The 1964 documentary Comizi D’Amore (Love Meetings) finds filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini sounding out the Italian public on questions of contemporary mores. At an artist’s studio in Florence, he asks, “Is the problem of sexuality important or not?” “Yes,” a young man answers, unsmilingly. To which his interviewer responds, “You say it so grimly, it’s frightening. Doesn’t this idea make you happy?” The man seems unsure. “So,” Pasolini concludes, “sexuality is sad but important.” Arguably, he would test that claim in many non-documentary films thereafter.
A writer first, Pasolini had a way with deference toward a literary source — be it the exalted gospel of a Christian saint, the smirking scatology of Chaucer, or the Dantean depravity of de Sade. He also had a way with choosing sources. Such selectiveness is hard but bracing work, as anyone will discover who tries to navigate the retrospective mini-marathon of Pasolini films now touring the country.
The Gospel According to Matthew, easily the best Jesus biopic ever made by a gay Marxist atheist, also was shot in 1964, and in Italy because early-’60s Palestine struck Pasolini as too built-up to look right. It’s not a religious testament, but there is a certain piety in the movie’s spartan neorealist style, enough so that surely nobody could’ve expected the same guy would later make an expansively bawdy Decameron (1971), Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1974), collectively his so-called “Trilogy of Life.” These have been decried as regressions from modern authenticity, but look at them now, so full of zits, bad teeth, pubic hair, and unpolished performance skills — indeed, so full of life.
Pasolini’s variously anti-authoritarian career also seems like a series of self-renunciations. The consensus long-view seems to be that his creative arc was one of ideology sinking into pessimism. It’s easy to think so given his final film, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, a willfully gratuitous depiction of sadism and fascism which presumed to examine “the divine character of monstrosity.” That went way too far for many 1975 viewers, but it resonates differently by today’s torture-porn standards. Had Pasolini not been murdered just before its release, what might he have done next? What might he be doing now?