A month of Pier Paolo Pasolini — filmmaker, author, Renaissance man — at the UCLA Film Archive

Pasolini's directing debut, 1961; also the debut of Bernardo Bertolucci, who was assistant director.

The UCLA Film Archive is hosting a substantial retrospective of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s films this month: 10 features and two documentaries, all on new 35mm prints, courtesy of the Consulate General of Italy in Los Angeles. The movies are just one facet of what a whirlwind of talent Pasolini (1922–75) was: in Italy he was equally renowned as a novelist, poet and scholar, not to mention political gadfly and all-around provocateur. (Reading about Pasolini and his hyperactive artistic productivity can make you question what you’re doing with your own life.)

Pier Paolo Pasolini. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Pasolini was Catholic, Marxist and gay, and vocal about all those things, which earned him plenty of condemnation from the political right in Italy — but also from the left: a born iconoclast, he critiqued late-1960s’ student protestors for being well-heeled “daddy’s boys,” and instead sympathized with the police. He was a prescient early critic of globalization, feeling that it destroyed Italy’s regional cultures, and was appalled by the growth of consumerism in postwar Italy. As you might guess, he was no fan of the bourgeoisie.

Pasolini’s own statements about his films can strike such a shrill anti-bourgeois note that a wary viewer might be put off. But his movies generally steer clear of didacticism: they’re vibrant with life, in love with storytelling, and tough-minded yet empathetic. After co-writing La Dolce Vita with Fellini, not a bad credit, he scandalized Italy with his first couple features, 1961’s Accatone (about a pimp) and Mamma Roma (1962), which plumbed the lower depths of Roman society in a way never seen in movies before.

Typical of Pasolini, he then turned around and made the entirely devout The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), of which critic Clive James — hardly a fawning admirer of Pasolini — has written, “As a Biblical film [it] has no peers.”

In the later ’60s Pasolini made stark, strikingly intense adaptations of Greek classics, like Oedipus Rex (’67) and Medea (’69), bringing out the contemporary resonances in the stories, as well as epater-le-bourgeois shockers like Teorema (possibly the ultimate 1968 movie) and Pigsty (’69), the latter with Jean-Pierre Leaud and Anne Wiazemsky, a.k.a. Mrs. Jean-Luc Godard at the time.

Pasolini was well known enough outside Italy that in 1971 a sketch on Monty Python’s Flying Circus imagined what a cricket match directed by Pasolini would look like. Not surprisingly, the result is very amusing; you can watch it here. (The problem is, once you’ve seen the Monty Python parody of Pasolini, can you keep it out of your mind while you’re actually watching a Pasolini film?)

Extending his artistic reach again, in the early ’70s Pasolini roamed across continents to make his “Trilogy of Life,” consisting of adaptations of The Decameron (’71), The Canterbury Tales (’72) and The Arabian Nights (’74). The movies are earthy, extremely bawdy and full of slapstick, not what one might have expected from a public intellectual. The Arabian Nights is notable for its exotic locations, beautifully rendered in the widescreen cinematography, and a remarkable air of licentiousness that maybe only a film from the early 1970s could have achieved.

Unfortunately Pasolini may be best known for his last film, the one that concludes the UCLA Film Archive’s series: 1975’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, which transposes a Marquis de Sade novel to the fascist state of northern Italy in 1944, and basically consists of Nazi-puppet leaders subjecting local youths to every unspeakable torture and perversion imaginable, all of it graphically depicted. It’s one of the most controversial films ever made; it also isn’t very good. It’s a work of bludgeoning didacticism in a way that none of Pasolini’s earlier films were. (I’ll post about Salo again closer to the August 28th screening.)

Proceed at your own risk: 1975's SALO.

Missing from the UCLA Film Archive series are Pasolini’s unexpectedly goofy comedy The Hawks and the Sparrows (’66) and the widely imitated Teorema. The Pasolini retrospective reportedly continues at the American Cinematheque in September, so I’ll post about these titles then — anyone curious about the director shouldn’t miss these two high points of his oeuvre.

Scroll down for complete listings:

Friday, August 2, 7:30:

The Decameron (1971)

Saturday, August 3, 7:30:

Accatone (1961)

Mamma Roma (1962)

Monday, August 12, 7:30:

Pigsty (1969)

Love Meetings (1964)

Sunday, August 18, 7:00:

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)

Seeking Locations for ‘The Gospel According to St. Matthew’ (1965)

Polish movie poster for MEDEA (1969).

Wednesday, August 21, 7:30:

Oedipus Rex (1967)

Medea (1969)

Sunday, August 25, 7:00:

The Canterbury Tales (1972)

The Arabian Nights (1974)

Wednesday, August 28, 7:30:

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

Complete listings and info on the UCLA Film Archive site.

Feel free to weigh in