The 100 Essential Directors Part 7

Kenji Mizoguchi to Satyajit Ray

by PopMatters Staff

21 August 2011


Pier Paolo Pasolini

Pier Paolo Pasolini
(1922 - 1975)

Three Key Films: The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), The Canterbury Tales (1972), Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

Underrated: A film that has puzzled critics and scholars since its debut, Teorema (1968) is a complex tale in which Terence Stamp plays a god-like figure who sleeps his way through an Italian bourgeoisie family, only to later disappear without any warning. It’s been said that Pasolini used this film (and an eponymous novel he wrote) to exorcise his homosexuality but judging from the straightforward way in which he addressed sex, this seems an all too facile, almost conservative view.

Perhaps Pasolini, who was a Communist, was instead exploring the way in which spirituality affects capitalist points of view and the ease with which society can be corrupted. If such is the case, this film has influenced auteurs like Luca Guadagnino, whose I Am Love (2009) is basically a reworking of the concept explored in Teorema.

Unforgettable: Pasolini was a master at depicting sex in cinema. Curiously most of his films lack the elements to make them erotic. He deals with sex and its endless possibilities as simple aspects of the world he inhabited. With that said, in Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, often listed as one of the most shocking movies ever made, he takes this to the extreme and during the last sequence offers images that remain seared in the mind of the viewer. In a few minutes, using sexual torture as his device, he recreates the horrors of fascism and WWII with such rawness that no big budget war movie has ever come close to achieving.

The Legend: There was a time when filmmakers were multitalented artists and intellectuals. Film to them, was just another medium through which they could convey their ideas and deliver their messages.Pier Paolo Pasolini was one of these: a poet since age seven, a philosopher during his university years and a visionary director throughout most of his adult life, he was also a fervently political man who usually became synonymous with controversy.If he wasn’t being condemned by the Vatican for his portrayals of homosexuality, he was being persecuted by right wing groups who deemed him a threat to Italian peace, it’s even been argued that he was assassinated by one of such groups. In fact one of the biggest mysteries about his life is how did he find the time to do all he did?

His film work in particular is completely puzzling: he directed 12 films in the space of 14 years (without counting his nonfiction work). Some of these films can be considered epic in scope (even if all of them have a quasi-documentary feel) and all are inarguably profound sociological, political and sexual explorations of our world. He began his film career subverting neorrealism in Mamma Roma and with none other than Anna Magnani. He then delivered The Gospel According to Matthew one of the most sensitive films about Jesus ever made in which Christianity is both questioned and praised for its tendency to deify human figures. Pasolini was a self proclaimed atheist who declared he was “an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief” and most of his movies deal with spirituality, but under his terms. He had a contradictory nature, which seemed determined to challenge any position that differed from his’. When his work was praised, he found ways to prove critics had made a mistake and in one of his most head scratching actions, he supported policemen during a notorious uprising initiated by university students. It’s no wonder that the reclusive diva Maria Callas, gave her only film performance in Pasolini’s Medea (1969), a film in which subverting all expectations she never sings!

Pasolini was the kind of director who could easily deal with comedies and coprophagia, his versatility was only subjected to whatever fascinated him at the time. As far as filmographies go, his’ is one of the richest and most diverse. Perhaps he wouldn’t have liked this, but his movies often make you believe in the divinity found in art. Jose Solís Mayén


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