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Pier Paolo Pasolini at the Harvard Film Archive

Perverse poetry
By PETER KEOUGH  |  September 1, 2010

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW: The Marxist subtext couples with a meditative stillness that builds to an epiphany.

The career of Pier Paolo Pasolini begins in the wasteland of Accattone (1961) and ends in the inferno of Salò (1975). Perverse, graphic, and despairing, his films are some of the most humane in cinema. A Marxist and a homosexual, he lived his life as an assault on the status quo; it ended in 1975, allegedly at the hands of a male prostitute, though evidence has been adduced to suggest he was the victim of a right-wing conspiracy.

“The Complete Pier Paolo Pasolini” | Harvard Film Archive: September 3-27
But the films endure. They are fevered explorations of the extremities of experience violating the norms of taste, propriety, and æsthetics, yet cleaving in form and meaning to the oldest myths and rituals. This perverse traditionalism was evident in Pasolini's work from the beginning. ACCATTONE (September 10 at 7 pm) is the story of a Roman pimp (Franco Citti) who squeezes his meager livelihood from the weak and innocent. His refusal to work is a half-conscious non serviam to the slavery of society. Instead, he embraces death, becoming a scapegoat sacrificed to the powers that be. This theme — the sacrifice of youth to age, outcast to tyrant, child to parent — recurs in Pasolini's films with the obsessiveness of a nightmare or a rite.

His films draw on the West's most familiar stories. THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW (1964; September 4 at 7 pm) tells the tale of another indigent. Unlike the loser from Accattone, the Christ of this Gospel suffers not in eloquent inarticulateness but in words and deeds that subvert the social order. Although Pasolini remains faithful to the original text, his Christ (played by Enrique Irazoqui, a student from Barcelona) stirs crowds like a revolutionary, and the Marxist subtext couples with a meditative stillness that builds to an epiphany. Everything, including miracles, occurs with blunt literalness but also shimmers with immanence. And so the blunt Crucifixion and the threadbare Resurrection pierce ideology and open into something deeper.

Pasolini further probed this archetypical realm in adapting tragedies and myths that predate Christ in his OEDIPUS REX (1967; September 3 at 9 pm) and MEDEA (1969-'70; September 5 at 7 pm). In Oedipus Rex, the inhabitants of a surreal desert duel with weapons resembling huge bottle openers in costumes that look like lawn furniture to a soundtrack that ranges from Mozart to tribal chants. These trappings veil the tale's theme: the human desire for thoughtlessness countered by the inevitability of knowledge. Franco Citti's King Oedipus is not much different from his Accattone; given to spasms of rage and terror, he stumbles to his fate.

The same is true of Jason in Medea, though in his case, fate is more the fruit of his own ambitions and conscious will. Jason heads off with the Argonauts to Colchis, seeking the Golden Fleece, and finds there a place a bit more primitive than what he's accustomed to. In an elaborate setpiece reeking of James Frazer's The Golden Bough, the high priestess Medea (Maria Callas in her only film role, a non-singing one) sacrifices a male victim to the harvest. For Colchis is the realm of the pagan sensibility that Oedipus has been unwillingly expelled from and that the modern Jason only dimly recognizes. Jason steals the fleece, abetted by Medea, who covers their tracks by butchering her brother and tossing the pieces into the path of the pursuing army. But then Jason abandons Medea and the two sons he has fathered by her. Enraged, she recalls her lost power and exacts a hideous revenge.

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Related: Cursed films, Camera obscura, Burden of dreams, More more >
  Topics: Features , Pier Paolo Pasolini, MEDEA, Harvard Film Archive,  More more >
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