Pier Paolo Pasolini
Pier Paolo Pasolini – born March 5, 1922
Poet, Novelist, Political Theorist, Literary Critic, Playwright, Screenwriter, Cinematographer, Actor, Editor, Composer, Producer, Filmmaker
Pasolini’s work, in every medium, is fascinating, often beautiful in unexpected ways, provocative, sometimes deeply disturbing… and cathartic.
Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922–1975) has the dubious distinction of being the only great filmmaker who was murdered, possibly at the behest of a right-wing faction which loathed the openly gay, Marxist, atheist and Catholic (!) – popular – artist. Whatever the facts of his death (conspiracy theories still abound), his reputation is based securely on his extraordinary legacy as an author and filmmaker. He was one of the most prodigiously gifted artists of the twentieth century: poet, novelist, literary and political theorist, screenwriter, actor, cinematographer, editor, composer, producer, and director of over two dozen pictures including twelve extraordinary feature films.
This evolving Website focuses on Pasolini’s films through DVD releases, and includes an introduction to his life and works directly below. The sidebar to the right lists his complete filmography, with links to my reviews of all of his films available on DVD. New to Pasolini? Try beginning with Mamma Roma, one of his most emotionally rich and acclaimed pictures, that reflects both his neorealist (Accattone) and visionary (Oedipus Rex) styles.
The Criterion Collection has released on both DVD and Blu-ray a new two-disc edition of Pasolini’s most disturbing, and controversial, masterpiece, Salò. Besides an exceptional transfer of the film, featuring both the original Italian and optional English dubbed soundtracks, it contains perhaps the best Pasolini documentaries of any release.
I’ve also created sites dedicated to two other prodigious filmmakers/artists, both of whom were influenced by Pasolini: Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Derek Jarman. I hope you enjoy this Pasolini site. Below you will find:
- Introduction to Pasolini — Poet, Novelist, and Theorist | Filmmaker
- Pasolini’s Films
- Pasolini on Video
- Brief Guide to Film and Filmmaking
- LGBTQ+ Cinema
Introduction to Pasolini
Poet, Novelist, and Theorist
Pasolini considered himself primarily a poet, despite his acclaimed, albeit controversial, work as a novelist, a literary and political theorist and, of course, a filmmaker. His poetic vision informs his entire body of work, not to mention his private life. Sometimes with joy, sometimes with despair, but always with passion and insight, Pasolini focuses on people forced to live on the fringes of society, outside the bounds of law, and often in violent conflict with the majority. He also frequently turned to landmarks of world literature for inspiration. His range is enormous, from long-vanished cultures – mythic Greece (Oedipus Rex, Medea) to the Middle East (Arabian Nights) to Jesus’s Judea (The Gospel According to Saint Matthew) to Boccaccio’s Italy (Decameron) and Chaucer’s England (Canterbury Tales) – to the Italy of his own day (Accattone, Mamma Roma, Love Meetings, Teorema). At his best, Pasolini has a genius for combining naturalistic performances, probing social and psychological insight, and luminous cinematography into films with enormous richness of both emotion and ideas.
He was born in Bologna in 1922, and grew up near his devoted mother’s rural birthplace of Friuli in north-eastern Italy. His antagonism towards his father, a gung-ho Fascist officer, combined with his discovery of Rimbaud, showed Pasolini that poetry could be used to fight authoritarianism. Also during his youth, Pasolini abandoned all ties with organized religion (although he always respected his mother’s heartfelt piety, and some see his Gospel According to Saint Matthew as a tribute to her).
In 1942 his first volume of verse, Poesie a Casarsa, written in the native Friulian dialect, was published to considerable acclaim, while he was still a student at the University of Bologna. Conscripted into the army, the Germans took him prisoner after the Italians surrendered to the Allied forces. In an episode worthy of Hollywood, Pasolini managed to escape, after which he hid out with his family. In many of his films, Pasolini explores themes of being on the run and hiding.
In 1945 he joined – and rose through the ranks of – a cell of the Communist party (although in the war they had shot his beloved brother Guido), while still working as a teacher in a local school. Four years later, after being caught in a tryst with three young men, Pasolini was thrown out of the school, not to mention the Communist party, for “corruption of minors.”
In 1949 he moved to Rome, where he wrote both poems and the first two parts of a contemplated (but never completed) trilogy of painfully realistic books about the city’s teeming slum life. Those novels, The Ragazzi (1955) and A Violent Life (1959), written in a style combining both Roman and rural dialects, showed that Pasolini had arrived as a major new literary voice. Of course, never too far removed from controversy, he was indicted on charges of “obscenity” for The Ragazzi. He continued writing fiction throughout his life, including Teorema (1968, aka Theorem), which he debuted simultaneously as both a novel and film, and at his death left the unfinished epic novel, Petrolio.
He also continued to write poetry throughout his life. Perhaps the most acclaimed of his nine collections is The Ashes of Gramsci (1957), inspired by the theories and life of Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), who co-founded Italy’s Communist Party, and who died after spending ten years imprisoned by the Fascist. In these poems, as in many of his purely theoretical writings and even his films, Pasolini grapples with his simultaneous attraction towards and revulsion against Communism’s world view.
This probing of received ideas, even those of fundamental importance to him, defines Pasolini’s art and life. His Marxism outraged the Catholics; the Communists distrusted his fascination with Christianity; and most groups were aghast at his being openly gay, not to mention both socially subversive and wildly talented. Pasolini thrived on all of these swirling controversies.
Perhaps as a respite from his intellectual adventures, in the 1950s Pasolini turned more and more frequently to the film industry. He began as an actor, and then became fascinated with screenwriting. His most famous assignment came in 1957, when he served as a consultant, specializing in Rome’s demimonde, to Federico Fellini on his classic, Nights of Cabiria.
Before examining Pasolini’s own films, here’s a brief look at their context. Pasolini turned to filmmaking at a time when Italian cinema was thriving, both artistically and commercially. That had not always been the case. Italy’s film industry began at one of its zeniths, with epic productions, such as Giovanni Pastrone’s spectacular period piece Cabiria (1914), exerting a strong influence on international cinema (D.W. Griffith acknowledged its impact on his 1916 masterpiece Intolerance). Italian cinema remained vital until Mussolini co-opted it in 1935, for the production of propaganda. After the war, it rebounded strikingly with Neorealism, a highly influential style – which grew out of economic necessity – characterized by its rough technique, use of non-professional actors, and political emphasis. The movement began with Luchino Visconti’s romantic thriller Ossessione (1942), and continued with such powerful works as Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1949).
In the 1950s, Italy’s star system – including such luminaries as Claudia Cardinale, Gina Lollobrigida, and Sophia Loren – became wedded to lavish international coproductions, which occasionally yielded a masterpiece like Visconti’s The Leopard (1963). The 1960s saw the global popularity of modestly-budgeted films about monsters, such as Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (1961); muscle men, including the many incarnations of Hercules and his mythic peers; and “spaghetti Westerns,” beginning with Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964). This era also lionized such auteurs as Michelangelo Antonioni, whose pivotal L’Avventura opened in 1960, and Federico Fellini, whose La Dolce Vita (1960) presented an exuberant, satirical counterweight to Antonioni’s ascetic but mesmerizing vision.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Pasolini was perhaps the most compelling and influential of Italy’s younger filmmakers, who were both politically more trenchant, and stylistically and psychologically more complex, than their predecessors. He excoriated what he saw as the crushing dominance of the church and of the patriarchal family, sometimes using ambiguity (Teorema), sometimes laughter (The Decameron), and sometimes unremitting horror (Salò).
Pasolini’s films grew directly out of his poetry and fiction. His debut films as director were Accattone (1961), freely adapted from his own first novel, and Mamma Roma (1962). Both pictures explore, with brutal honesty, life in modern Rome.
His next feature, a naturalistic and pictorially exquisite version of The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964), managed to please both his Communist critics, who rejoiced in its portrayal of “the proletariat,” and his Catholic antagonists, who were moved by its heartfelt depiction of Jesus (and who were happy that Pasolini lost the battle with his distributor, who demanded that “St.” be included in the title). It was a major international success, both critical and popular, and firmly established Pasolini – already acclaimed as a poet, author, and theoretician – as one of the most important filmmakers of his generation.
After his documentary Love Meetings (1964), about sexual mores in contemporary Italy, and the satirical fable Hawks and Sparrows (1966), he made strikingly revisionist adaptations of two Greek tragedies, Oedipus Rex (1967) and Medea (1969; loosely based on Euripides, and starring opera diva Maria Callas in her only film role, albeit a non-singing one). In between those two mythic works, he created the sexual/political/spiritual allegory Teorema (1968, aka Theorem; simultaneously with making he film he wrote a novel based on the same material), in which an angelically handsome Terence Stamp seduces everyone in a bourgeois household, both female and male. Pasolini then made the blackest of black comedies, Porcile (1969, aka Pigsty or Pigpen).
Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life features ribald but luminous, and sometimes unsettling, adaptations of three classic medieval story collections from, respectively, Italy, England, and the Middle East: Boccaccio’s Decameron (1970), Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1971), and the Arabian Nights (1974). For some viewers, this Trilogy represents Pasolini’s crowning achievement.
His last film, the most nauseating work of art I have ever seen, is Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975), a caustic updating of the Marquis de Sade’s 1780s novel to the final days of Mussolini’s depraved inner circle. On November 2, 1975, shortly after the film was completed, Pasolini was found murdered on a soccer field in Ostia, near Rome – an abrupt and tragic end to the life of an extraordinary artist whose work continues to grow in its influence and to its insights into fascism even in the 2020s.
NOTE: The 12 feature films are preceded with an asterisk* and sequential number; the other pictures are shorts (“titles in quotation marks”) or long-form documentaries.
- *1. Accattone (1961) – also writer
- *2. Mamma Roma (1962) – also writer
- ““La Ricotta” segment of RoGoPaG (1962) – also writer
- “Part I” segment of La Rabbia [Rage] [documentary] (1963) – also writer, editor
- *3. The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964) – also writer
- Scouting Locations in Palestine for “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew” [aka Sopraluoghi in Palestina per il vangelo secondo Matteo] [documentary] (1964)
- “The Walls of Sana” [short] (1964) – also performer, commentary
- Love Meetings [Comizi d’amore] [documentary] (1964) – also performer, commentary
- “Il Padre selvaggio” [short] (1965)
- *4. The Hawks and the Sparrows [Uccellacci e uccellini] (1966) – also writer
- “The Earth Seen from the Moon” segment of The Witches (1966) – also writer
- *5. Oedipus Rex (1967) – also writer, performer, score composer
- *6. Teorema [Theorem] (1968) – also writer, from his novel
- “Che cosa sono le nuvole?” segment of Caprice Italian Style (1968)
- “The Sequence of the Paper Flower” segment of Love and Anger (1969) – also writer
- *7. Porcile [Pigsty] (1969) – also writer
- *8. Medea (1969) – also writer, musical director
- “Notes Towards a Film About India” [documentary short] (1969) – also writer, performer
- Notes Towards an African Orestes [documentary] (1970) – also writer, cinematographer, performer
- *9. The Decameron (1970) – also writer, performer, score composer
- Appunti per un romanzo dell’immondeza [documentary] (1970)
- *10. The Canterbury Tales (1971) – also writer, performer, score composer
- Dodici dicembre 1972 (1972) (uncredited)
- *11. Arabian Nights (1974) – also writer
- *12. Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975) – also writer
Pasolini on Video
Below are links to my Pasolini reviews. I look at each film and its place in Pasolini’s body of work, as well as the disc’s special features. Although all of Pasolini’s films (features, documentaries, and shorts) are of great interest, I have highlighted a few of his best – and most representative – titles as Essential Pasolini.
Accattone (1961) – Pasolini’s 1st feature film
- 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.
Mamma Roma (1962) – Pasolini’s 2nd feature
- Powerful, beautifully-filmed tale of a middle-aged prostitute (stunningly portrayed by Anna Magnani) trying to put her sordid past behind her and make a good life for her teenage son.
The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964) – Pasolini’s 3rd feature
- Essential Pasolini. The life of Jesus Christ told with beauty, complexity, and power (performed by a non-professional cast, and using only the words of the Bible); a masterpiece of cinema.
Love Meetings (aka Comizi d’amore) (1964) – feature-length documentary
- Pasolini interviews a broad cross-section of Italians about their sexual attitudes, and in the process reveals much about himself.
The Hawks and the Sparrows (1966) – Pasolini’s 4th feature
- Satirical fable about the wanderings of an elderly man (played by the legendary comedian Totò), his ditzy son, and a philosophizing left-wing (pun intended) crow.
Oedipus Rex (aka Edipo Re) (1967) – Pasolini’s 5th feature
- Essential Pasolini. Dramatically and visually stunning adaptation of the Greek myth, with an intriguing prologue and epilogue set in modern times.
Teorema (aka Theorem) (1968) – Pasolini’s 6th feature
- Essential Pasolini. A beautiful, enigmatic youth – who may be God, the Devil, or just a man – seduces every member, female and male, of a well-to-do Milanese family, allowing each one to come to a new understanding of their life… amid the emotional fireworks.
Porcile (aka Pigsty or Pigpen) (1969) – Pasolini’s 7th feature
- Alternately haunting and satirical, this tale of sacrifice in two radically different worlds is one of Pasolini’s most original, and deeply strange, films.
Medea (1969) – Pasolini’s 8th feature
- Dramatically and visually stunning film about the mythic characters Medea and Jason; arguably Pasolini’s most underrated film.
The Decameron(1970) – Pasolini’s 9th feature
- Exuberant, bawdy adaptations of Boccaccio’s stories.
The Canterbury Tales (1971) – Pasolini’s 10th feature
- Colorful adaptation of episodes from Chaucer’s narrative poem.
The Arabian Nights (1974) – Pasolini’s 11th feature
- Essential Pasolini. Lavish versions of tales from the 1,001 Nights.
Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975) – Pasolini’s 12th feature
- Essential Pasolini but with a WARNING. Pasolini’s dramatic and stylistic masterpiece, it viscerally explores the darkest connections between politics, sexuality, and power. WARNING: This remains the most emotionally overwhelming film I have ever seen, as it exposes the dehumanizing horrors of fascism.
- Pasolini (Wikipedia) – background
- Pasolini (IMDb) – film credits
- Pier Paolo Pasolini – Research Center and Archive – Cineteca of Bologna (Pasolini’s birthplace) documents his work as poet, novelist, filmmaker, playwright, political theorist, and more
- LGBTQ+ Cinema
PLEASE NOTE that all images are solely for educational, non-profit use.
Begun 1997 / Updated March 5, 2022 (the 100th anniversary of Pasolini’s birth)