Today would be Pier Paolo Pasolini‘s 93rd birthday. He was born in Bologna, not too far from my house, in 1922. The clip here is from the film Accattone made in 1961. The film focuses on the life of a common pimp in Rome and how he steals and scrounges to get by, how he doesn’t seem to care much about any one but himself. Accattone received great critical acclaim. It was Pasolini’s first film and is based largely on two books he wrote prior to breaking into cinema, Ragazzi di vita and La religione del mio tempo. Both texts focus on what would be considered sub-proletariat life in post-war Italy. In fact, Pasolini included many local residents in his films rather than hiring professional actors; amongst other things this renders the language of the film quite difficult even for Italian audiences.
There are many things to praise and discuss when it comes to Pasolini but the most timely issue is Pasolini’s use of the true anti-hero in this film and our lack of characters like this today. For all of the praise the film Birdman has garnished it does not come nearly as close to understanding human pathos as Accatone does. For one thing, Birdman is blindly self-referential and tells the story of the same stratus of society we constantly see on the big screen. While our art has become more and more commercial Pasolini’s birthday can grant us a moment to reflect on the stories we are telling, how we tell them, the characters we create and especially the voices we give to them and how those voices are set forth into the world.
In addition to writing poetry and fiction and film making Pasolini was a cultural theorist and linguist. While Accattone holds true to many elements of neo-realist filmmaking the use of poetic language, imagery and religious iconography take his cinematography in a new direction. In his book Emperismo eretico he writes about the formation of the Italian literary and cinematic languages, how they were created by men of a certain class and had to be learned by anyone who desired to write. He gives the example of Antonio Gramsci learning literary Italian for the first time when he moved to Torino to study. He describes how it took years for Gramsci to have complete control in the language. Pasolini is demanding a new kind of polyphony in writing, one that does not remain in one social position but is able to give voice to multiple perspectives (something he himself did in his dialectal poetry).
He explains this further in Emperismo eretico when he writes,
“…l’autore rispetto al suo personaggio: una corrispondenza d’amorosi sensi che si concreta in uno scambio di fervor linguistici (da notarsi bene, come dirò in qualche nota più avanti, che non è sempre il personaggio a prestare la sua lingua all’autore: ma spesso è il contrario!)”
[the author in respect to his character: a loving dialogue of feelings that solidifies itself in an exchange of linguistic fervor (it is important to note, as will be mentioned further along, that it is not always the character that lends his language to the author: but often the other way around!]
The voices should be multiple, the experiences should come from diverse points of view. Even if an author is not a member of a certain group or class she can engage and converse with voices different from her own. Pasolini’s fear, my fear, is that as we move towards monoculture the voices we hear may be more decipherable to the majority but they will also be less resonant. Looking at a true anti-hero like the protagonist in Accattone is not always pleasant. He is not worried about success but survival; his life plays a loop of inane conversations and abject poverty. His language is difficult and his hope is scarce. This is not to say these are the only stories either, stories of desperation, but they are different stories and an antidote to a world of cinema that flashes fame and shiny glitter in our eyes.
In the following video Pasolini describes the subtle consumerism that creeps into democratic society. It is not the obvious militaristic architecture that ruins us, he says, but the messages and ideas that infiltrate our very being. It’s his birthday: we should remember his life, his work and his message.