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DVD Review: Pier Paolo Pasolini Vol. 2 (1966-69)

Pasolini_3If you work hard enough, you can find allegory in everything. That bottle of beer you drink; why, that’s a symbol of working-class oppression, comrade! That game of football you’re watching; surely proof-positive that the most artful ballets are created on the streets, or in parks, and not in the heads of intellectuals! Or, if you’re not that way inclined, it’s a decent weekend’s entertainment. Depending on which way you cock your head, you can be accused of thinking too much about the mundane. But not Italians: no, the Italians are masters of the allegory.   

The tradition goes back to classical literature. Virgil’s epic poem Aeneid, about the trials and tribulations of a whinging Trojan and his gap year, is merely a device to bring glory to the leadership of the emperor Augustus. Boccacio’s Decameron is a proto Canterbury Tales, a sharp satire of medieval class structure and the ignorance of the rich and poor alike. Primo Levi, the Auschwitz survivor, linked a series of tales of Nazi oppression to the chemical elements he knew so well in the wonderful The Periodic Table. If there’s a way of saying something without actually saying it, the Italians have it taped.

Pier Paolo Pasolini was no different. Something of a jack-of-all-trades, it would be easier to list what Pasolini didn’t try his hand at. At his core was the role of Marxist intellectual, and by the time he tried his hand at film-making, there was enough material based on philosophical and political conceit to keep any student radical happy until the day they died.

Though not his first film, Hawks and Sparrows (1966) was intended by Pasolini to be a mix of fable and intellectual discussion. Essentially the story of a father and son, Totò and Ninetto (Totò & Ninetto Davoli) who set out on a pointless journey through Italy’s countryside and social underbelly, they meet various characters in various flights of fancy to ascertain what it is to be human. Along the way they are joined by a talking crow, who tells them a story of religious conversion and how the classes of rich (hawks) and sparrows (poor) will never agree. Finally, they kill and eat the crow, which is bad for him, but so, so handy for the viewer.   

There is no denying that Hawks and Sparrows is a heavy film. It contains a lot of material that begs further investigation via internet or books, and even then, you may find yourself at a loss. Because Pasolini, intellectual and film-maker, are one and the same, they are his ideas alone, and if you’re not on the same wavelength, the allegory will seem flatter than a pancake that’s fallen behind the fridge. Added to this, there’s the problem that Marxism in its purest form is a difficult enough philosophy to understand at the best of times, so having a crow link it to Italian politics of the time is not enlightening for modern British watchers.   

So is it worth watching? Well, taken on a purely literal level, yes. Totò as the father gives a celebrated dramatic performance. Previously one of Italy’s most celebrated clowns, his sad, drooping features bring a humanity people assumed he wasn’t capable of. He’s ably assisted by amateur actor and Pasolini “friend” Davoli, and they work well in what is basically a peripatetic Waiting for Godot, with added messing about in silly hats. In its most basic form, it’s quite daft and if you stick with it, rewarding. Pasolini called it his favourite film, and it’s worth watching for Ennio Morricone’s twisted Cajun/folk score alone.   

The first film is followed by Pasolini’s take on Oedipus Rex (1967), the ancient story of a kid who hates his dad but gets on rather well with his mum. Oedipus’ parents were told this would happen by the fates, and so cast him out to die as a baby. Circumstances dictate that you can’t cheat the fates, and the prophecy comes true, and eventually Oedipus’ pride is shown up for what it is: merely a folly for the gods.   

Oedipus Rex isn’t a difficult play to pull off, but Pasolini manages it well, making the most of a good looking cast (with the exception of Franco Citti as Oedipus, who looks like the most ugly Osmond brother that they hide in the cellar), and the Moroccan scenery is stunning. There are quibbles: the costumes, though authentic looking, are sometimes daft, and Oedipus manages to kill about ten people with the most ridiculous looking sword ever cast. Also, Pasolini chooses to frame his attempt with two modern day parallels, about a father who’s jealous of his son, and a blind beggar. The film would have been much better served without them.   

Last in this set is a rarity, Pigsty (1969). This is two stories entwined, one about a group of cannibals who roam the land looking to chew the fat with people (arf arf), and another about a merger between two prominent German industrialists, and the son who can’t ally himself with either of them. By the end, both cannibals and son get eaten by pigs, but no before some hefty morality is chucked into the mixer.   

Not a popular Pasolini, Pigsty is an attempt to explore the darker side of human nature in an intellectual way. The point is that we all get eaten by what we try to deny, i.e. Capitalism. The modern part of the film is particularly insistent on this: one man has made his fortune during the war, one after the war, but they’re both as ruthless as one another. The wartime profiteer (Alberto Lionello) even has a Hitler-like ‘tache, which is as obvious as Newman and Baddiel’s character Leon Capaldi, a director who was so paranoid about being misunderstood that he’d make his dictatorial factory owner accidentally smear his upper lip with oil and then jerk his arm out in a salute when he wanted to give orders. It’s a fairly blatant portrait of Alfred Krupp, the steel magnate who made a lot of money out of wartime slave-labour.   

So, three different pictures but all three have the same themes running through them, about humanity, class and politics. None of them work terribly well, but as a collection it should satisfy any Pasolini fanatics. Pasolini is not for the uninitiated, so tread carefully, but it’s a fine collection, and a welcome addition to any film student’s canon.

Extras: Two ultra-rare documentaries, Notes for a Film on India (1969), in which Pasolini does a bit of loafing around the sub-continent asking for help with a film he’s writing, which gives a fascinating look at olden-days India; and The Walls of Sana’a (1971), a short film about the Republic of Yemen and a plea to keep the ancient city of Sana’a just the way it is. They’re good for completists, throwaways if you’re not one. You also get a Pasolini novel, The Ragazzi (1955), with the retail version.

Find out more about Pier Paolo Pasolini Vol.2 at Amazon.co.uk

Chris Stanley

Comments

Bob Gamble

Interested in purshasing "The Walls of Sana'a" film. Please call 817 453-8829

Chris Stanley

The documentary in question comes on the third disc of the collection, which means to watch it you must purchase or rent this particular DVD. Please click on the link below the aricle for more information.

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