1961 — 116 minutes, black & white, aspect ratio 1.33:1 — Drama
Essential Pasolini. At once realistic and poetic, this astonishing directorial debut is about a young pimp who does anything to survive in the slums of postwar Rome.
Accattone is an extraordinary directorial debut. After Pasolini had been celebrated and pilloried for his politically and sexually frank poetry and novels, he turned to filmmaking to continue his exploration of life among the destitute of Rome. But Accattone is much more than just a late neorealist slice of life. It's a complex, fully-realized and compelling portrait of its title character, who comes to embody the many stark contradictions of his world. The picture is both harrowingly realistic and strangely poetic; the tragic life of a charismatic young pimp filmed in a style which suggests both documentary techniques and even Renaissance religious art.
In the slums of modern Rome lives Cataldi Vittorio, nicknamed Accattone (Franco Citti), a cocky and ingratiating pimp supported by Maddalena (Silvanna Corsini), who sold out her former handler, Ciccio, to be with him. Accattone, who's never worked a day in his life, just hangs out with his cohorts (slackers, swindlers and fellow pimps), bitching and boasting. Despite Maddalena's injured leg, Accattone sends her out to troll the streets. But this time she is led on and brutalized by several of Ciccio's pals, who want revenge. When Maddalena is arrested, Accattone's lifestyle deteriorates rapidly. Hunger drives him to seek out his former wife, Ascenza (Paola Guidi). After her father curses Accattone and her brother beats him away, he finds his young son alone. Hugging him, Accattone apologizes sincerely for having to steal the gold chain from his neck. Accattone then falls in love with the virginal Stella (Franca Pasut). But when he is literally starving, he persuades her to do what her widowed mother had to do to survive after the war. Following Stella's disastrous experience with her first john, Accattone feels remorse and decides that he will provide for her. He gets a job loading scrap iron, but after one day he finds it too low-paying and hard, and quits. Meanwhile Maddalena, still in jail, learns about his new girl and squeals to the cops, who begin tailing Accattone. Finally he turns to the thief Balilla (Mario Cipriani); they and a crony set off to find someone to rob. No sooner do they steal a truckload of salami (!) than the police close in. Accattone jumps on the nearest motorcycle and tears off in the opposite direction, precipitating the film's resolution.
Although Accattone was the first film Pasolini directed, he was no stranger to the industry. He had recently acted in some features and, since 1954, written or worked on fifteen screenplays, most notably Fellini's 1957 masterpiece, Nights of Cabiria, about a hapless streetwalker with a heart of gold. Pasolini has said, "I wrote all the low-life parts." Throughout his life, he alternated between (and in some ways combined) lofty intellectual and artistic pursuits with adventures in the demimonde. In fact, Pasolini loosely based his first picture on his own acclaimed 1959 novel, A Violent Life, while changing the main character of Tommasso, who was bisexual, into the straight and hence easier to pass by the censors Accattone. (Neither the book nor film were released in the U.S. until 1968.) Pasolini dedicated the novel to his longtime friend, Sergio Citti, who also served as a consultant on the film. Sergio introduced Pasolini to his younger brother Franco, who was quickly cast in the title role. (Trivia buffs take note: Sergio plays the small role of a waiter, and yet another Citti brother, Silvio, appears as Accattone's brother Sabino.) Franco Citti was the only actor in the film to establish a long-lasting career, including roles in six more of Pasolini's film (Mamma Roma, the title part in Oedipus Rex, Porcile, The Decameron, Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights). Pasolini came to regret having Citti's voice dubbed in this film, and later even had him re-record other actors' voices.
Accattone not only looks back to Pasolini's poetry and fiction dealing with Roman slum life including his first novel, Ragazzi di Vita (1955), about street kids, which caused him to be indicted for obscenity but ahead to his two dozen other films. You can see Pasolini's cinematic style, and themes, come together with considerable fullness even in this first picture (as we will see below). Accattone also reveals much about Pasolini's take on the rich neorealist tradition, including De Sica (you could see the young men of this film as slightly-older incarnations of the benighted boys from 1946's Shoeshine) and Rossellini (1946's Rome, Open City), as well as such non-Italian works as Buñuel's Los Olvidados (1950) and Bresson's Pickpocket (1959). As a gay artist, Pasolini might have felt a special affinity with Visconti, who inaugurated neorealism with 1942's Ossessione and created one of the movement's last great films with 1960's Rocco and His Brothers. Pasolini's film may not be as polished as those sometimes carefully un-polished and great films, but it is arguably every bit as powerful.
Pasolini made some provocative comments about neorealism (and many other topics) in a series of interviews conducted by Oswald Stack in 1968, later published as Pasolini on Pasolini. He said, "In neorealistic film, day-to-day reality is seen from ... [a] credulous, and above all naturalistic, point of view.... [T]hings are described with a certain detachment, with human warmth, mixed with irony - characteristics which I do not have. Compared with neorealism, I think I have introduced a certain realism, but it would be hard to define it exactly." In the journal Officina which he founded (where did he find the time!), Pasolini made his most provocative remark about neorealism, criticizing it for "not having sufficient intellectual strength to transcend the culture which preceded it." On one level, of many, he uses Accattone to confront that perceived failing.
Shrewdly, Pasolini focuses his film on the beguiling, and complex, character of Accattone. It is through this unforgettable pimp that he both explores the contradictions of the slum world which so fascinated him (he saw resilience and beauty as well as squalor) and is able to bring together his vast cultural learning (he was as prodigiously well-versed in the visual arts and film as in music, history, philosophy, and literature) to create an already-distinctive cinematic voice. I'm not saying that this is a "perfect" film, or even one of his masterpieces (which for me are The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Arabian Nights, and the most horrific work of art I know, Salò), but it is an extraordinary achievement.
Accattone's very name embodies his contradictory nature. (Although some sources show Accattone's name with only one "t," the title on the film has it with two.) His birth name is Vittorio ('victory'), but as he tells Stella, during their budding romance, "there are thousands of Vittorio's" so he prefers being called Accattone, which literally means 'beggar' or 'scrounger.' Ironic, yes; but also poignant, that he is so downtrodden that he takes pride in a nickname proclaiming his desperation. For comparison, recall how the young African-American men, alternately victims and victimizers, in the Hughes brother's astonishing 1993 film, Menace II Society, refer to themselves with the same racial slur used on them by bigots.
From the first moments of the film, we like Accattone, despite ourselves. Naturally handsome, Citti brings out the character's insouciance, passion, and appeal. Then he proceeds to reveal his dark, volatile side, not to mention the exploitative way he "earns" his living at the expense of the women who are drawn to him. Pasolini reveals Accattone's many, sometimes contradictory, faces throughout the course of the film, from a cocky young buck to a guy who gets a kick out of drag (at least for a little while) to a man who smears his face with mud in self-loathing to, well, all of his many other faces.
Pasolini begins exploring Accattone's, and by extension his milieu's, contradictions from the very first scene. These young men know will live poor, nasty, brutish and short lives (as Thomas Hobbes once put it), but Pasolini begins by playing this for laughs a strategy which would tickle them. A guy tells Accattone and their cronies that if you eat and then swim right away, you'll die. Accattone scoffs, and a dare is made. Bare-chested, showing off his muscles and gold chains, Accattone wolfs down a plate of potatoes, then climbs a bridge, crosses himself saying "Okay, let's satisfy the masses" a big crowd is watching and dives into the river. [See the frame at the top of this page.] The crowd goes wild, and Accattone is vindicated, not to mention a rung higher on the social ladder. Beyond the often funny, not to mention portentous, jokes about death (Accattone says that at his funeral he wants "everybody laughing; and if anybody cries, he pays for the drinks"), the scene also sets up the increasingly important theme of eating (more to the point, hunger). And it offhandedly reveals another of Accattone's (some would say few) good points: Rather than just receiving accepted opinion, even on so trivial a topic as 'potatoes and diving,' he wants to prove it for himself.
The scene also shows us what Accattone's peers are like. These guys provide real, albeit low-key, emotional support for each other (although they'd smack you if you phrased it that way), when they're not tearing each other down. If backbiting were an Olympic event, they'd all take home the gold. Near the end of the film, when Accattone is at last forced to get a job (even if he only lasts one day), his cohorts mercilessly taunt him with "Hey victim! Hey pathetic case!," until he throws his shoe at them (!), then tears into the whole gang. (Pasolini shows us the real-life counterparts of these men, arguably from a more objective point of view, in Love Meetings, his 1964 documentary about Italians' sexual attitudes.)
Pasolini often finds the same-sex undercurrents which another director might miss. With the men in this film, especially Accattone himself, he shows the frequent and diverse ways they find to touch each other, whether in congratulations, horseplay, drunkenness or even rage. One of the film's strangest scenes is the fight between Acccattone and his brother-in-law, who wants him to get the hell away from his sister whom he got pregnant and dumped. The two men lock bodies, rolling all over the ground. But it looks more like they are clutching each other in embrace than fighting to the death. Pasolini has a sometimes wicked sense of humor, so in this film which so often looks at men and maleness, note that the "big caper" at the end involves stealing a truckload of salamis.
Pasolini also shows us the narrow, but distinct, range of what life holds for women in the slums. In fact, with the exception of Accattone, all of the film's most fully-realized and vivid characters are female. As mentioned in the summary above, there is Maddalena, who expresses a powerful emotional range in her brief scenes throughout the film from her blind devotion to Accattone at the beginning to her wrath at the end, when from jail she sets the cops on him as she had done when she left her previous pimp for him). Accattone's ex-wife Ascenza (whose voice was dubbed by Monica Vitti, who a year earlier had starred in Antonioni's landmark film, L'Avventura), the distraught young mother Nannina (Adele Cambria) who can barely handle the many young children she's already had (but who still finds room for Accattone and his new girlfriend to stay in her one-room flat), the cynical and hilarious streetwalker Amore, and Stella.
Franca Pasut gives an excellent performance in this pivotal role. Although Stella could have come off as another sugar-coated, stupidly-naive innocent, the combination of Pasolini's writing and direction with her performance brings the character to life. It's worth noting that although the men in this world hang together, the women are much more isolated and even competitive, at least when it comes to claiming or holding onto their guy.
Children run throughout the film both literally (in a barefoot sense) and figuratively. Although they often come across as metaphorical their buoyancy contrasting with the harsh reality which waits to break them they are nonetheless effective. One of the most heartbreaking, and heartfelt, scenes finds Accattone with Iaio, the young son he had abandoned along with his estranged wife. The little kid has nothing to play at except throwing stones at a bottle in a garbage-strewn lot. Accattone bends down and embraces his boy, but then, almost crying, he whispers "The things I have to do" as he takes his little gold chain to pay for food (Accattone is actually starving at this point). As if the scene were not poignant enough, Pasolini layers it with the haunting strains of Johann Sebastian Bach, who provides the film's only source of music.
Throughout, Pasolini's use of music and sound is very effective, and revealing. Bach's music (usually orchestral, sometimes choral) provides an inspired, unexpected, and at times overwhelming counterpoint to the drama. And Pasolini never uses it for ironic effect. Rather, the music's formal yet emotional, and even spiritual, power offers a vision albeit an aural one which Accattone and his friends can never express, yet which you suspect they feel. (By contrast, in The Gospel According to Saint Matthew Pasolini's disjointed compilation score Bach, Mozart, Prokofiev, and various folk music is the one element which does not work for me.)
At the other extreme, Pasolini also uses silence to devastasting effect, especially near the end in Accattone's dream. That is one of the few extended dream sequences I have seen along with say the opening of Bergman's Wild Strawberries or Pasolini's wasteland scenes in Porcile which perfectly captures the disassociated yet concrete feel of the unconscious. Pasolini also implies a sly political commentary, as naked children run around the well-dressed priests who lead the way to the churchyard. There is also a moment of genuine pathos, when Accattone tells a lone worker to dig his grave in the sunlight. The beautiful, lush valley in the distance is the only vision we have of a world truly outside the engulfing slums but Accattone will only be able to enjoy those beauties, even in his dream, after he is buried.
The destitute Roman locations where Pasolini filmed provide a naturalistic, and evocative, backdrop to the action, even as it tacitly reveals much about the people's despairing lives. (Some people have noted that, historically, the worst of Rome's slums were about to be cleared away; one wonders whether Pasolini's books and films might have influenced such social progress.) Beyond simply photographing the locale, Pasolini draws on his poet's eye for image and his vast knowledge of art history to create in a conscious but unobtrusive way austere compositions which at times recall early Renaissance religious painting and sculpture. Pasolini has mentioned such influences as "Masaccio, perhaps deep down Giotto and Romanesque sculpture as well.... [Accattone] was religious in the style rather than the content... I was telling the story in the first person...."
Pasolini informs some of his images with sacred art in a manner analogous to how he uses Bach on the soundtrack. It gives a more layered, even somewhat mythic, perspective on Accattone, in addition to being beautiful in its own right. [Note again the image at the top of this review.] On yet another level, the relatively simple, even flat-appearing, design meshes psychologically with Accattone's vision of his world and himself. Photographed in a gritty, yet sometimes lyrical, style in black and white (of course), all of these elements come together in visually simple yet emotionally resonant ways.
On a less aesthetically exalted level, with such a severely limited budget Pasolini's filmmaking is occasionally a bit more gritty than intended. You can see the shadow of a microphone boom in a couple of tracking shots, such as the one in which the camera truck dollies just ahead of Accattone and his ex-wife carrying a baby. It should also be noted that Pasolini makes judicious but effective use of camera movement. In an expository early scene, while we are still getting to know Accattone, he is near a water fountain. The camera arcs around him and the fountain, and as he walks away the camera pulls away at a right angle. The effect is straightforward but dynamic. And although I don't want to press the following (perhaps overly-imaginative) interpretation, on one level perhaps there is a connection between Accattone's nature and what the camera is doing; at first it moves around something, then jerks away in a quick, disorienting manner.
Even the few major scenes in which Accattone does not appear bear his distinctive way of seeing the world. One of the film's most perfectly-realized, and harrowing, scenes which is even more astonishing considering Pasolini's novice status behind the camera - is the brutalization of Maddalena. The cronies of her ex-pimp/boyfriend remember she betrayed him to the cops to be with Accattone use sweet talk, and the promise of her fee, to get the limping Maddalena into their car. But when they drive her to a dark, deserted spot, we know things are about to go from bad to much, much worse. After one of the guys has his way with her, behind a looming boulder, they dump her, slapping her, knocking her down overwhelming heartbreaking Bach on the soundtrack expressing the complex pathos of the moment. Even after all that, Maddalena begs for them to stay; she hangs onto the car as it pulls out, and is dragged along, screaming for them not to leave her alone. Utterly raw, stunning beyond words. (For all of the artistry of Pasolini's technique and vision, just writing about the scene is painful.)
The one element of the film which falls a bit short for me comes near the end, when Pasolini incorporates a series of quick extreme close-ups of someone's eyes. Not only is this visually jarring - without adding anything to the substance - but he never makes it clear whose eyes they are. Is it one of the cops tailing Accattone? One of his friends? Or even a more metaphysical force, like Fate? God? Also, this film is from Accattone's point of view (whether he is onscreen or not), so why is some other man's eyes getting so much prominence? (Pasolini uses a similar series of extreme close-ups in The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, but there it is effective because we know the the perspective belongs to one of the apostles, and his subjective vision meshes with that of the film's vision.)
Let's return to Pasolini's provocative insight that neorealism never transcended the culture which it depicted. Does Pasolini correct that limitation in Accattone? Although others will certainly disagree, I feel that he does. This film is remarkable, in part, because while he does not judge Accattone (which is not the same as condoning his base actions), he does judge the world which created him, and hence gives us a broad perspective in which to view the benighted pimp.
Pasolini, using both narrative and visual devices, probes deeply into the assumptions and traps of the Roman slums, and even, by implication, the broader socioeconomic forces which created them. Mercifully, the film is not some polemical tirade; it suggests rather than shouts. It makes its points not because it scorns Accattone (although some people will certainly want to) but because it lets us understand him. And because we understand, and see so many of his different and sometimes contradictory faces, we care about him, for all of his faults. And perhaps Pasolini inspired (or still inspires) some people to work for social progress, although no one would ever confuse his writings and films with public service announcements.
Pasolini even digs into some of the institutions which are so ingrained in Accattone's world, including the church. We see that it both nourishes the people, both through religion and sometimes literally with food. But he also shows how it traps them by encouraging huge families which they can never really support (Pasolini, always a staunch critic of unthinking faith, satirizes this lifestyle in The Hawks and the Sparrows,where the main character, poor as a bedbug, has eighteen children). Pasolini also shines a light on the police, who certainly perform an indispensable job. But sometimes they seem to enjoy the violent aspects of it as much as Accattone and his cronies. Again, Pasolini never hammers home his insights. Rather he presents them, with much of their complexity intact, and lets us decide what we will.
It is also remarkable that one of Italy's most accomplished postwar literary artists as poet, novelist, and theoretician could create a film which is so intrinsically, and creatively, cinematic. Perhaps no other member of that rare breed, the novelist-turned-filmmaker, has ever so decisively shown such mastery in a first film at using image and sound, instead of just words, to tell a story, convey such complexity of character, and explore themes with such sometimes shocking depth.
Accattone focuses relentlessly on a specific time and place, yet the deeper humanity of its vision is universal. There have always been Accattone's, in all the slums of the world; and, unfortunately, that won't change until the larger society does. Despite the world of pain this film reveals, it is ultimately a work of visual and dramatic beauty. It reminds us that sometimes we can find affirmation in the sheer expressive gift of art, whether or not we agree with the artist's view of life.
Pasolini is here just at the beginning of his career as one of the last century's most astonishing filmmakers. And of course, that was only one of the many forms he used to express his complex, revelatory, and sometimes unnerving, genius.
Water Bearer Films has released a DVD with good image and sound from the best available elements. The DVD case states, "Prints made available through the co-operation of the Pier Paolo Pasolini Foundation, Rome."
Why No Chapter Stops? I checked with Water Bearer about why there are are no chapters, i.e., the entire film is presented in one continuous track. This was a condition made by the Pasolini Foundation, which controls the rights to the film, to encourage viewers to watch it only in its entirety. (The only other filmmaker who insists on his DVDs being released without chapters is David Lynch.) Chapter stops or not, we owe a considerable debt of gratitude to Water Bearer (which specializes in gay & lesbian, international, and silent cinema, as well as filmed plays and musicals) for releasing the DVD of this important part of Pasolini's cinematic legacy.
- Presented in the original theatrical release aspect ratio of 1.33:1
- Original mono soundtrack
- 30-minute documentary on the filmmaker's life and works: "Pier Paolo Pasolini: A Film Maker's Life" directed by Carlo Hayman-Chaffey
- $29.95 suggested retail
Reviewed June 29, 2003
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