A Pasolini series at MoMA provides occasion to revisit the principled, prolific filmmaker

Pier Paolo Pasolini in New York, 1966. (© ph. Duilio Pallottelli/L’Europeo RCS)
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“Don’t delude yourselves… You are—with schools, television, the pacifying newspapers—you are the keepers of this horrible order based on the idea of possession and the idea of destruction… Maybe I am wrong, but I will continue to say that we are all in danger.”

Filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini spoke those words in his last interview, hours before he was clubbed to death and run over with his own car on Nov. 2, 1975. Best known as a director of stark, political, often violent and sexually explicit films, Pasolini would have turned 90 last March. The Museum of Modern Art is honoring him with a comprehensive retrospective of his cinema, opening on Dec. 13 and running through Jan. 5, 2013. All of his 22 films will be shown in new 35mm prints, and many in recently restored versions.

A writer in many genres, a visual artist, and a public intellectual, Pasolini sparked controversy throughout his life. Born in Bologna, he grew up in Friuli, in Italy’s northeast corner. In 1942, after studying art history, he published a collection of poems in Friulian dialect—a political act, since the suppression of regional dialects was a cornerstone of Mussolini’s cultural policy. Pasolini, who would later learn Romanesque as well, believed that dialects could offer a “carnal approach” to the worlds of peasants and slum-dwellers, whom he saw as less corrupted by capitalism’s mercenary concerns.

Pasolini joined the Italian Communist Party and taught after the war, but in 1949 he was charged with corrupting minors and committing lewd public acts. (He had a lifelong appetite for open-air sex and younger men: “A boy in his first loves/ is nothing less than the world’s fecundity,” he wrote in his 1969 poem “Lines from the Testament.”) Though the arrest and outing cost Pasolini his Party membership, they led to a new phase in his life. Marked as an outsider, beholden to no institutions or orthodoxies, Pasolini made a fresh start in Rome, where his artistic vocation flourished.

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Despite grinding poverty, Pasolini went on writing, publishing poems and novels, including The Boys of Life (1955). An unflinchingly bleak tale of hustlers and criminals in the Roman slums, it drew obscenity charges, the first of many he would face. (By one count, Pasolini in his 53 years came up against criminal charges 33 times, and nine of his films met with censorship difficulties.) Tellingly, in light of Pasolini’s distaste for pieties of any provenance, The Boys of Life came under attack from both ends of the ideological spectrum: the right-wing Christian Democrats branded it indecent, while the Communists railed against its lack of “positive” characters.

Pasolini’s growing literary reputation brought him work as a screenwriter for Fellini and others. But frustrated with his scant creative control and hungry for what he called the “object-like concreteness of cinema,” he took up directing himself and in 1961 released his first film, Accattone (The Scrounger), pictured at left. Like its creator, it is a bundle of contradictions. Featuring mostly non-professional actors, mixing dialect and standard Italian, and shot in Rome’s most impoverished areas, the film focuses on a pimp, Vittorio, nicknamed “Accattone.” Once again, critics of all stripes lambasted Pasolini for depicting the hopeless, criminal urban poor—a class and a reality supposedly erased by Italy’s post-war economic boom.

And yet for all of Accattone’s gritty themes, Pasolini repeatedly undermines the film’s “naturalism,” marking his distance from neorealist cinema and any mystifying intimations of unmediated truth. Music by Bach swells under the opening credits; a character mentions Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the first seconds of the action; and Pasolini’s meticulously composed shots, set sharply one after the other, eschew cinema’s fluid motion and recall the paintings of Masaccio, Mantegna, and other masters that he had studied in school. Ara H. Merjian, the author of a forthcoming book about Pasolini, has written that the “remove” of film, “which flattens and etherealizes flesh and bone into two-dimensional specters,” remained vital to the director’s work even as he proclaimed his “love for the ‘things’ of the world.”

Mamma Roma (1962), pictured at right, starring the great Anna Magnani, is similar in style to Accattone but depicts a woman undone by the bourgeois aspirations of Italy’s purported miracolo economico.

Substance and authenticity were abiding concerns for Pasolini, who felt that consumer society’s worship of commodities had engendered an alienated, fundamentally unreal world. And paradoxically, the atheist director often cast his attacks on capitalism in religious terms.

In The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), pictured at left, Christ is (in Pasolini’s words) a figure “opposed to the modern world,” a man discomfiting and unafraid of “contradiction” and “scandal.” Theorem (1968) shows a middle-class family visited by an angel come to explode their vulgar certainties. Pasolini’s final film, the disturbing Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), sets the Marquis de Sade’s tales of savagery and vice in the capital of Mussolini’s “Italian Social Republic” in order to condemn the “new fascism” of the director’s own time, which he felt reduced human beings and their bodies to meat for the capitalist grinder.

Pasolini’s best-known film may be Medea (1969), which stars the soprano Maria Callas (pictured at right, with the director) in a non-singing role. They made an odd pair: Callas the deeply conventional grande dame, and Pasolini the leftist and homosexual who claimed to know little of opera. In casting Callas as Medea, he seems to have responded to that certain feral something in her voice and person, perhaps also to her primal, almost sacred sense of mission as an artist. Barth David Schwartz, the author of Pasolini Requiem, wrote that Callas “was to stand for unbridled nature gone mad when hemmed in by civilization,” a priestess discarded by the shrewd, grasping Jason when he can make a more politically and materially advantageous marriage.

In addition to film screenings, the Pasolini program includes readings from Pasolini’s poetry and essays on Friday, Dec. 14; an exhibit of his portraits and self-portraits at Location One; and at MoMA PS1, continuous showings of Medea, Teorema, and Salò and, on Dec. 16, a program of live performances inspired by Pasolini’s activities as a public intellectual. For those unable to catch the MoMA shows, the Criterion Collection recently released Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life(films based on Boccaccio’s Decameron, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and The Arabian Nights) in a lavish edition that includes essays, documentaries, and unused footage.

The “danger” that Pasolini evoked in his final interview may have encompassed his own death, but it pertained mostly to the degradation of Italy’s national culture. Ever the contrarian, he had gone on television to argue for the abolition of the medium, in his view a mouthpiece for consumerism, conformity, and violence. (Those who would scoff at his ideas might recall that Silvio Berlusconi, who has made common cause with today's neo-fascist movement, draws wealth and ballast from the three national channels he owns.) In 1975, Pasolini declared himself “traumatized” by the idea of legalized abortion, which he found to be a barbarity made necessary by the merchandising of bodies and sex. He later softened his stance but only to make an even more against-the-grain proposition: that homosexuality and not abortion was the best solution to the world’s problems of overpopulation and unwanted pregnancies.

In the days following Pasolini’s murder, a 17-year-old hustler confessed to killing him, but his accounts of the facts were inconsistent, and in time he withdrew his confession. Police documents made public in 2010 tell of an attack by four or five men shouting anti-Communist insults at Pasolini, lending credence to suspicions that his death was a political assassination and not a sexual encounter gone bad.

Pasolini had defended Salò against charges of pornography because, he said, it showed graphic and “terrible” acts to decry the commodification of human beings and not simply to titillate or shock. Predictably, the corporate media mined Pasolini’s death for profit: the newsweekly L’Espresso published photos from his autopsy, making obscene, sensational use of his brutalized corpse and denying him dignity even in death.

The issue, by the way, sold out. But Pasolini’s films and writings and artworks live on, challenging us with their savage beauties and hard truths.

The Museum of Modern Art is open Wednesday through Monday, with special holiday hours Dec. 26–Jan. 7. Admission to films is free for museum ticket holders, but separate screening tickets are required. Information at MoMA.org or 212-708-9400.