100th birthday of the director Pier Paolo Pasolini
Leo Belardo / Romance Studies
Photo: UniService Transfer

On missing the real feelings and the diversity of society

Year100Knowledge interview with lecturer Leo Belardo on the 100th anniversary of the birth of director Pier Paolo Pasolini.

What do you personally associate with Pier Paolo Pasolini, who would have turned 100 on March 5?

Belardo: In Italy, Pasolini is always associated with his films and also with his first two novels, "Ragazzi di vita" and "Una vita violenta." I also associate him with his homosexuality, because that was also a reason for his tragic death.

Pasolini worked, believe it or not, as an elementary school teacher after the end of the war. His pedagogical skills anticipated much of what was called student-centered teaching in the 1970s. However, the disclosure of his homosexuality led to his dismissal from the teaching profession. Did the support for the disadvantaged, to whom he devoted himself throughout his life, already begin then?

Belardo: I think it began earlier, after the war. He joined the Communist Party and lived with his mother in the small village of Casarsa della Delizia in Friuli. This was a very rural society to which he was homesick all his life.

He was very committed to social criticism. His first films "Accattone - Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß" from 1961 and "Mamma Roma" from 1962 are significant cinematic realizations of his suburban studies, some of which earned him international praise from film critics. How socially critical were these films?

Belardo: These films were extremely critical of society, if only by the way they were made. They are always set in the suburbs of Rome, where you can see from a distance how the big city keeps building new buildings, in other words, how the city keeps getting bigger. What impresses me are the images that show the people in the countryside, who feel the growth of the city as the destruction of traditional life. The characters are all poor people from the lower class who often have no work and their faces are always very impressive. The actors are all laymen and were carefully chosen by Pasolini, who was interested in particular facial features. They are not faces you usually see in the movies or in magazines. They are very distinctive and they represent the life of poor people. All their attempts to get out of this poverty fail. One feels a great sympathy for this class of people, for these disadvantaged of progress.

Pasolini always emphasized that he hated the bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, in his film "Teorema - Geometry of Love" he dealt precisely with this society. Why?

Belardo: He did it out of criticism of the bourgeoisie. He wanted to show that the life of the middle or small bourgeoisie was characterized by relationships based only on the calculation of self-interest. This bourgeoisie suppresses important aspects of their emotional life.  The film is about a person who suddenly appears and throws a middle-class family off track by having love relationships with all the members of that family. After this person disappears again, their lives have totally changed.

In his literary work, Pier Paolo Pasolini problematized the decline of Italian society in the sixties and seventies and denounced the new fascism in Italy. Pasolini kept a critical distance from the political and social developments of his time, the sexual liberalization and increasing commercialization of society. Was he an uncomfortable artist?

Belardo: Yes, he was an uncomfortable artist, a left-leaning director and writer. His worldview was even a little too right-wing for the left. For example, in the episodic film 'La ricotta` a poem of his is quoted, the first two lines of which say: "I am a force of the past, only in tradition lies my love." He calls it a force of the past because he misses the unadulterated, spontaneous life of village societies. The industrial society, the urban society, the bourgeois society is destroying this life because they are only calculating and looking out for their own interests. Pasolini misses the real feelings that he still sees in the rural community and has always dealt with this in his films. He was uncomfortable. I remember when the 68 movement was born in Italy and the universities were occupied, Pasolini criticized the students in a famous article in "l`Espresso", which is the Italian equivalent of "Der Spiegel". In it he refers to the students as mama`s boys, that is, spoiled children of rich families, and testifies sympathy for those who suppress this protest; that is, the poor policemen. The carabinieri mostly came from poor backgrounds and did not need a high school diploma for this job. This was a criticism of the left, which he always represented.

He dealt with myths and legends of the occidental, but also of the Arabic cultural area and finally directed his last film, which is still on the index of many countries: "The 120 Days of Sodom", based on a novel by Marquis de Sade. In 1976, the Saarbrücken District Court ordered that all copies of the film nationwide be confiscated. The Saarbrücken judicial press office justified the order by saying that the film was a single "string of the most brutal violence and perversions" and showed "no traces of art." In 1977, the Saarbrücken Regional Court overturned the seizure on the grounds that the film "neither glorifies violence nor has pornographic content". The public prosecutor's appeal against the Saarbrücken Regional Court's decision was then rejected in 1978 by the Federal Court of Justice in the last instance. Critics spoke of a radical, bleak and harrowing film. How does one deal with this work today?

Belardo: I think this work belongs to the classic work of Italian cinema, but that is almost forgotten in the sense that he is often quoted but not watched.  The title in Italian is. "Salò or the 120 days of Sodoma". In the title there is an allusion to the book by Marquis De Sade, but in the word Salò it is associated with fascism, because Salò is a town on Lake Garda that for a while, during WW2, was the capital of the fascist puppet government in Nazi-occupied Italy. The movie is about a group of high fascist commanders kidnapping a group of 9 young men and 9 young women and torturing and raping them quite coldly and callously. Very few watch the movie because it is very harsh. I also think that it is more a film for intellectuals than for the normal film audience. Pasolini's earlier films did not require the viewer to have any prior knowledge in order to understand the film. In the '120 Days` many philosophers are quoted, de Sade is also quoted, and if you don`t know this as a viewer, you can`t understand the film and reduce it to all the disgusting elements. The characters do not represent themselves, but are often metaphor or allegory of something else. They are symbols of abstract concepts. Scenes that show violence without reason also repel the viewer. I myself saw this film in German more than 20 years ago, and by then many viewers had already left because the film is simply very hard.

Pasolini's death resembles a crime thriller that has not been solved to this day, and his film colleague Michelangelo Antonioni complained that he had become "basically the victim of his own novel and film characters." What had happened?

Belardo: Pasolini had approached a young man in a bar on the evening of November 2 - he was often in contact with young men - had dinner with him and then gave him a ride in his car. They drove to the sea, towards Ostia. The accused later stated that Pasolini wanted sex, but they could not agree on the price. This resulted in an argument, he hit Pasolini and then drove over him several times with his car. That is the official, judicial version. It was doubted even then because the young man was not very strong and there was speculation that there might be another perpetrator. Thirty years later, the convicted man said in an interview that he had been in a group of people and that they had killed Pasolini. This could have been about stolen film reels with which they wanted to blackmail the director for money, and that evening perhaps the handover was to take place. Conspiracy theories have existed for a long time. Pasolini was also an uncomfortable journalist, his research into the murder of the president of the state energy company ENI, Enrico Mattei, did not sit well with some people.

A reception of his literary work, his theoretical writings and his journalistic works only began after his death. His work, initially forgotten, has been rediscovered since the 1990s. What interests us about it today?

Belardo: I think what interests us today above all is his critique of standardization. The loss of the diversity of society. This peasant and village society was very different depending on the region. And Pasolini saw that this village culture no longer existed because the villagers had come to the city. Hence his interest in the characters of the lower class. For him they were authentic, quaint and also spontaneous. And he saw that this society was on the way to disappearing because it adopted the values of the bourgeoisie. And we see that today, too, in the course of globalization. No matter where you go in the world, everything is becoming the same. Traditions and traits of different cultures are disappearing.

Uwe Blass (conversation from 11/25/2021)

Leo Belardo is a lecturer for Italian in the Romance Studies Department of the Faculty of Humanities and Cultural Studies at Bergische Universität.

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