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Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poet of Contamination

"Indisputably the most remarkable figure to have emerged in Italian arts and letters since the Second World War." — Susan Sontag

"Poet, playwright, screenwriter, filmmaker, Communist, Christian, moralist, pornographer, populist, artist: 32 years after he was murdered by a teenage hustler (who later tried to recant his confession), Pier Paolo Pasolini remains, perhaps above all, a subject for furious argument. In an era when Italy produced a bumper crop of difficult, passionate artists, especially in the cinema, he may have been the most difficult of all, and arguably the most prodigiously talented.... More than three decades after his death, his best films still feel like news." — A.O. Scott, The New York Times

TIFF Cinematheque is thrilled to be the sole Canadian venue for the North American tour of this ultimate retrospective of the films of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975), one of the most important and controversial figures in the intellectual life of postwar Europe. His like is all but unknown today, his cinema, fiercely enduring in its beauty, influence and emotional power, difficult to access. Presented almost entirely in new 35mm prints, several restored for the occasion, this rare and imperative event is unlikely to be repeated in the digital age.

"In front of this admirable film, one is eventually unable to resist thinking of Caravaggio," French critic Jean-Louis Bory wrote of Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew. It was always impossible to avoid Caravaggio when thinking of Pasolini: the Baroque deviser of chiaroscuro and the postmodernist reviser of neorealism each transformed a reigning style for his own ends, finding new truth in the shadows. Homosexual artists of the demimonde, of una vita violenta with its brawling proles and prostitutes, both Pasolini and Caravaggio combined high and low in their art, the religious, serene and reverential with the sordid and scurrilous, scandalizing the pious with their street-sullied Madonnas and Maddalenas, their naked, begrimed saints taken from real life, and their luscious, long-haired boys, startled at a lizard bite or capering with a talking crow. (Pasolini's adorable mop-headed faun Ninetto Davoli, a stalwart of his cinema, seems a distant heir of Caravaggio's sensual ragazzi.) That both artists dwelt on St. Matthew and both died young, their demise on a desolate beach the source of escalating apocrypha and endless speculation — Did Caravaggio collapse from malaria or was he assassinated for political reasons? Was a rough trade hustler or a conspiracy of Italian elites responsible for Pasolini's death? — confirms the artists' confraternity.

Pasolini's art confronts us with a phalanx of irresolvable contradictions. His career as filmmaker, novelist, linguist, critic, playwright, painter, journalist and poet frustrates critical scrutiny with its sheer multifariousness, its welter of conflicting ideologies, inconsistent styles and incompatible influences and allusions. His paradoxes are more easily catalogued than explicated. Pasolini began as a poet, writing in the Friulian dialect, which he said he learned "as a sort of mysterious act of love." So began his search for roots and authenticity, the contradictions that were to characterize his career already fully evident: his obsessive love for and identification with his mother, and his "total and unmitigated" rejection of her language (Venetian) and her class (the bourgeoisie, "a member of which, whatever he does," Pasolini asserted, "is always wrong"); his (elitist) interest in linguistics and literary hermeticism, and his (demotic) dedication to the peasant nationalism and agrarian culture of the Friuli region; the anachronistic romanticism and traditional forms of his early poetry, and his commitment to modernist art; his belief in the sacred as "the only essential reality" and in religion "as direct rapport with God," and his insistent characterization of himself as an unbeliever (and by others as a blaspheming atheist); his nostalgia for a primitive, pre-capitalist society, and his devotion to the progressive ideals of the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. As Pasolini was to confess in "The Ashes of Gramsci," a poem marking his death, Pasolini was torn by this "obscure scandal of consciousness": "The scandal of contradicting myself, of being / with you and against you; with you in my heart / in the light, against you in the darkness of my bowels."

In his seemingly irreconcilable allegiances to Marx, Freud and Christ, to both the peasant past and the urban subproletarian present, Pasolini transcended all orthodoxies and affiliations, his "divided self" embodying the tensions and fissures in postwar Italian culture. He was expelled from the Communist Party for being a homosexual, and vilified by the Right for being a Communist and a homosexual. Arrested for insulting the church (in La ricotta), he dedicated his next feature film, the reverent Gospel According to St. Matthew, to "the dear, familiar memory of John XXIII." Champion of outcasts and rebels, Pasolini turned against the leftist university students in a notorious poem about the 1968 youth revolts, siding with the police as sons of the proletariat fighting against the bourgeoisie. His work was embraced by feminists who recognized an understanding of the oppression of women, while his traditional views on abortion and sexual equality were applauded by conservatives. Alienated from the dominant culture by his homosexuality, which imbued all of his art but which he considered "something outside me ... my enemy," Pasolini was simultaneously a revolutionary and a reactionary, the incoherence of his vision less a sign of confusion than of ambivalence, wilful naïveté and anarchic refusal. He called his impassioned poetic vision a "desperate vitality."

These conflicting qualities manifest themselves in the stylistic experiments of Pasolini's cinema. The director described himself as a pasticheur who, rejecting the rationality and artificial organicism that he associated with bourgeois culture, selected "items, objects and even styles from here and there" to reproduce the richness and clamour of the world. Pasolini characterized his use of pastiche with a typically provocative statement: "I work under the sign of contamination." The artist, he suggested, "contaminates" his work by appropriating styles, icons and ideologies from other periods and works of art, producing not a "random mixture ... [but] an amalgam with a stylistic unity." For example, Pasolini's first film, the great Accattone (based on one of his best-selling novels from the 1950s), falls into the tradition of Italian neorealism by way of its setting in the slums of Rome, its casting of non-professionals in central roles, and its concern with the downtrodden. But Pasolini insisted that this tale of a doomed pimp marked the end of neorealism, and his contention is borne out by the film's influences and allusions: Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc (Pasolini counted Dreyer, Mizoguchi and Chaplin as his three major cinematic influences); Bach's St. Matthew's Passion; and the art of Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, Caravaggio, Rouault and, Pasolini claimed, "perhaps deep down Giotto and Romanesque sculpture as well." Like Rossellini, Fellini and Visconti before him, Pasolini refashioned neorealism to his own ends, planting Lamberto Maggiorani, the father from De Sica's Bicycle Thieves, among the supporting players in Mamma Roma as both a salute to the past and a fond farewell.

Accattone's arresting combination of vestigial neorealism and high-art sublimity alienated both the Italian Left and Right, and established the eclecticism which was to distinguish Pasolini's cinema. Cast with street boys and cultural icons (Totò, Maria Callas, Orson Welles), prostitutes and his own mother, his films range from the austere to the surreal, from classic texts refashioned to stress their mythic, pagan qualities (Medea, Oedipus Rex), to political fables influenced by Brecht and Pirandello (Porcile, Teorema). Throughout, Pasolini "contaminated" his art by drawing on disparate artistic traditions. The music track of Mamma Roma (the film itself an unholy conflation that can only be called operatic neorealism) employs Vivaldi in much the same way Accattone uses Bach; La ricotta uses a mélange of Scarlatti, Gregorian chant and "the twist"; and Gospel what Pasolini called an "ecumenical" combination of Mozart's Masonic mass, Prokofiev, Bach, Webern, Russian popular song, a Congolese mass and black spirituals.

Pasolini similarly drew on divergent traditions of visual art for his compositions in both film and theatre, predominant among them the frescoes of Giotto and the paintings of such Renaissance masters as Duccio, Masaccio, Pontormo and Mantegna. (The latter's dead Christ is thrillingly evoked at the end of Mamma Roma.) The Trilogy of Life, based on the three most famous works of omnibus fiction — The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales and The Arabian Nights — celebrates sex as the direct, vivifying conduit to the sacred, finding its "desperate vitality" in the mirrored palaces and spice-scented cloisters and bazaars of the Middle East and North Africa, in the lush pastoralism of rural England and the Renaissance architecture of Italy. The increasingly pessimistic Pasolini, whose erotic epics had praised the sensual freedom and egalitarianism of what he called "peasant utopias," soon disowned the trilogy in an article that proclaimed that "the reality of innocent bodies has now also been stained, manipulated and destroyed by the power of the consumer society." In what was to be his last film, Pasolini found a resounding metaphor for this corruption: in Salò, he updated Sade's 120 Days of Sodom to Mussolini's short-lived Fascist republic and abandoned the life-loving spontaneity of the trilogy in favour of a static, claustrophobic visual style and airless, clinical tone, presenting an unflinching tableaux of degradation and humiliation that drew less on Pasolini's heretofore prized artistic traditions than on the Nazi pornography that was then flooding Italy.

As in life, Pasolini incited controversy in death. With the flawed logic of those who treat Mozart's Requiem as auto-epitaph, commentators glibly pronounced Salò a suicide note, an adumbration of, or invitation to, the artist's own violent end. The debates around Pasolini's death developed into something of a national obsession, and several documentaries and dramas have proffered their own versions — sometimes conspiratorial, sometimes evasive — of the circumstances of his demise. What cannot be contested is Pasolini's enduring influence — on masters such as Haneke, Scorsese and Godard, but also on such radical directors as Catherine Breillat, Gaspar Noé and João Pedro Rodrigues — and the eternal beauty and passion of his work. If Salò, as Roland Barthes famously claimed, prevents us from redeeming ourselves, what might Pasolini have done after it? What might he have made of our world, surely more craven and culturally vacant almost four decades on? Our times, perhaps even more than Pasolini's own, cry out for the voice of the heretic and prophet who famously declared, "The first duty of an artist is not to fear unpopularity."

James Quandt

Co-produced by TIFF Cinematheque, Cinecittà Luce, Rome and Fondo Pier Paolo Pasolini/Cineteca di Bologna. The exhibition is organized by James Quandt and by Camilla Cormanni and Paola Ruggiero, Cinecittà Luce, with Roberto Chiesi, Fondo Pier Paolo Pasolini/Cineteca di Bologna.

Presented in association with the Ministry of Culture of Italy. Special thanks to the Italian Cultural Institute.

This event is part of the celebrations of the Year of Italian Culture in the United States.

All copies in 35mm in Italian with English subtitles realized by Cinecittà Luce, unless otherwise noted.

In conjunction with TIFF Cinematheque’s retrospective, the Italian Cultural Institute hosts the exhibition Pasolini’s l’Oriente: Arabian Nights Through the Photographs of Roberto Villa, a selection of photographs shot by master Italian photographer Roberto Villa on the set of Pasolini’s The Arabian Nights. One of the most comprehensive photographic exhibitions ever devoted to the great Italian poet, writer and filmmaker, Pasolini’s l’Oriente runs from March 11 to April 26 at the Italian Cultural Institute (496 Huron Street, Toronto).

Luca Caminati on Mamma Roma

Luca Caminati on Mamma Roma

Luca Caminati, Italian cinema scholar and Associate Professor of Film Studies at Concordia University, opens our retrospective Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poet of Contamination with this discussion of Pasolini's representation of the urban landscape in Mamma Roma as exemplary of the director's cinematic pastiche, which deploys the painterly tradition as a critique of the industrial modernization process in late 1950s Italy.
Accattone

Accattone

As important a debut as any in film history, Pier Paolo Pasolini's portrait of a scrounging thief struggling to survive in the netherworlds of Rome remains one of his most moving and powerful works.
Medea

Medea

Opera legend Maria Callas brings fierce beauty and harrowing power to Pasolini's version of Euripides' tragedy.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew

The Gospel According to St. Matthew

A surprise international hit that became a beloved classic of world cinema, Pasolini's starkly beautiful and brutely physical rendering of the Biblical text has exerted an immeasurable influence on such directors as Martin Scorsese and Jean-Luc Godard.
Teorema

Teorema

An otherworldly visitor (Terence Stamp) serenely seduces and spiritually transforms each member of a wealthy Milanese household, in one of Pasolini's most provocative and formally daring fusions of sex and the sacred.

Hawks and Sparrows

Hawks and Sparrows

The great comedian Totò and Pasolini regular Ninetto Davoli star as a hapless father-and-son team who wander the roads of Italy in the company of a talking crow, in Pasolini's marvellous Brechtian comedy.

Seeking Locations in Palestine with Notes for an African Oresteia & Walls of Sana'a

Seeking Locations in Palestine with Notes for an African Oresteia & Walls of Sana'a

These three intriguing short documentaries follow Pasolini in his journeys to Uganda, Yemen and the Holy Land.
The Decameron

The Decameron

Pasolini's visually spectacular and juicily sacrilegious adaptation of Boccaccio's Decameron inaugurated his joyous Trilogy of Life.
The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales

Pasolini himself plays Chaucer in this wild refashioning of the famous medieval text full to overflowing with rutting, ribaldry, and roistering.
The Arabian Nights introduced by Roberto Villa

The Arabian Nights introduced by Roberto Villa

In conjunction with the Italian Cultural Institute's photo exhibition Pasolini’s l’Oriente: Arabian Nights Through the Photographs of Roberto Villa, photographer Roberto Villa introduces our screening of the concluding chapter of Pasolini's Trilogy of Life.
Love Meetings

Love Meetings

Pasolini travels through Italy asking his country's people about love, sex, divorce, homosexuality, marriage, prostitution and more in this landmark portrait of postwar Italian culture.
Oedipus Rex

Oedipus Rex

Filmed in the harsh, parched landscape of northern Morocco, Pasolini's Oedipus Rex recasts the ancient Greek drama about the prince who kills his father, marries his mother, and blinds himself in contrition as a psychological "family romance" that owes as much to Freud as it does to Sophocles.
Primo Pasolini: Four Short Films

Primo Pasolini: Four Short Films

A quartet of Pasolini's glorious short films, each made for one of the superstar-auteur "anthology films" that were a mania in sixties European cinema.
Porcile

Porcile

A modern-day narrative of bourgeois bestiality is paralleled with the primeval tale of an unrepentant cannibal, in one of Pasolini's most notorious and outrageous films.
La rabbia di Pasolini

La rabbia di Pasolini

A restoration of Pasolini's searing, long unavailable essay film, which offers the director's probing and caustic commentary on celebrity culture, the Cold War, Italy's postwar economic boom and the world's rampant injustices.
Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom

Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom

Pasolini's updating of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom to Mussolini's short-lived Fascist republic of Salò in 1944 is one of the most harrowing and controversial films ever made.