Champion of the disinherited of postwar Italy, Pier Paolo Pasolini's masterworks reveal an obsession with martyrdom that foreshadowed his own wretched death.
At the end of Mamma Roma (1962) [released on Mr Bongo], Pier Paolo Pasolini's great film, the hero lies dying on a prison bed like the dead Christ of Mantegna or a barefoot saint by Caravaggio. Much has been made of the Renaissance and baroque iconography in Pasolini's cinema. The implied blasphemy of Caravaggio's grubby, low-life Christs excited the iconoclast in the Italian film-maker, whose wretched death was somehow foreshadowed in his own work. On the morning of 2 November 1975, in a shanty town outside Rome, Pasolini was found beaten beyond recognition and run over by his Alfa Romeo. A woman had noticed something in front of her house. "See how those bastards come and dump their rubbish here," she complained.
The scene of the murder, Idroscalo, recalls a setting for a Pasolini film or novel: shacks lie scattered across a beach and in the distance rise the slums of Nuova Ostia. A 17-year-old rent boy nicknamed "Joey the Toad" Pelosi was charged with the murder – a homosexual assignation gone fatally wrong. Or was Pasolini the victim of a political assassination? His presumed killer, it emerged, was in league with the Italian neo-fascist party; the verdict is still open. Pasolini was 53.
The accused came from a housing estate outside Rome called Tiburtino III. Built in 1935 on marshland, the fascist-era tenements never amounted to the utopian project promised by Mussolini. Yet the outskirts, strewn with broken washbasins and old tyres sprouting poppies, present a Pasolinian pasticcio of the poetic and the squalid. In Pasolini's day Tiburtino III retained something of the semi-rural atmosphere of l'Italietta (Italy's little homelands) peculiar to his Roman cinema. Migrants from southern Italy brought their own moralities and dialects, which Pasolini documented with ethnographic exactitude.
In his poetry, journalism, novels and films, Pasolini championed the disinherited and damned of postwar Italy, mingling an intellectual leftism with a fierce Franciscan Catholicism. His best-known film, The Gospel According to Matthew (1964), was dedicated to John Paul XXIII, the first pope to have opened up the discourse between Catholicism and Marxism, and pointedly omitted the word "Saint" from the title. It was shot in the lunar landscape of Italy's remote Basilicata region – where Mel Gibson was to make his lurid Christ extravaganza – and featured several of Pasolini's friends (among them the novelist Natalia Ginzburg and his future biographer Enzo Siciliano).
Nearly 40 years after his death, Pasolini is ripe for reappraisal. Next month a retrospective opens at the British Film Institute, the largest ever mounted in the UK. Accattone (1961), Pasolini's debut, is a good place to start. It remains one of the great works of postwar Italian cinema, a film whose poetic realism influenced Martin Scorsese as well as the young Bernardo Bertolucci, at that time Pasolini's cameraman. A familiar Pasolini hero, Accatone ("Scrounger") is a pimp but also a potential martyr, who sees death as a form of redemption. His last words as he lies dying in a road accident are "Mo' sto bene", "I'll be OK now."
Pasolini scripted his early films in Roman dialect to remind Italy of a language it had largely ignored. His lifelong polemic against what he called la lingua dei padroni (bourgeois standard Italian) had deep roots. After graduating in literature from Bologna University in 1943, he moved with his parents to Casarsa, a small town in Fruili near the Yugoslavian border. Fruili was the birthplace of Pasolini's mother, Susanna, and his attachment to the region was an extension of his profound love for her (she played the older Mary in The Gospel According to Matthew). Pasolini's earliest poems were written in Friulian dialect: his ambition was for Friulano-speaking peasant communities to become "historically aware"; he, Pasolini, would be the medium of their awareness.
The Casarsa years were beset by scandal. In 1949 Pasolini was charged with "corruption of minors and obscene acts in a public place". What happened is unclear, although the scandal was presumably linked to his homosexuality. He was expelled from the Casarsa branch of the Italian Communist party, and fled with his mother to Rome, "as in a novel", he later recalled. The decision was taken without consulting his father, Carlo, an alcoholic infantry officer who had served in East Africa under Mussolini, and who was left behind in Friuli.
Though Pasolini was born in Bolgona, Rome provided him with material for the novel that made him famous. The Ragazzi, published in Italy in 1955, is a series of fast-moving cinematic vignettes from the Roman underworld, and recounts the adventures of a group of street-wise teenagers. The street violence found fuller expression in Pasolini's films of the Greek myths Oedipus Rex(1967) and Medea (1970), which starred Maria Callas. His solidarity with the Roman poor was at heart romantic, and in his great verse epic The Ashes of Gramsci (1952) he compares it to the youthful idealism of the poet Shelley, who is buried in the same cemetery in Rome as Antonio Gramsci, the grand theoretician of Italian Marxism.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the 27-year-old "Rimbaud lacking in genius" (as Pasolini archly dubbed himself) should begin his Roman days among the despised and persecuted in a run-down flat in the Jewish ghetto. Hemmed in by the Tiber on one side, and the Largo Argentina on the other, the ghetto was (and still is) a world to itself. Catholic Italy, though, was changing fast, andMamma Roma caught the new mood as the economic miracle of the early 1960s brought chewing gum, Coca-Cola, jeans and other trappings of American-style consumerism. Mamma Roma herself, played by Anna Magnani of Rome, Open City fame, is a streetwalker determined to do well by her teenage son Ettore. With enough money, she promises him, they can move into a respectable area. But Ettore only sinks deeper into the city's thieving underworld. The film's final shot is of a series of bleak high-rise complexes near Cecafumo (an expanse of wasteland off Rome's Via Tuscolana): the reward, Pasolini seems to be saying, for Rome's new-found affluence.
Pasolini's relationship with Rome was fraught with controversy. La Ricotta, his 35-minute episode in the collaborative filmRoGoPag (1963), featured Orson Welles as an American director shooting a film about the passion of Christ. Over a tableau vivant inspired by baroque paintings of the Deposition, Welles cries out sacrilegiously: "Get those crucified bastards out of here!" A work of bawdy sensory realism, La Ricotta led to a suspended prison sentence for Pasolini on blasphemy charges.
During the early 1970s, he wrote a series of savage newspaper polemics attacking drug abuse, men's long hair, offensive advertising and anything else that apparently contributed to the decline of his adored pre-industrial Italy. His documentary Love Meetings (1964) provided a wonderful glimpse of Catholic mores four years after Fellini captured the glitz of the nascent consumer Italy in La Dolce Vita; but now Italy was "dying". Pasolini's most zealous attacks were targeted at TV, which, he believed, had replaced Italy's dialects with a consumer Esperanto of garbled Americanisms and other linguistic imports. Disillusioned, he turned to the so-called third world for inspiration. The Cappadocia of Medea, or the Yemen of The Arabian Nights (1974) are visually exquisite versions of Flaubert's Salammbô – cinematic flowerings of European decadence.
Towards the end of his life, Pasolini lived in the opulent Rome suburb of EUR. He bought a Maserati to add to his Alfa Romeo, and now dismissed the Roman poor as "odiosi", even "orribili"; they had lost their innocence to the consumerist miracolo italiano and become greedy for material gain.
For all the fabulous variety of his work, Pasolini could not escape his public image as a commentator on Italy's troubled political life. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, his last and least appealing film, was released in 1975, shortly after his murder, and provides a violent essay on Italy's Nazi-fascist past. The exuberance of his magnificent Roman films was gone; Salò is the work of a dispirited man. The masterworks remain, however, and these are well worth watching.