Pier Paolo Pasolini: Archaic Values in a Modern Landscape Courtney Griffin Film Analysis
May 9, 2011
Pier Paolo Pasolini: Archaic Values in a Modern Landscape
Pier Paolo Pasolini utilizes the medium of film as a platform to initiate social awareness and engender social transformation. His documentary, Comizi d’Amore, 1963-4, and his feature film, Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo, 1964, combine modern and contemporaneous social questions and concerns within the framework of archaic values and Italian traditions. Within these films, Pasolini’s reputation as a nonconformist is evident in his insistence on instigating debate regarding existing social norms and values while also deconstructing individual social barriers. Both Comizi d’Amore and Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo reflect Pasolini’s obligation to representing the voice of the under classes by depicting people in their natural habitats, thereby generating discussion regarding preconceived assumptions based on sex and class and disrupting the extant notion of cultural hegemony.
Comizi d’Amore and Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo are modern films in terms of the social questions they raise and the issues they discuss. In their construction, however, Pasolini continues to rely on and honor certain tenets of neorealism that he has deemed valuable even after the fall of fascism and the end of the world wars. Pasolini’s dedication to traveling and scouting out the perfect locations for his films in order to create the most genuine representation of his subjects immediately sets him apart from his contemporaries. While directors such as Federico Fellini were content to shoot in the studio, Pasolini reassumed the neorealist practice of shooting outdoors, using natural lighting, and working with non-professional actors.
Finding the perfect outdoor location was so important to Pasolini that he decided the locations in the Middle East, which were the real settings for the biblical events upon which he based Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo, were not truly analogous to the story he was telling and therefore decided to set the film in the countryside of southern Italy. In his Italian Locations: Reinhabiting the Past in Postwar Cinema, Noa Steimatsky explains, “Film and traveling were to become closely linked in the following years, when the search for locations itself became a key creative moment in his work, while film production served as a pretext for further exploration of remote places and foreign cultures” (118-9). While scouting locations for Il Vangelo, Pasolini produced Comizi d’Amore, which explores the concept of Italy as a country that contains “remote places and foreign cultures” within itself. The urban and rural landscapes for Pasolini’s documentary film become so central to the characters’ stories that they begin to function as individual entities themselves. Whether it is in the Roman borgata or the compagna in the South, these locations embody the essence of the people who inhabit them.
Pasolini’s decision to shoot Il Vangelo in Southern Italy as opposed to in Israel, which in the 1960s had undergone a modern transformation and by that point would have been anachronistic to the telling of Jesus’ life, reflects his dedication to the humility and innocence retained by rural peasant in present day as well as in biblical times. According to Steimatsky, “In both historical and art-historical terms Pasolini seeks, then, a location that—by virtue of having escaped, somehow, bourgeois-capitalist culture and the desacralizing rationality of the Enlightenment—in its cinematic rendering, can propel modernity to a more advanced consciousness” (133). The subproletariat, unlike the petit-bourgeois, was able to maintain an identity that was distinct from the ruling classes and outside of the process of cultural hegemony. It is this authenticity, as well as the ability to maintain nonconformist ideals, that allows Pasolini to elevate the poor as a subculture worthy of study. The ultimate historical instance of this is the story of the Holy Family, in which God chooses a poor, hardworking family from the lower classes as being worthy of bearing His child.
In this clip from Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo, the pregnant Mary is seen reflecting on her duty to carry out God’s will. The panning shot of the modest homes that are stacked against the hillside stresses the humility with which Mary takes on such a grand responsibility. This clip is characteristic of Pasolini’s desire to portray high and low culture by contrasting the impoverished landscape with the sacred and divine power of God. The poor and humble image of the Holy Family presented in contrast to the image of wealthy politicians and Pontius Pilate, is analogous to the experience of many families in 1960s Italy who were living along the margins of society. Steimatsky explains that for Pasolini:
It is not reconstructed history that interests him but rather the persistence of archaic forms within the contemporary world: these forms he locates on the margins of Italy of the early 1960s, in a chronically disinherited world denied active participation in hegemonic culture. He further suggests that this overlapping of historical moments is also a way for the present to experience, to think, history (133).
Pasolini focuses on the humility and innocence of the sub-proletariat in representing the contemporary and archaic because he believes them to be the only members of society that maintain a sense of autonomy separate from the ruling classes. It is only through their poverty and marginalization that they are able to enjoy this freedom from the imposition of bourgeois values.
The aspirations of the lower classes, or the petit-bourgeois, to adopt middle class and bourgeois values in the 1950s and 60s can be attributed to what Antonio Gramsci has termed “cultural hegemony.” In his Quaderni del carcere, Gramsci explains, “Every social group…creates together…one or more strata of intellectuals which give it homogeneity and an awareness of its own function not only in the economic but also in the social and political fields” (1002). The forces of unification and nationalization that occurred in Italy under the reign of Mussolini and fascism resulted in an effort by the ruling classes to impart their values onto all levels of society. Campaigns to establish a national identity, including the effort for everyone to speak the same northern Italian and for education to become more standardized, caused members of the lower classes to aspire to upper class ideals. The South of Italy was the main target of such campaigns, as it was traditionally agrarian and lagged behind in industrial development. The accepted school of thought regarding the South was that it was backwards and lazy. According to Pasquale Verdicchio’s introduction to Gramsci’s “The Southern Question:”
It is well known what kind of ideology has been disseminated in innumerable ways by the propagandists of the bourgeoisie among the masses of the North: the South is the ball and chain that prevents a more rapid progress in the civil development of Italy; Southerners are biologically inferior beings, either semi-barbarians or out and out barbarians by natural destiny; if the South is underdeveloped it is not the fault of the capitalist system, or any other historical cause, but of the nature that has made Southerners lazy, incapable, criminal, and barbaric (32-3).
In an attempt to find work and neutralize the discrepancy between North and South, many Southern workers migrated to industrialized cities in search of economic opportunity. Instead of this helping to bridge the gap between social classes, it only further alienated Southerners who were trying to realize and adopt a set of values that it never would have been realistic for them to achieve.
In Comizi d’Amore, Pasolini employs the use of the Bologna University soccer team to assert Gramsci’s idea that no group can achieve total dominance over another without a combination of coercion and consent from the group being dominated.
This image, which depicts the team wearing the same uniform and responding similarly to Pasolini’s inquiry on women, is evidence of the prevalence of bourgeois values that permeates society and the ignorance with which the “average man” adheres to them. Gramsci notes, “One of the most important characteristics of any group that is developing towards dominance is its struggle to assimilate and to conquer “ideologically” the traditional intellectuals, but this assimilation and conquest is made quicker and more efficacious the more the group in question succeeds in simultaneously elaborating its own organic intellectuals” (1005). Gramsci explains that this type of assimilation between social classes can only occur at a specific moment in time, or at the appropriate “historic bloc,” when a variety of political and social forces align. For Pasolini, this type of coercion is present in the power of an individual or group’s desire to conform to the mainstream. In an interview with Oswald Stack, Pasolini defines conformism as “the decadence of integration into society. The average man is proud of being what he is and wants everybody else to be the same. He is reductive; he doesn’t believe in passion and sincerity, he doesn’t believe in people revealing themselves and confessing because the average man is not supposed to do these things” (62). This type of repression—physical, sexual, and emotional—is what what leads to a lack of moral consciousness and a loss of individual identity.
Disillusioned with the national focus on progress and development and the neglect for human interaction that occurred after the postwar boom in Italy’s economy, Pasolini sought to reestablish the “real” not just in cinema, but also in reality. He believed that it was futile for the under classes to aspire to the goals of the bourgeoisie and lauded them for their innocence and vulgarity. He was particularly fascinated by the authenticity of dialects and the “Third World” nature of the Southern regions. Steimatsky observes, “It is here…that one may locate an authentic revolutionary potential that is not contradicted by the enduring power of the Christian myth in the rural subproletariat” (134). Both Il Vangelo and Comizi d’Amore highlight Pasolini’s frustration with the classes who are complicit in carrying out the values of the bourgeoisie yet are unaware that they are active participants in the process of cultural hegemony.
Throughout Comizi d’Amore, Pasolini explores the issue of conforming to the mainstream methods of finding work versus choosing to subvert the norm by making a living outside of the acceptable boundaries of society. In the following sequence from the film, Pasolini interviews several young women, inquiring about their decision to work in a factory outside of Milan for little pay, while they could just as easily work as prostitutes making much more money and enjoying more freedom.
The sequence is composed so that the frames position the women directly in front of their workplace, which is central to the discourse generated by the interview. Although they are questioned individually, all of the women are standing next to one another so that they feel an obligation to defend the morals of chastity and honesty that are associated with their Catholic upbringings and have influenced their decision to choose the “honest” path. Significantly, there is a group of men and another group of older women who are milling about in the background, looking on in an interested manner, eager to hear the girls’ opinions on the subject of prostitution. There are several cuts to street scenes where the girls are seen leaving work. The background noise and the lack of focus on the subject who is speaking recall earlier neorealist sequences of chaotic crowd scenes that were illustrative of a period of confusion and uncertainty.
Despite differences in the phrasing of their answers, the general opinion that emerges from this clip is that these women have chosen to work in a factory rather than become prostitutes because it is the right thing to do, because they come from good families, and because they would prefer to make an honest living than a dishonest one. Pasolini’s line of questioning elicits the idea that these women have not consciously made this decision for themselves, but rather as a result of the values imposed on them by bourgeois Catholicism. One woman explains that she doesn’t think it is right to earn money working as a prostitute because she sees “it as something outside normality.”
The attitude that prostitution, as well as any other sexual behavior that is considered to be “other,” such as homosexuality or divorce, is outside of what is considered normal in Italian society is what Pasolini seeks to highlight throughout his documentary. While the subjects of his questioning on the subject of sex range from these young Milanese factory workers and the Bologna soccer team to small children and elderly farmers, their judgments on the morals of the marginalized groups of society that comprise the sub-proletariat are remarkably similar. Pasolini points out the irony of bourgeois ideas about prostitution when he questions another group of young men who are quick to agree that a woman should be a respectable virgin before marriage, but who also frequent the prostitution houses.
Angelo Restivo takes up this issue of the double standard in expectations versus actions in The Cinema of Economic Miracles, as he explains that the film “shows us the tension between a nationalizing, hegemonizing discourse and the practice of everyday life” (77). When Pasolini finally asks the Milanese factory workers if they feel pity for prostitutes they all admit that no, they believe them to be furbo, or shrewd. The simultaneous disdain for prostitutes’ life choices and their recognition of their shrewdness, which according to Pasolini is “still the only Italian philosophy” (Comizi d’Amore), presents what Restivo calls “the constructedness of the Symbolic Order.” This repression of the body and denial of the “real” is what allows men to claim that they could only marry a virgin and not find anything wrong with sleeping with a prostitute, who is undoubtedly already on the periphery of acceptable society.
Pasolini juxtaposes this sequence with the factory girls who are working in the industrialized, “progressive” North, with a sequence of a rural farmer in the South who stresses the importance of virginity at marriage. Unlike the northern groups of men, the farmer does not attempt to rationalize the reasons behind his beliefs, just that they exist and they will always exist.
Despite its “backwardness,” the South asserts a consistent opinion regarding the question of sex and issues of the body. Pasolini seeks to understand the consistency of their responses in light of the discourse on women’s rights and freedom that is spoken of by intellectuals such as Alberto Moravia and Oriana Fallaci, whose comments consistently interrupt the sequences with Pasolini and the individuals he is interviewing. Restivo explains that the poignancy of Pasolini’s film as a documentary lies in that “it is all bodies. But they are narrating bodies, incessantly called upon to find ways of making sense of the new forces shaping their lives” (79). The editing of these sequences, which allows Fallaci’s comments to act as a mediator between northern and southern opinions, is another technique employed by Pasolini to demonstrate that “no ‘body’ is allowed to speak for him/herself, without mediation from both media-anointed ‘experts’ and the studio hosts who deliver everything up to the viewer” (Restivo, 78-9), another detriment to an already hegemonic society.
The focus on bodies in Comizi d’Amore and Il Vangelo reinforces Pasolini’s decision to refer back to neorealist values, establishing a connection to the real instead of to the “disembodied voice” alone (Restivo, 79). He is able to find a common understanding among the sub-proletariat because they are unafraid to reveal their opinions, their prejudices, and their lack of repression regarding their bodies. In Lutheran Letters, Pasolini imagines an adolescent Neapolitan boy named Gennariello, to whom he explains his preferences for the poor, but physically aware southerners. He writes, “I prefer the poverty of the Neapolitans to the prosperity of the Italian Republic; I prefer the ignorance of the Neapolitans to the schools of the Italian Republic; I prefer the little dramas which one can see in Neapolitan slums – even if they are somewhat naturalistic – to the little dramas of the Italian Republic’s television […] With the Neapolitans I have no physical reserve because in their innocence they have none with me” (17). Pasolini explores the parallels between the power that is found within the physical body itself rather than just the spiritual body. He demonstrates this idea by depicting the importance of the physicality of the body throughout Il Vangelo, from the scene with the pregnant Mary, to Jesus walking on water, to the final stages of Jesus’ excruciatingly painful physical death. He even highlights the Catholic belief in transubstantiation, whereby the Eucharist physically transforms into Christ’s body, rather than just symbolically representing it. By establishing the connection between the body and its landscape, authenticity and reality, and the presence of the archaic within the contemporary, Pasolini calls for a more conscious approach to modernity and a new human awareness for social concerns.
Leitch, Vincent B. “Antonio Gramsci.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 2010
Pasolini, Pier Paolo. Lutheran Letters. “Gennariello.” United Kingdon: Carcanet Press, 1987.
Restivo, Angelo. The Cinema of Economic Miracles. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002.
Stack, Oswald. Pasolini on Pasolini. Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1969.
Steimatsky, Noa. Italian Locations: Reinhabiting the Past in Postwar Cinema. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press; Reprint Ed. 2008.
Verdicchio, Pasquale. Introduction. The Southern Question. By Pier Paolo Pasolini. Toronto: Guernica, 1995. 7-26.