Pasolini DVD Box Set Volumes 1 & 2

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Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini

No Italian film director excites the attention of socialists as much as Pier Paolo Pasolini. Born in Bologna in 1922 to a lieutenant who saved Mussolini's life, he joined the Italian Communist Party in Friuli only to be expelled for being gay. A poet, philosopher and linguist, Pasolini became the epitome of the 1960s public intellectual, his detached critique of Italy's Catholic and consumerist society the height of cultured chic.

These two box-sets, collecting the majority of his films of the sixties, shows the range of Pasolini's interests. He was one of the few directors in history whose debut film was probably also his masterpiece, Accattone (1961) giving a visceral picture of the sheer brutality of life for the poor of Rome. The central character, a pimp who faces starvation when his prostitute can no longer work, is a brilliantly subtle creation, full of vital yet doomed energy. He is thoroughly despicable but as much a victim as the women he ruthlessly exploits. The acting and script are perfect, bringing the viewer unnervingly close to their violent reality.

Accattone reminds us, despite the praise for modernism currently in vogue, that most politically engaged work outside of the art galleries has been in some ways realist. Neo-realism, Italy's revolution in fiction's ability to integrate political engagement and representation of real lives, is recalled by Accattone. The film's ultimate fascination lies in its ability to turn realist description into lyrical commentary, the endless brown-fields and harsh wire fences of Rome's underdeveloped periphery making the Eternal City a timelessly infernal trap.

The self-conscious artistry of Pasolini, accompanying Accattone's thieving to the strains of Bach, becomes more pronounced in his contribution to the second disc, a collection of four separate stories entitled RoGoPaG (1963). While the Rossellini piece is uninteresting, and Godard seems to be attempting an impression of himself, Pasolini's lament on human cruelty La Ricotta stands out. The crew of a fictional biblical film (Orson Welles plays the director) unite to insult and degrade a tramp, an extra in the crucifixion scene. But it is his ignored humility that the film ultimately exalts.

Unbelievably, Pasolini got for this an 18-month jail sentence for blasphemy, which he managed to suspend with a large pay-out. Incidentally, he got his own back with his next film, The Gospel According to Matthew, casting a Spanish revolutionary (to date the best-looking movie Jesus) as a pious militant insurgent.

The third disc, Love Meetings (1965), is a documentary about Italian attitudes to sex. The anthropological study leads us across Italy, from the modern industrialised north to the rural south, virtually a colony of the north with which it forms a nation, where honour codes prevail and women cannot appear in public without a chaperone. Added poignancy is given in Pasolini's probing of his unwitting interviewees' homophobia. He concludes that despite the vital importance of sexual relationships, Italians when asked about them are only superficial or braggarts. This may seem unfair given how striking the preceding testimonies are for their frank acknowledgement of the impact of society, morally and politically, on emotions, and particularly given its enunciation directly after a southern worker states that to challenge the distortions of our personal relationships capitalism must be dismantled.

Alongside the original film trailers, Pasolini's first novel, A Violent Life (first published 1955) is offered as an extra. It concerns a similar milieu to that of Accattone, and although the style is more suited to a screenplay than novelistic narration, there are still some great moments of unobtrusively poetic urban description, as on the 'walls of cheap housing, a row of washing lines like so many gallows.' His novel Ragazzo accompanies the second box-set.

You would be right to recognise from these summaries a lack of faith in the ability of the poor to change their conditions. While critical of the failure of the consumerist workers of the sixties to live up to an ideal of class consciousness, Pasolini's interest lay with the thieves, peasants, and unemployed of the south, a 'subproletariat' or underclass, by implication locked in a helpless cycle of unchanging poverty.

A self-confessed 'unbeliever nostalgic for belief', Pasolini's unlucky heroes frequently repeat the suffering of Christ. An idealistic moralism underlay Pasolini's sympathy for the poor, sliding from Marxism to a 19th century paternalistic or Catholic sensibility. In short, Pasolini fetishised suffering, and one wonders if his support for the police over student rioters in '68 indicated a love for the poor only on condition that they remained so. His later work brought these feelings out more clearly, sampled in the second box-set of the two.

Hawks and Sparrows (1966) marks a more comedic but more critical turn in Pasolini's worldview. A poor father and son take a road trip on foot. The father is played by Italian comic Totò, a blend of Chaplinesque physical comedy and Tony Hancock's parody of the indignant petty-bourgeois (for which Totò was adopted by radical students looking for a critique of small-minded right-wingers), while the son (Ninetto Davoli) is an example of the recurrent Pasolinian role of innocent naïf. They are accompanied on this journey by a talking crow, who, admiring what he sees as their natural authenticity, is representative of an old fashioned Communist intellectual.

The crow recounts the allegory of the hawks and the sparrows, and how each are taught faith. However it is still in the hawks' nature to slaughter the sparrows. The big must be taught humility and co-operate with the small. However in an ensuing series of episodes the father and son show the poor to be just as cruel, corrupt and materialistic as the powerful.

Nevertheless, one moment of sincere feeling comes crashing in to the satire, as real documentary footage of Togliatti's funeral appears. Palmiro Togliatti was a founder member of the Italian Communist Party and had been a cohort of Italy's great Communist hero Antonio Gramsci. Pasolini includes the outpouring of politicised emotion at his funeral to show what has passed, the times of mass conformity to the party that will never be recaptured. While this is true, in hindsight it was a commitment to a quasi-religious Stalinist dogmatism that was passing as the sixties continued to heat up.

Pasolini's next film turns the focus more directly to the ancient world, in adaptation of the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex. A strange mixture is created here of documenting the costumes and rituals of a mythical age with the handheld camera of a modern news report. Pasolini also frames the tragedy with scenes occurring within contemporary Italy. The power of the well-known tale is forcefully communicated, and point of contemporary relevance about the arrogance of power is made. Nevertheless, it cannot help but feel that the director retreats further in Oedipus Rex (1967) from contemporary society - and at times from being understood - at the point at which large numbers of people were really radicalising.

Pigsty (1969) is the third film of the second box-set, and continues this hardening into pessimistic detachment. It alternates a story about a German family's intertwining of business and Nazism with scenes detailing human sacrifice and cannibalism. The association does not need further spelling out, but the meaning of Pasolini's denunciation of capitalism is frequently difficult and unclear. It is worthwhile here to note that Pasolini's formal radicalisation, breaking definitively with realism to enter the avant-garde, is accompanied by a political reduction to critical but un-engaged bystander. The desolate lava hills of the scenes of sacrifice are highly atmospheric, but in evoking his earlier Theorem (1968), a satire of the bourgeois family that was Pasolini's last great film, Pigsty's inferiority is only made more evident.

Despite the erudition evident throughout Pasolini's work, these box-sets confirm that he did not achieve as much artistically as fellow traveller Luchino Visconti, who was making a similar move into critiques of historic decadence through costume drama. Nor did Pasolini's satire encapsulate the excitement and crisis of polarised Italy the way Elio Petri managed in Investigation into a Citizen Beyond Suspicion or The Working Class Goes to Heaven (which are essential viewing). The experience of watching Pasolini's films is one of allowing the spectator to share in a sense of high-brow militant detachment whilst not having to commit to anything. One suspects that this explains his appeal to the radical wing of intellectualised chic.

Nevertheless re-watching these films on the occasion of the box-set release has greatly improved my own opinion of Pasolini. They are ambitious and insightful works which both evoke the concerns of their time and stand up politically and artistically today.

Pasolini continued in the seventies with his ancient and medieval adaptations, and continued a political dialogue with the revolutionary group Lotta Continua at a point when Trotskyists were making real headway in Italian cities, although he no longer incorporated any contemporary reference in his films. 1974 saw the eroticised, exuberant fantasy of Arabian Nights, while the following year came Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom, based on De Sade's book transposed to the ultimate degradation of humanity in the dying days of Fascism.

We do not know how his worldview would have continued to develop. He was shot in 1975 by a prostitute. Violence, assassinations, terrorism and murky secret service operations were becoming the order of the day as Italy became the western European state closest to meltdown. As with many details from this time, accusations have been made as to the possible motives for his killing. As with much from Pasolini's life and from his work, the potential political cause is not fully clear.