Pier Paolo Pasolini said: "If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief." In the press, he was sometimes labeled a "radical Catholic," perhaps because he was acutely aware that Catholicism -- indeed Christianity itself -- had strayed so far from its roots that it no longer resembled the vision set forth by its prophet, an ordinary man who embraced prostitutes and publicans, threw the money changers out of the temple, and -- if some Gnostic sects are correct -- had sexual congress with both women and men (the "raising of Lazarus" being explained in their gospels and commentaries thereon as a reference to the erect phallus, not bringing a human back from the dead). His earliest followers were proto-Marxists, eschewing property rights and working only for the common good, a slap in the face of today's preachers of "prosperity gospel" which amounts to nothing more than greed in the name of Jesus.
Thanks to Netflix, Water Bearer Films, and, mostly, Criterion, I've had a chance to re-visit those films of Pasolini that I saw when they were released (or released on poorly-mastered VHS tapes, of which I have both The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Teorema, two very different films from disparate periods in Pasolini's film directing career). Of the twelve pictures listed at the filmmaker's Wikipedia entry, I have seen ten, plus La Ricotta, a short that he did featuring Orson Welles that Criterion added to its superb DVD release of Momma Roma. (The Water Bearer Films releases, including his first film, Accatone, and his later Edipo Re (Oedipus Rex) do not fare so well since, unlike Criterion, Water Bearer did not remaster the subtitles and their faint lines sometimes blend in with the background, meaning that we lose the dialogue, one of the most important elements in a Pasolini film; after all, the man was a novelist (e.g. Rigazzi di Vita) before he was a filmmaker.
I have not yet seen his A Thousand and One Nights (The Arabian Nights) or, except in snippets, his Hawks and Sparrows. And I am told that the previously mentioned spoof of the crucifixion, Hollywood style, La Ricotta was included as Pasolini’s segment of the quartet of shorts, RoGoPaG (for Rosselini, Godard, Pasolini, and (Ugo) Gregoretti. Harshly criticized (especially by the Vatican) for ostensibly mocking the “passion of the Christ,” Pasolini’s point was merely that religious people sometimes make too much ado of their prophet’s suffering and travail, and his use of common, ragazzi types to play Jesus and the disciples is redolent of both Rembrandt and Caravaggio. This is certainly an example, if an ironic one, of the director’s “nostalgia for belief.”
Pasolini was no ordinary atheist. Indeed, he defied categorization entirely; his alienation from society was complete. He incurred the wrath of the Italian Communist Party when he sided with the police during the student riots of 1968 because, as he put it, at least the cops came from the lower classes; they were Southerners and therefore poor almost by definition, while the students were from the bourgeoisie, if not all born with silver spoons in their mouths, then at least with eating utensils at hand. Pasolini seemed to adhere as much to Groucho as to Karl Marx. The comedian once uttered a famous line to the effect that he wouldn’t belong to a club that would accept people like himself as members.
If Pasolini did not set out to become an agent provocateur, he did so in spite of himself. In popular parlance, he continually pushed the envelope. His final film, Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom so grossed out both the Church and the conservative right in Italy – Salò was the “kingdom” of Mussolini, after all – that the director’s untimely death is not thought to be the result of a conspiracy to silence his religious and political criticism. There is a pretty good documentary available about Pasolini appropriately titled Whoever Says the Truth Shall Die. Pasolini told the truth and he died, but it is an unanswered question whether his assassin was a stud hustler or a shadowy group of conspirators. (Pasolini liked young men and had a preference for what are called “rough trade,” the sort of male hustlers who murdered the silent film star Ramon Navarro and couldn’t resist raping him with a silver phallus given to the film star by his friend Rudolph Valentino. You pays your money and you takes your chances.)
Critics have remarked how infrequently Pasolini delved into homosexuality in his movies, citing the allegorical Teorema and coincidental moments in one film of his “Trilogy of Life,” A Thousand and One Nights. (Salò, based upon a book by the Marquis de Sade, is less about homosexuality than the brutality of fascist regimes, peopled by those who use human bodies as if they were toys. The film is oddly anti-erotic. If one likes looking at teenagers nude and in various sexual activities, including coprolagnia, one is nevertheless repulsed by the setting and the circumstances: the youths have been kidnapped and are prepared for the ultimate anti-sexual activity – their slaughter.
Nor did Pasolini express his atheism unless obliquely. In Momma Roma, the son of a prostitute takes to petty theft, and when he is caught, he’s tortured by being strapped on a gurney, where he dies in a semblance of the crucifixion; if we haven’t gotten the point, Pasolini pulls up and out from the body three times in succession. When Pasolini started his critically acclaimed Gospel According to St. Matthew, he wanted to direct it “from a believer’s point of view” but upon finishing it found that it reflected his Marxist ideas. The film reminds me of the German renaissance painter, Matthias Grunewald, whose altarpiece at Isenheim portrays a very human sort of Christ, described so accurately by Joris-Karl Huysmans in La-Bas.
Pasolini employed Eisenstein’s casting method of “typeage,” use of non-actors principally for their looks, with few trained thespians (e.g. Anna Magnani in Momma Roma, Sylvana Mangano in Edipe Re (Oedipus Rex). (Fellini did so, as well, and was famous for his casting sorties, sometimes pulling American tourists off the streets just because he needed someone for a scene who looked in his mind’s eye exactly like the stranger.) The result is a gritty realism, best seen in his first film, Accatone and its quasi-sequel, Momma Roma.
At the time of his murder, Pasolini was working on a film about Saint Paul. One can only speculate how it might have turned out. Presumably, he would have treated Saul of Tarsus as did Scorsese, who depicts him as a dedicated Zealot, set on revenge against the Romans, encountering Jesus after the latter’s survival of the crucifixion and telling him, “You’re supposed to be dead. You’re no good to us alive.” Scenes like that led to picketing of the movie by incensed Catholic Americans, which in turn only increased attendance. Salò was banned in several countries. Indeed, when it was shown at a member's only "cinema club" in England, police raided the establishment and confiscated the print. Partially as a result, the movie has attracted viewers from around the world, and the film is now available in a beautiful new remastered print from Criterion, available to all from Netflix.