Passion for Pasolini: Criterion Collection rereleases nine classic films

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday June 27, 2023
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"Pasolini 101"; Pier Paolo Pasonlini on a film set
"Pasolini 101"; Pier Paolo Pasonlini on a film set

When people hear the name Pasolini, if they recognize it at all, it's primarily due to two references: one, his brutal murder by a male prostitute (and perhaps a criminal syndicate group) or his later sex-laden films, especially "Salo: 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade," which has been repeatedly named the most controversial film of all time.

What has been overlooked or forgotten is that Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975) was one of the defining public intellectuals, both artistically and politically, in mid-century.

With his iconoclastic career as a gay Italian film director, poet, novelist, critic, journalist, actor, scriptwriter, linguist, political figure/essayist, and philosopher, he embodied a Renaissance polymath, who due to his straightforward style, was consistently contentious from his career's beginning to its tragic conclusion. He famously said, "I think to scandalize is a right, to be scandalized is a pleasure."

Pasolini was his own art and his art was him. He was always pushing the envelope and lived according to his own rules. A mass of contradictions, he sought to shock, to oppose the complacency, corruption, and injustices of Italian society, to blow open the closed, status quo world of the elite, through the use of violence and sexuality, critiquing the arbitrary anarchy of power and the reduction of the human body to a commodity. His cinema was confrontational, opposing the decay he thought was damaging Italy.

Younger audiences are rediscovering Pasolini because his work was inherently boundary-breaking, traversing the sacred and the profane, the ancient and the modern, the mythic and the personal, intermingling politics, art, and sexuality.

He is seen as a moral exemplar, a provocateur with his many forms of radical resistance and militant apostasy. He also savaged institutions, consumerism, and as an avowed Marxist satirized petty bourgeoisie values. As a fearless rebel spirit, he fought passionately against government corruption, materialism, and social repression.

With the resurgence of Fascism throughout the world, he seems more relevant. This mixture of ideologies and identities is celebrated in the release by Criterion Collection of the provocative, lyrical, and indelible films he made in the 1960s, in an exhaustive Blu-ray collection of nine movies, "Pasolini 101" ($199.96).

Anna Magnani in 'Mamma Roma'  

Second neorealism
Pasolini's filmmaking encompasses two phases. The first phase can be termed a second neorealism, building off the first neorealism that began after the end of World War II, characterized by films such as Vittorio De Sico's "Bicycle Thief," Roberto Rosselini's "Open City," and Visconti's "Obsession," which often used nonprofessional actors and explored the conditions of the poor and lower working class. Pasolini extended his cinematic study of the marginalized to pimps, prostitutes, thieves, and gangs.

In his second phase, he studied myth and fable in such films as "Oedipus" and "Medea," but especially in what became known as The Trilogy of Life, which included his take on the lusty tales of "The Decameron," "The Canterbury Tales," and "The Arabian Nights."

Each film challenged modern consumer culture, but also celebrated the sensual human body, while attacking contemporary erotic and religious mores and hypocrisy though his use of scatological humor and a "rough-hewn" sexuality that was carnal, provocative, leaving behind modern standards of decency.

This inquiry into contemporary social and sexual dynamics reached its apotheosis in his final film "Salo," a depraved, nauseating masterpiece where he transposed the Marquis de Sade's eighteenth-century opus of torture and sexual degradation to Fascist Italy in 1944.

"Pasolini 101" covers mostly the first phase, though "Oedipus" and "Medea" included, encompass elements of both careers. Years ago, Criterion released The Trilogy of Life and "Salo" as separate DVDs.
It can be argued that the reputation Pasolini built in his first career enabled him to make Trilogy and "Salo," provocative films still debated fiercely today. Scenes of explicit homosexuality feature prominently in these later movies, one of the first filmmakers to do so.


The films
Criterion deserves praise for collecting all Pasolini's early films, beginning with one of cinema's stunning debuts "Accattone (1961)," the nickname of a pimp as his protagonist in a hardscrabble slum, which also shocked Italian audiences with its use of street vernacular and rough Roman dialect.

The set comes with a 95-page booklet that includes an essay by Pasolini, "Why Cinema?" plus some of his short writings and drawings as well as an introduction to Pasolini, "The Elegiac Heart: Pier Pasolini, Filmmaker," by art critic James Quandt. Quandt also provides notes for each of the nine films.

There are new 4K digital restorations of seven films and 2K digital restorations of "Teorama" and "Medea." These films, even with their grainy textures, have never looked better.

"Mamma Roma" (1962) stars the inimitable, immortal Anna Magnani in one of her greatest roles, as a former prostitute trying to start a fresh life in a new apartment with her teenage son. But the criminal underworld slowly sucks her back into her past habits, leading to a tragic ending.

"Love Meetings (1964)," is considered the first Italian cinema verité. It's a documentary with Pasolini as interviewer asking a cross-section of Italian society questions on virginity, prostitution, homosexuality, and sex education.

"The Gospel According to Matthew" (1964) is atheist Pasolini's life of Christ in which most of the actors are nonprofessionals and peasants. Combining neorealism with reverence and simplicity, by critical consensus, it's considered the greatest film ever made about Jesus.

"The Hawks and the Sparrows," (1966) Pasolini's favorite of his films, is a comedy about Toto and his son Ninetto who roam the countryside of Rome witnessing birth and death. They encounter a talking crow who symbolically represents poverty and class conflict.

"Oedipus Rex" (1967) is a faithful adaptation of Sophocle's Greek tragedy, which Pasolini considered his most autobiographical film, based on his military fascist father and teacher mother.

"Teorema" (1968) stars Terence Stamp as a mysterious stranger (angel?devil?) who one by one seduces all the members of a wealthy Milanese family, causing an existential crisis in each of their lives, ending in primal rage and despair. This ribald allegory on the Second Coming was denounced by the Catholic Church as degeneracy and the state as obscene.

"Porcile" (1969), translated as 'pig sty' in English, are two parallel allegories about destruction. The first one takes place in medieval times with a young guy wandering around a volcanic landscape. He becomes a cannibal, joins a violent gang, then is executed. The second story revolves around a 1960s German industrialist and his young son. The industrialist is involved in a rivalry with another industrialist, while his son gets involved with pigs and is eaten by them. Pasolini is attempting to link Nazi Germany with the German "Economic Miracle" of the 1960s.

Maria Callas in 'Medea'  

Finally, "Medea (1969)," is a love song to the famed Greek-American soprano Maria Callas (who doesn't sing here) in her only film role in Pasolini's haunting adaptation of Euripides' tragedy about a woman rejected by her husband, who takes vengeance on her children.

Callas, who is generally considered the foremost actress among opera singers, is transcendent here in what is reckoned the best performance in any Pasolini film. She's aided by the ravishing visual imagery, shot in Turkey and Syria.

As usual, the cornucopia of extras on this Criterion release are outstanding, including two shorts ("La ricotta," "The Sequence of the Paper Flower") and two documentaries about his travels, all made by Pasolini. There's a riveting 1966 Italian documentary on Pasolini's life and career, with some narration by Pasolini as well as archival interviews.

Also supplemented is a perceptive program on Pasolini's visual style as told through his personal writing, narrated by actor Tilda Swinton and writer Rachel Kushner, as he reflects on the meaning of cinema in his life.

There are two 2003 interviews with Tonino Delli Colli, who worked as Director of Photography on 11 Pasolini films, and with his biographer Enzio Sicilano. There's also a brief interview with director Bernardo Bertolucci, who began his career as a production assistant on "Accatone."

And there's a 1.5 hour Cineastes de Notre Temps French program with a 1966 intimate portrait of Pasolini, focusing on conversations with him as well as actors and collaborators who worked on his films.

Just about anything you would want to know about Pasolini is showcased on this essential collection of Pasolini films. Similar to what they accomplished two years ago with gay director Marlon Riggs, this is a great tribute gift for gay film lovers. Pasolini would appear on any Top 10 list of the greatest LGBTQ film directors of the 20th century.

"Pasolini 101" makes a strong case that Pasolini's impact on cinema as resistance was and remains far-reaching, and his anti-establishment quest to find truth and his profound alienation from the world speaks to us today as loudly as it did in 1966.

'Pasolini 101,' 9 discs, Blu-Ray $199.96

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