Friday, May 10, 2013

My Favorite Pier Paolo Pasolini Movie

This was the post I originally preparing for Easter, and I see no reason why I should wait an entire year for the holiday to come around again. Also, considering where the subject matter ultimately took me, maybe it's a good thing that I didn't post it on Easter after all.

If you've heard of Pier Paolo Pasolini, then it's probably because you've heard of his most notorious film, "Salo," considered one of the most disturbing pieces of cinema ever made. I've always thought it was terribly unfair that Pasolini should be remembered for this one film, when he directed eleven others, and was also a poet, journalist, academic, playwright, novelist, and heavily involved in Italian politics. In all arenas he was a provocateur, and I don't think Pasolini himself would have had any issue with being remembered for "Salo" - he's the one who decided to make the picture after all. He was used to controversy, constantly in jail for blasphemy and obscenity charges.

It took me a while to warm up to Pasolini's films, when I went through his filmography a few years ago. I thought the earlier ones looked remarkably ugly, often depicting the extremes of poverty in great detail. His usual lead actors were not conventionally attractive, and few were professionals. He liked including scenes of raw sexuality and violence, and was particularly keen on social commentary and subversive satire. As he moved into classical subjects and more fanciful stories, they were treated no differently. His "Arabian Nights" is a bawdy picaresque with graphic sex scenes. His "Oedipus Rex" has no sets, minimal dialogue, and the story is condensed to its absolute essentials.

It wasn't until I saw "The Gospel According to St. Matthew," recounting the life of Jesus Christ, that it clicked. What Pasolini was doing was no different than what the neo-realists were doing twenty years earlier, and some film academics consider Pasolini to be the last member of that movement. His approach to classical material was to try do away with all the artifice and the whitewashing that these stories had accumulated over the years through other adaptations and interpretations. So in Pasolini's version, Jesus Christ is played by non-actor Enrique Irazoqui, who looks like a perfectly ordinary man, but speaks with a remarkable intensity and charisma. As he recites passages from the Bible in the course of preaching the Gospel, the effect is mesmerizing, and little unnerving.

The film was made in 1964, at a time when Hollywood was turning out Bible epics like "Ben Hur" and "King of Kings." Where Hollywood was using opulent sets and casts of thousands, Pasolini's film is in black and white, shot entirely on location in stark, rugged environments, and he shows his characters close to how they really existed. Great emphasis is placed on the common people eking out their existence from the harsh terrain. They are dressed poorly, behave roughly, and are largely concerned with survival above all else. We see all the mud and dirt up close. The film had a low budget, but the harsh aesthetics were a conscious choice. Pasolini was so insistent on being as faithful to his source material as possible, that nearly all the dialogue in the film comes directly from the Gospel of Matthew. There were few additions or abridgements of the text, though he did de-emphasize the miracles, which are treated as matter-of-factly as possible. In later years, Pasolini would express regret for having included the loaves and fishes at all.

The demystification and the humanizing of the life of Christ may take away the grandeur, but I think it helps the impact of his story in many ways. Without all the distractions of pageantry and ornamentation, or even the usual storytelling devices to make the events more cinematic, all you have left is exactly what's in the text itself. The words of Jesus become central to the film, and we are able to see it in something close to its original context. There are many scenes of Jesus preaching, sometimes kindly, sometimes angrily and passionately. We meet the people who the words were first meant for. With the supernatural elements largely relegated to incidental moments, it becomes easier to appreciate the philosophy behind the teachings, and to draw parallels to everyday life. The film looks so simple, but what it says about Jesus Christ is anything but.

It's one of the commonly remarked-upon ironies that Pasolini was an atheist and a homosexual, but created one of the most faithful cinematic depictions of the life of Jesus Christ. However, when you look at Pasolini's other work, "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" makes perfect sense. Pasolini's Christ is the Christ of the common man, who is a powerful figure for his words and deeds rather than his origins. The startling degree of realism and historical accuracy bring a candidness that I've rarely seen in other passion plays, and immediately make you regard the events in a different light.

And you don't need to be a believer in order to appreciate that.

What I've Seen - Pier Paolo Pasolini

Accattone (1961)
Mamma Roma (1962)
The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
The Hawks and the Sparrows (1966)
Oedipus Rex (1967)
Teorema (1968)
The Canterbury Tales (1972)
Arabian Nights (1974)
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

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