Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Pasolini Retrospective - Accattone (1961)

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Pasolini Retrospective - Accattone (1961)

The mark which has dominated all my work is the longing for life, this sense of exclusion, which doesn't lessen, but augments this love of life. - Pier Paolo Pasolini Today would have been the 87th birthday of director Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975). A man of contradictions, he was both a journalist and a poet; once a devout Catholic and later an atheist and Communist. The circumstances of his death are lurid. Brutally murdered in November 1975 by being run over a number of times by his own car, there have been many largely unsubstantiated rumors as to who was behind Pasolini's death. Some said it was an anti-communist conspiracy. Others said he staged his own death, due to the eerie similarities that can be found in his films. A young hustler was arrested, and confessed, to the murder of the openly gay director who - as his closest friend writer Alberto Moravia (Il Conformista) acknowledged - had a proclivity for violent, young men since his early days as a novelist (Ragazzi di vita). Pasolini's first film, Accattone (1961), portrays the lifestyle of these street people - or as he would often refer to them, the sub-proletariat - that lived outside the conflicting political currents that engulfed Italy and instead, held onto a fading code of morality. Vittorio (Franco Citti), known as "Accattone" to his buddies, is a pimp whose days are spent scrounging for food, lamenting his existence, and making bizarre wagers in order to get enough money to get buy. He could just get a real job, but as he observes about the blue collar life:
Accattone: We're all washed-up and everybody avoids us. If we've money we're alright, if not we're nothing. We're finished because we're incapable of making it on our own. Today its better to be a thief than follow this despicable trade.
When his prostitute is sent to jail, he finds himself without income. He meets a naive young woman, Stella (Franca Pasut), who he falls in love with. But before long his desperation for money, and his inability to conform to the mainstream work force, lead him to persuade her to take up the life of a streetwalker, corrupting the only innocence left in his life. Pasolini's early films were often mistaken for a new kind of neo-realism. There is a grittiness, to be sure. But even Accattone, his first film, shows a sense of style not found in the documentary-like work of his Italian predecessors. The credits roll under the strains of Bach's "Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder" from St. Matthew Passion, a piece Martin Scorsese would use to opposite effect in the opening credit sequence for Casino (1995) many years later. Pasolini uses the operatic tune to elevate his tragic lower class heroes. In one fight scene midway through the movie, the theme aggrandizes the wide-angled perspective on two men grappling in the dirt to an epic battle of honor. Scorsese used the same musical motif to diminish the explosive propulsion of Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro). A man flying through the stratosphere of Vegas becomes just another leaf falling from a tree, beautiful but insignificant. This is but one instance of Pasolini's influence on the young Italian-American directors of the seventies. Like Scorsese used De Niro as his cinematic doppelganger, Pasolini formed a long and productive relationship with Franco Citti. Citti's ugly sad-eyed mug spoke of the streets of provincial Italy, the same way De Niro's grimace did of New York's backalleys in Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973) a movie that centers on a subculture similar to the one in Accattone. Is it any surprise then that when Francis Coppola was seeking an authentic Italian actor for the part of Michael's Sicilian bodyguard, Calo, in The Godfather (1972), that he chose Citti to play him? Having already worked as a writer on some of Fellini's films (Nights of Cabiria) in the fifties, Pasolini would also mentor his young assistant director in Accattone whose career would eventually eclipse his, Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris). Pasolini would also reinvent himself a few times in the short span before his death. Ironically, the music from St. Matthew Passion would inspire one such instance of reinvention 3 years later, when he directs one of the most acclaimed takes on the Gospels, Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew). His constant mutability and knack for courting controversy soon made Pasolini a pivotal figure in Italian cinema. This is the first in a series of posts on some of Pier Paolo Pasolini's most notable works.


Joel Bocko said...

Have you seen Mamma Roma (will it be upcoming in your series). I have not seen many Pasolinis, but that's an outstanding movie.

Though I haven't seen Accattone, I'm familiar with stills from it - yet this is the first time I realized that the star is also in The Godfather. Thanks for pointing that out...

Tony Dayoub said...


You'll be happy to know that Mamma Roma will be the next film I write about.

Joel Bocko said...

Looking forward to it - have you seen it before or will this be your initial viewing? (By the way, I think Accattone is coming up in my Netflix queue...)

Tony Dayoub said...

All of these articles will be based on my impressions after my initial viewing (meaning, I haven't seen any of Pasolini's films before).