The first time I heard of the name Pasolini was in the south of France in a delightful cafe on a cliff looking out to the valley below sipping a beer as the sun was gently setting behind the facing hills. I was 19 then on a trip through France and Spain with people much younger than me, luckily I did have a friend along to not be completely bored. “If you want to see something completely messed up watch Salo ,” said Jaime our tour-guide.
Jaime and I hit it off right from the start of our trip, taking my friend and I to cool cafes in between breaks of being an actual guide; taking us to Pere Lachaise cemetery on an off day. It was there we started talking about film. I admit that at the time my knowledge of foreign cinema was truly limited but I absorbed all I could. I took mental notes of names and films to check out once home, but the one that stood out was Pier Paolo Pasolini. I took the words Jaime said about Salo extremely seriously, and as a challenge, since it was remarked in a “you’ll never have the guts to watch it” way. So upon my arrival home I tried to search it out. I did not have any luck, learning the film was banned, and as such unavailable. I never gave up hope, however. Then three years ago I was loaned a copy of Salo , “Success!” I thought.
I watched all 116 minutes of the film, and never have I felt so truly challenged by a movie. I like to think my tolerance for dramatism as very high as my father always stressed “It’s all staged” from a very age, but Salo took it to a new level. I have only ever watched the film that one time, even though I own the new Criterion edition of the film. I have only passingly watched the supplemental material, never wading back into the film’s world again. Since that initial viewing however, I have been oddly fascinated by Pasolini: How could one director create something like Salo ? What did his other works have to show?
This month TIFF Cinematheque presents Pier Paolo Pasolini – The Poet Of Contamination as part of its Summer series. Eighteen films will be screened and will showcase the mindset of the Italian who died too soon, from deeply religious pieces to those that address his own homosexuality. These polar opposites — especially for an Italian — make for potent viewing and a great reminder of the power of film.
Personally, I have two suggestions for those new to the world of Pasolini – The Gospel According To St. Matthew and Mamma Roma , two very different films, but special in their own way. The Gospel is simply spellbinding and one of the best religious retellings of the life of Jesus Christ without sensationalizing the story. Pasolini in fact used text directly from the gospel of Matthew for the film and presented it the best he could in a “non-believer’s” point of view. It is this plain storytelling that gave Gospel conviction, so much in fact you tend to forget it is a religious film.
The second recommendation, Mamma Roma , is a tale of the lengths a mother will go to for her son. A former prostitute, Mamma Roma (played by the gorgeous Anna Magnani) tries to start life over again in Rome selling vegetables to give her son a higher quality life. Her son, Ettore, however, is disenchanted and eventually falls in with the wrong crowd, falling in love with a whore. Despite Mamma’s best efforts, Ettore falls further and further into a world of debauchery that she left behind. What is so achingly beautiful about the film is Pasolini’s reliance of body language to convey emotion, which is aided through the use of non-professional “actors”, which he specifically sought out. Additionally, I always found myself enamored with Pasolini’s conveyance of narrative in the film through long shots of Mamma Roma wandering through streets with prostitutes and clients from her old life. Anna Magnani carries these scenes, and quite powerfully, one feels drawn into her gaze as she asserts herself in the frame in the drawn out shots.
Make no mistake there is a great deal of viewing in this retrospective. Also interesting is Pasolini’s take on The Canterbury Tales which made the work of Chaucer refreshing and humorous for me, even if the director interjected his own interpretations more than truly desired. Finally, amongst the 18 films is the aforementioned Salo , which leaves me at a crossroads if I should want to view it again. What can be said, however, is that if one director can stick out in a film fan’s mind for so many years, he certainly deserves attention and a proper retrospective. Great viewing is abound at the TIFF Cinematheque this month and is certainly not to be missed.
Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poet Of Contamination begins July 8 at the TIFF Cinematheque.