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PIER PAOLO PASOLINI: A long plan-sequence: film and reality

PASOLINI / 100 years: On the occasion of the anniversary of the birth of Pier Paolo Pasolini (March 5, 1922), MODERN TIMES has chosen to print an essay on a theme between power and the oppressed – as it is throughout his large film production.


Pasolini's films can be interpreted as a long one plan-sequence, a "continuous sequence" with the camera's gaze on reality. No matter how allegorical or realistic his films are, they corresponded to a long, continuous analytical look at Italys history from the 1950s to the 1970s. Maybe Pasolini's whole life is one plan-sequence, from his birth on March 5, 1922 until the night of November 2, 1975, the night of the still unresolved murder Pasolini, the murder of Pasolini.

The morning after Pier Paolo Pasolini death, all Italian newspapers published a picture of the battered corpse, with the announcement that the scandalous poet had been found murdered in Ostia. He was murdered under strange circumstances, after a sexual encounter with one of them life boys (street prostitutes) who featured in his novels and films.

In the same social environment, Pasolini started as a film director, in 1961, after a period of experience as a screenwriter, where he also worked with Fellini. At that time he was already a famous poet – writing in Italian and his own dialect – a sensitive writer and a lively and sharp essayist.

But it was with the film that Pasolini could finally find a language to analyze reality, to find the way into the heart of reality. Right from the start, Pasolini was looking for a new and more concrete film language rather than a verbal or literary language.

From Recording Of Ragazzi Di Vita

The transformation of the people into masses

In the two novels about Romas suburbs (Life boys, 1955, and A violent life 1959) he described youth life in the periphery. Then followed the first two films Beggar (1961) and Mom Rome (1962, incl Anna Magnani in the title role). Here, the novel characters became more connected to the current reality, they became human again. Rome's suburbs ("borgate romane"), with its social problems and its languages, came to the center – opposite to the decentralization and marginalization of the time.

Pasolini theorized and discussed his choices of filming life as a research path to analyze society – and uncover the contradictions in consumer society. According to Pasolini, the most dangerous enemy homogenization, which we call today Globalisation – a weapon of capitalism used to dominate and control people.


Pasolini tells stories about Italy in the period from fascism to the 70s, a period characterized by deep economic and social changes. This was an era where capitalism provoked the transformation of the people into masses – from genuine solidarity to corrupt massification, and that in the name of democracy, according to Pasolini. This process, which encompasses the entire Western world, is an anthropological genocide according to what Pasolini wrote in 1974. His greatest disappointment was the disappearance of traditional Italian culture in consumerism. The characters Accattone and Mamma Roma, two members of the lower class, are both victims of the so-called economic boom of the 50s and 60s.

Mom Rome

Accattone is a young man who lives by what he happens to find every day (accept is romanesco to find and to pray), and his body became the symbol of a socio-anthropological heterotopia (a different place). Mamma Roma is a lady who would like to change life for herself and especially for her son Ettore, but she was forced into prostitution. Ettore is the 15-year-old boy who had lived his whole life protected in a village, unaware of most things. They both become victims. While Ettore dies like a poor Christ on the cross, Mamma Roma is petrified by the terrible pain and an anger against God. The body is relentlessly the victim of history – a dramatic and beautiful cinematic image. Here, happy erotic bodies are transformed into sad pieces of meat and consumer goods – on the altar of power.

Pasolini is uncompromising in that he unmasks and condemns consumer society as totalitarianism – dominated by bourgeois conformity. His fight is particularly prominent in the films. Pasolini experimented with realistic narratives, and later with comedy, silent film and metafilm – as in the short film Ricotta (1963). In this film, he creates a rather complex three-dimensional hierarchical structure – about mass society and power relations between different groups of subordinates. For example, Stracci is the protagonist and victim – he succumbs and dies. But not without first making everyone laugh at his miserable life: this tragic, embarrassing grotesque is revealed through the mockery of Stracci's body. A political body that destroys itself to please power?


Pasolini does the proletarian bodya sacred, as a religious symbol. It happened to Accattone, Ettore and Stracci. So also with the presentation of the Gospel story in Gospel of Matthew (1964) and surrealism and the medieval narrative in Uccellacci e uccellini (1966). Mary and Jesus represent two poor people – their bodies become victims of capitalism.

Making poetic film

In a later phase, Pasolini begins to develop one poetry cinema (film poetry), med The earth seen from the moon (1966) and What are the clouds? (1967), while he with Edipo Re (1967) and Medea (1969, with Maria Callas in the title role) met the mythological narrative, as archetypal narrative and analysis of reality.


The next two films, Theorem (1968) and pork (1969), are visionary, surrealist, provocative films that refer to contemporary novels, with a touch of perversion and a strong critique of the upper class. The depicted architecture represents a moralistic social space, seemingly perfect, but its internal structure immediately reveals its disease and corruption.


I Theorem a mysterious figure known only as "the guest" ("the visitor", played by Terence Stamp) appears in the life of a typical bourgeois Italian family. The enigmatic guest engages in sexual relations with everyone in the house.

In a film scene, the guest and Pietro, the son, look in a book of Francis Bacon's paintings: The camera lingers insistently on some of the Irish artist's paintings. The scene takes place in Pietro's room (essential and bright) and the two characters sit together on the bed. The selected artworks are Pietro's mental projections, but shown by the guest: torn monstrous bodies caught in the moment, visually contrasting with the naked, white bodies of the two young men – but also of their mother (Silvana Mangano) and father. These allegorical scenes of the sexual encounters are filmed full of light – blurring the contours of the figures and blending the bodies with the background. In this way, a deeper deconstruction of the body of bourgeois individuality is hidden here, whose main victims are the young (see also below).

In the movie pork bourgeois reality, represented by the family institution and the villa's architecture and geometric lines, is contrasted with unhappy, precarious, grotesque and unstable bodies. The capitalist social space oppresses the protagonist Julian.

And with Life trilogy (Life's trilogy) Pasolini elaborates on the original prose source of our contemporary way of telling: The Decameron (1971), based on Boccaccio's The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales (1972), inspired by Chaucer's The Canterbury Talesand The flower of the Thousand and One Nights (1974), which takes us to the Orient with a selection of short stories from the collection A thousand and one night.

Trilogy of life triptych

Biopolitics and sexuality

The end of the 60s and 70s are years of major conflicts between generations, and between those in power and the oppressed. The latter hunts for position in the social space and an economic power, in collaboration with the politicians and the high religious spheres, which the rig eager with violence and punishment.

The transformation of Italy from an agricultural country to an industrialized country is accompanied by enormous contradictions in the distribution of social goods and wealth. Italy's population growth and income growth, an improved standard of living and greater social awareness are linked to industrialization and modernization. But a socio-cultural crisis arose after the countryside was abandoned. Pasolini attempts to show how a large segment of the population is excluded from this exciting social and economic development. The films in Trilogy of Life however, marks a turning point that opens the last chapter in Pasolini's film history:

While Pasolini's first films were aimed at "the representation of the body and its culminating symbol, sex," Pasolini writes in the paper Corriere della Sera in June 1975: “I hate bodies and genitals. In other words, the body of the new Italian youth […]. The 'reality' of the innocent body has been violated, manipulated and tampered with by the power of consumerism such that violence against the body has indeed become the most macroscopic fact of the new human age."

The body, tolerated in its carnal expressions, is now repetitive and sad – and neither revolutionary nor joyful.

Pasolini tackles how power uses sex and sexuality. Sex as a ritual element, the first expression of both religiosity, pleasure and reward, is abused by the power of submission. The arena for the intimate and for playful breaks in social patterns is lost. Joy is no longer possible: the body, which used to be tolerated in its carnal expressions, is now repetitive and sad – and neither revolutionary nor joyful.

Violence against youth

Reality is linked to the sexual body as a political object. Pasolini's last film, Salò and the 120 days of Sodom (1975), is a crude representation of how power appropriates the innocent bodies of young people. Done was launched after his death. It is a violent film, not only because of the horrific scenes it depicts, but also for the dramatically significant insights into reality it offers.

Fascists are violent. With the references to de Sade's hideous and unpleasant works, the fascists represent the new consumer power. The violence against young people is part of the process that leads to their dehumanisation – the body is an object to be used and consumed. Pasolini poetry cinema are investigations in which he analyzes reality to find the original reality freed from the socio-economic superstructure of progress. The martyrdom of the young people of Salò, enclosed in a disparate space and language, shows the cinematographic space as a vision of reality.

Pasolini's look is still relevant. Although some of his films may seem outdated or incomprehensible to a younger audience, they can provoke discussion about the social system and the paths of the future.

Pasolini's films are not only a matter of images, but also a grammar of close-ups and subjects as well as his complexly edited syntax. Pasolini's cinematic grammar, which follows the rules of poetry, gives the films strength.

Gargiulo lectured on Pasolini The Italian Cultural Institute in Oslo on 7 March. Watch streaming on Facebook.

The 7.3. https://iicoslo.esteri.it/iic_oslo/nb/gli_eventi/calendario/2022/03/pier-paolo-pasolini-realism-space.html and 2.3. https://iicoslo.esteri.it/iic_oslo/nb/gli_eventi/calendario/2022/03/poeten-pier-paolo-pasolini.html

Marco Gargiulo
Marco Gargiulo
Professor of Italian linguistics, language and culture at the University of Bergen.

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