFI                                                    

Pasolini et al “an Epical-Religious View of the World  Film Quarterly Summer 1965                                             

Bruce Hodsdon  “Mamma Roma and the Conflicted Passions of Pier Paolo Pasolini  CTEQ Annotations Senses of Cinema no 70



Francesco Rosi 

My first encounter with the third feature of 
Francesco Rosi (1922-2015)Salvatore Guiliano (1961), was at a screening in the mid-sixties on a double bill with John Ford's western Two Rode Together in a near empty cinema midweek in Enmore, an inner Sydney suburb with a then substantial Italian population. Rosi's film (it was very successful in Italy) was being distributed from Melbourne by an Italian importer of feature films to service the post war influx of Italian immigrants, disproportionately from southern Italy. As such, it was not given any kind of release (ironically likely to have been seen to be ‘too political’) in the then expanded number of arthouses in the CBD and screenings for middle and upper middle class audiences in Sydney's more affluent eastern and northern suburbs. In my formative years as a cinephile I had taken to scanning through the cinema listings mainly for atypical screenings of interest such as of Rosi's film. My first viewing of a sub-titled feature film – De Sica's Umberto D (1951) -  at the age of 13 - was at a mid-week “continental film night” introduced c1953 at the local suburban cinema, the programming weighted towards Italian films presumably aiming to attract the growing number of Italian market gardeners and their families from the then nearby semi- rural suburb of North Ryde. BH

Salvatore Guiliano

Rosi's film is not about the Sicilian bandit Salvatore Guiliano. “While something of a media star, he was little more than a puppet dancing to the tune of hidden masters.” This is made clear by the film's original title, Sicily 1943-60. We see Guiliano rarely throughout the film “which focuses instead on the half-perceived forces which controlled him and the island of Sicily. In answer to those who objected that the film is too much of a chronicle, Rosi repeatedly asserted that his film is not a documentary, but a document based on careful, detailed study of the events" surrounding the life and death of Guliano (Testa ed. 9)

Rosi's film shows that the rigorously documented study of an historical and social phenomenon, such as the post-Second World War Sicilian independence movement and its relation to the Mafia, can overcome the traditional distinction between fiction and documentary and create a gripping style that is both individually tragic and historically persuasive, methodologically accurate and psychologically refined. (ibid 3)

In comparing Rosi's film with Visconti's classically slow visual idealisation of Sicily in The Leopard, for example, Pierre Sorlin ('Italian National Cinema') puts it more explicitly:  Rosi does not draw distinctions between the criminals and the victims because Guiliano was paid by those seeking independence for Sicily to murder policemen and by the landlords to murder leftist country people. There were many who wanted him dead. 

Beginning with the discovery of Guiliano's corpse at the beginning, “Rosi's film shows that it is impossible to account for the murder, since the whole structure of Sicilian rural society is more or less involved in it.” Modernist film codes more redolent of a sense of indecisiveness, are effectively used in the film. “Many sequences are interrupted briskly, as if it were impossible to conclude them. The film emphasises its own ambiguity by refusing to offer a clear explanation of events. Rosi suggests “that Sicily cannot be understood on the basis of a simple opposition between backwardness and modernisation and that it is not easy to disentangle a complex system where kinship and patronage prevail over class-based relationships” (Pierre Sorlin, Italian National Cinema, 141).

Hands Over the City  

Although complex, Rosi's second major film Le mani sulli chilla/ Hands Over the City (1963) is a film of “political indictment and social commitment” compared with the ambiguities constituting Salvatore Guiliano's “revolutionary postmodernism.” Grounded in a case of real estate speculation in the context of political corruption in Naples, it is “unquestionably about the morality of power, and as such is an abstract work organised as a debate of ideas. The filmic tale is episodic and constructed by verbal means.” (Manuela Gieri, Testa ed 46). 

If prior to Hands Over the City Rosi had any hesitation over the path that had been taken  to overcome neo-realism, with this film his message was loud and clear, and he thereafter continued his work towards the creation  and development  of his own personal interpretation  of realism  by   focusing quite openly on narration, rather than description[..] Asking questions  rather than giving answers is ultimately a strategy  aimed at  building within  the  audience  not  only the capacity to  interpret reality,  but  also  the ability to foresee the effects  of present action on the future (Gieri, ibid 54-5)

Bernando Bertolucci

Bernando Bertolucci
 and Marco Bellocchio were almost two generations behind De Sica, Rossellini and Visconti.  Bertolucci was only 22 when he directed his first feature La commare seca/The Grim Reaper (1962) based on script by his close friend Pier Paolo Pasolini covering similar ground to Pasolini’s Accatone. Bellochio was 25 when directing I pugni in tasca/ Fists in the Pocket  (1965). Their “ideological underpinnings were as far to the left as Pasolini's but [their] cinematic culture abandoned neorealism and drew inspiration from foreign directors, professional training, and assiduous visits to film archives and film clubs” (Bondanella 188). 

Bertolucci freed himself from Pasolini's influence to reveal a personal lyrical style verging on the elegiac in his second feature, the autobiographical Prima della rivoluzione/Before the Revolution (1964), which he referred to as “the confession of a child of our century,” propelled by Fabrizio/Bertoluccui’s  [then] fears and hesitations” (Liehm 193). 

Marco Bellocchio

Bellocchio set his first two films in prosperous, conservative middle class northern towns. Fists in the Pocket, “is angry and provocative rather than elegiac” in attacking the very concept of family itself as well as all its traditional values and myths” (ibid). In analysing a decadent bourgeois family whose physical handicaps underline moral defects, Bellochio takes on the traditional images of family in Italian cinema. He tackles the connection between family and the wider world of politics in China is Near/La Cina è vicina (1967), assembling a group of thoroughly unlikeable characters, including a grotesque and ideologically incoherent provincial family, in satirising the state of cynical compromise between the Christian Democrats and the Socialists in Italian politics.


Mira Liehm  Passion and Defiance Film in Italy 1942 to the Present  1984                                                                          

Peter Bondanella  Italian Cinema From Neorealism to the Present  2001                                                                                   

P. Adams Sitney  Vital Crises in Italian Cinema  Iconography Stylistics Politics  1995                                                            

Roy Armes Patterns of Realism Italian Neo-Realist Cinema  1971                                                                                                                  

Bruce Hodsdon “The Conflicted Passions of Pasolini”  CTEQ Annotations Senses of Cinema Sept. 2013.                               

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith  “Visconti “ Oxford History of World Cinema G N-S ed 1996 ; Also  Visconti 1973 

Robert Phillip Kolker  Bernado  Bertolucci  BFI Publishing 1985                                                                                                    

Carlo Testa  Poet of Civic Courage The Films of Francesco Rosi 1996 James 

Brown, Great Directors: “Michelangelo Antonioni” Senses of Cinema May 2002                                                                      

Jeremy Carr, Great Directors: “Luchino Visconti” Senses of Cinema June 2018                                                                

Antonio Shanahan, Great Directors: “Frederico Fellini”  Senses of Cinema July 2002                                                                                         

Gino Moliterno, Great Directors:“Pier Paolo Pasolini” Senses of Cinema December 2002  

Gino Moliterno, Great Directors: “Francesco Rosi” Senses of Cinema May 2003

Bibliography for Rossellini attached to 6 (19), for Antonioni to 6 (21) and for Pasolini 6(23)


Previous entries in this series can be found if you click the following links


Sixty Years of International Art Cinema: 1960-2020 - Tables and Directors Lists to Accompany Bruce Hodsdon's Series


Notes on canons, methods, national cinemas and more


Part One - Introduction

Part Two - Defining Art Cinema

Part Three - From Classicism to Modernism

Part Four - Authorship and Narrative

Part Five - International Film Guide Directors of the Year, The Sight and Sound World Poll, Art-Horror

Part Six (1) - The Sixties, the United States and Orson Welles

Part Six (2) - Hitchcock, Romero and Art Horror

Part Six (3) - New York Film-makers - Elia Kazan & Shirley Clarke  

Part Six (4) - New York Film-makers - Stanley Kubrick Creator of Forms

Part Six (5) ‘New Hollywood’ (1) - Arthur Penn, Warren Beatty, Pauline Kael and BONNIE AND CLYDE

Part Six (6) Francis Ford Coppola: Standing at the crossroads of art and industry

Part 6(7) Altman

6(8) Great Britain - Joseph Losey, Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Richard Lester, Peter Watkins, Barney Platts-Mills

6(9) France - Part One The New Wave and The Cahiers du Cinema Group

6(10) France - Part Two - The Left Bank/Rive Gauche Group and an Independent

6(11) France - Part Three - Young Godard

6(12) France - Part Four - Godard:Visionary and Rebel

6 (13) France Part 5 Godard with Gorin, Miéville : Searching for an activist voice

6(14) France Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Bresson 

6 (15) France Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Jacques Tati

 6 (16) - Part 6 - Creator of Forms - Carl Th Dreyer

6 (17) - Italy and Luchino Visconti

6(18 - Italy and Roberto Rossellini - Part One

6(19) - Rossellini, INDIA and the new Historical realism

6(20) - Rossellini in Australia

6 (21) - Italy - Michelangelo Antonioni

6 (22) - Italy - Federico Fellini, Ermanno Olmi

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