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Pier Paolo Pasolini: Sex, Life and Literature

Valerie Waterhouse By Valerie Waterhouse Published on October 25, 2017
This article was updated on November 1, 2017
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Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini

Hours before being run over and killed with his own car at the age of 53, Pier Paolo Pasolini gave an interview to journalist Furio Colombo,  included in the book In Danger: A Pasolini Anthology. Renowned as a poet, painter, prophet, filmmaker, outspoken Communist and public intellectual, Pasolini outlined the danger he was in due to his insistent critiques of power. He was killed  on November 2nd, 1975, and to this day, it is not known whether he was assassinated for political reasons, or by a rent boy from the homosexual Roman underworld he frequented. But the interview also covered the philosophies that informed his literary and cinematic works. "A common education, obligatory and wrong, that pushes us all into the same arena of having everything at all costs," was behind the problems of post-war bourgeois society, he believed. "We’ve learned to have, possess, and destroy". Pushed to explain what would remain if consumer culture were to vanish in a puff of smoke, Pasolini replied: "Everything! I am what is left, being alive, being in the world, a place to see, to work and understand. There are hundreds of ways to tell the stories, to listen to languages, to reproduce dialects, to make puppetry."

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Between 1961 and 1975, Pasolini wrote and directed twelve feature films and thirteen documentaries and shorts. Previously focussed on poetry, he discovered that film was among the "hundreds of ways" to tell stories, and could be as powerful as writing literature. Many of his films were based on classical myths, sacred and literary texts, including the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Oedipus Rex, Medea and the Marquis of Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom (Salò) -- which turned out to be his final, darkly pornographic epitaph. But the three films preceding Salò were, by contrast, the lightest and brightest he ever made. Inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and the Middle-Eastern One Thousand and One Nights, they depict a luminous, alternative medieval fantasy world. Pasolini christened them 'The Trilogy of Life’.

Sped through on fast-forward, the Trilogy appears as a series of pornographic romps – rising above others in the genre thanks to their beautiful  imagery. Copulation is frequent; naked bodies ubiquitous; and close-ups of masculine appendages are everywhere. Urination, defecation and flatulence are never shied away from: in fact they are often glorified. But to label these films as merely ‘obscene’ is to miss their iconoclastic message and originality.

Copulation is frequent; naked bodies ubiquitous; and close-ups of masculine appendages are everywhere. Urination, defecation and flatulence are never shied away from: in fact they are often glorified. But to label these films as merely ‘obscene’ is to miss their iconoclastic message and originality.

Sticklers for textual accuracy won’t find much to appreciate in the Trilogy. What Pasolini offers is an imaginative reinterpretation of these epic medieval works, cherry-picking characters, major and minor episodes, and freely adding creations of his own. Episodic in structure, the films use humour, metaphor, anecdote, allusions, citations, analogies and liberal samplings from both low and high culture to build-up a riotous picture of life. In Pasolini’s vision, living is reduced to its essentials: Food. Money. Religion. Death. Storytelling/Imagination. Laughter. Love. And Sex. Lots and lots of it, as noted. Much of it transgressive and out of bounds.

Money and religious hypocrisy, in Pasolini’s world, are often the roots of evil. And graphic representations of transgressive sex and bodily functions stick up a metaphorical finger to bourgeois pretensions and niceties. What Pasolini seems to be saying is this, THIS, is what life is about. Not the common obsession with possessions and possessing in which so many of us get bogged down. Dubbed ‘Italy’s most notorious intellectual provocateur’ (or 'intellectuale scommodo'), Pasolini aimed to provoke rather than persuade. ‘Your observations and your language are like the sun shining through the dust,’ Colombo said. ‘(…) things are sometimes a little unclear’. Yet attentive viewers will agree that Pasolini’s message resonates across the current century.

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Silvana Mangano in Pasolini's Decameron


One of Pasolini's greatest legacies was to encourage viewers to return to oft-neglected literary works.  Below: a few pointers, for those tempted to rediscover these three classic medieval texts. 


The Decameron

Boccaccio’s The Decameron, 1,000 pages long, is framed by a story about ten young Florentines who head to the countryside to escape the plague. Each tells one tale per day for the next ten days, resulting in 100 narratives. The book concludes, abruptly, with a defence of Boccaccio's lengthy text.

Pasolini's film was shot on location in Italy, using ordinary people as actors, inspired by neorealist, Felliniesque techniques. He replaces Boccaccio's  Florentines with self-referential sequences about an assistant to Giotto, played by Pasolini himself. In one scene, the artist is struck by inspiration and hurries to continue his fresco, while his fellow-painters  enjoy their meal. The fresco is finally completed just as Pasolini's film draws to  a close. 

Nine of Boccaccio’s tales appear in the movie, in a different order to the text.   The film’s seventh tale (Boccaccio’s 54th) is the most famous episode. Lisabetta’s lover is murdered by her three brothers and she buries his head in a pot of basil, which she waters each day. In Boccaccio’s version, the girl also dies; in Pasolini’s, she survives to suffer a fruitless love.

The film ends with a close-up of Pasolini/Giotto’s assistant, asking: ‘Why realise a work when it’s so wonderful just to dream?’ 

The Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer's book consists of 24 stories with prologues, narrated by pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury, to visit Thomas Becket’s shrine. 120 tales were originally planned but the work remained incomplete. Six of the tales were derived from The Decameron.

Pasolini shot the film in Italy and England – including Wells and Canterbury Cathedrals.  Eliminating the travelling pilgrims, he interweaves episodes in which he plays Chaucer – on one occasion reading Boccaccio -- an oblique comment on imagination and influence. 

Eight of Chaucer’s stories made the final cut, with Pasolini tailoring them to his own design. Chaucer's fragmentary The Cook's Tale becomes a complete Chaplinesque story about a young man who finds a job polishing eggs. Sped up film, a bowler hat, and even a white foam cake, add to the Chaplinesque feel.

In the film’s final sequence, the devil defecates hundreds of corrupt friars from between his crimson buttocks into Hell, in a scene reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch. It  ends with a satisfied Pasolini/Chaucer, writing: ‘And so end The Canterbury Tales, told for the sole pleasure of recounting them.’ Were they written by Chaucer, Pasolini, or by Chaucer-Pasolini the sequence seems to beg? The line appears nowhere in the original.

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Pasolini's 1974 Arabian Nights

A Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights)

A collection of Middle Eastern folk tales gathered by various collectors in Asia and North Africa from the 10th-14th centuries, manuscripts of A Thousand and One Nights contain between several hundred and 1001 tales. The most famous stories – Aladdin, Ali Baba, Sinbad – were added to European versions in the 18th century. The tales are linked by the ongoing story of Scheherazade, spinning stories night after night to entertain her sultan husband and prevent him from murdering her.

Locations used for Pasolini's film include Ethiopia, Yemen, Iran and Nepal. He maintained the original’s story-within-a story structure – but dispensed with the Scheherazade linking narrative. Instead, Pasolini uses a tale about a slave girl, Zumurrud, whose selects a young and beautiful slave master, with whom she enjoys mutual love. The two become separated and the young master spends the rest of the film looking for her. Five other stories nestle between this linking tale.

In the original, the sultan falls in love with Scheherazade, spares her life, and makes her his queen. Pasolini’s parallel version ends with the reunion of Zumurrud and her young man. "The beginning was bitter," he says, "but how sweet is the end." 

Valerie Waterhouse is a journalist and editor based in Italy, mostly writing about travel and books. She is the editor of the guidebook Time Out Milan and recently wrote the afterword for The ... Show More

2 Comments

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Laura-Angela Bagnetto
Salo' is definitely a classic, but one of my favorite Pasolini movies is Ro.Go.Pa.G (Pa for Pasolini)-- a compendium of 4 short films from 4 different directors. Pasolini's "La Ricotta" is best, and even includes an Orson Welles cameo... where he reads from "Mamma Roma", part of his Ostia/Accatone triptych.
Valerie Waterhouse
Thank you for this interesting comment Laura-Angela. I saw Salo' aged 14 when my German penfriend & I sneaked into a Munich X-rated cinema and am still recovering from the trauma xxxxx years later. I never want to see it again! I am a huge fan of the Trilogy discussed here, though, especially Decameron & Canterbury Tales. I'm also fond of The Hawks & The Sparrows. Pasolini seems more & more relevant, recently.

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