Pasolini and the Cinema of Contradiction

Mamma Roma - Pasolini

The filmmaking career of Pier Paolo Pasolini lasted less than 15 years, which given his body of work is a hard thing to believe. No one this controversial, conflicted, and prolific in such a short span of time in the post-Silent era of filmmaking has ever approached the notoriety or sparked such a scholarly interest as he has. Although still far from the mainstream in every conceivable way, Pasolini was a great artist prior to his foray into feature filmmaking. A published and respected painter, novelist, and poet by the age of 19, Pasolini was already well versed in art forms that showcased his fascinatingly splintered personality before he would find further worldly and self exploration in the world of cinema.

During the only Canadian retrospective tied to a recent retrospective of Pasolini’s restored works (made up almost entirely of brand new 35mm prints), the TIFF Bell Lightbox will screen all of his major films in a series titled The Poet of Contamination (running this Saturday, March 8th through Saturday, April 12th) – a name that adequately sums up the seemingly contradictory nature of the filmmaker. He was a son of an Italian war hero renowned for saving the life of Mussolini who was also a devout pacifist, a conservative who valued art in the highest esteem, a purveyor of women’s rights on screen who was still staunchly anti-abortion, a religious believer who saw great darkness in the church, a classicist who still saw no text as sacred, and a gay Marxist with a fascination with fascism and its psychoanalytical underpinnings. Effectively, there’s no real scholarly or critical way to interpret one of Pasolini’s films. They are singular works of art that both invite and defy analysis.

His first film, the deeply personal and Dante inspired post World War II drama Accattone (Sunday, March 9th, 6:00pm) from 1961 has a subtext that casts the filmmaker as a bit of a cinematic grifter, both siding with and indicting the behaviour of the film’s titular Roman thief. Similarly, his deep familial conflict comes out even more pronounced in his follow-up Mamma Roma (Saturday, March 8th, 4:00pm, with an introduction from Concordia University film studies professor and frequent writer on Pasolini Luca Caminati), a tale of an aging woman forced by circumstance and hardship to go back to prostituting herself that deftly balances the low comedy of his classical literary influences with dark, disturbing human drama.

These internal conflicts made it kind of a no-brainer for Pasolini to eventually mount his own adaptations of the highly Freudian and politically charged tragedies Medea (Thursday, March 13th, 6:30pm) and Oedipus Rex (Sunday, March 30th, 6:00pm). His religious upbringing and desire for truth in art led to two of his many films to be deemed masterpieces: the austere and thematically boundary pushing The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Friday, March 14th, 6:30pm) and the playfully mocking and still astoundingly serious Hawks and Sparrows (Sunday, March 16th, 3:00pm). His love of religion and almost magnetic pull to sacreligious texts led to the most fascinating films of his career with the anthological Trilogy of Life which found him adapting The Decameron (Friday, March 21st, 6:30pm, his best overall film), The Canterbury Tales (Saturday, March 22nd, 4:00pm), and The Arabian Nights (Sunday, March 23rd, 3:30pm, with an introduction from photographer Roberto Villa). Also, while he loved how non-actors could lend a sense of realism to his films, he wasn’t beyond working with big name talent like Terence Stamp (in Teorema, Saturday, March 15th, 5:00pm) or Orson Welles (in the exceptional short La Ricotta, screening as part of programme of other Pasolini shorts on Saturday, April 5th at 5:00pm).


All of Pasolini’s work builds excitedly, frighteningly, and sadly to what might be the filmmakers best known and most revered/reviled work, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Saturday, April 12th, 7:00pm), possibly the hardest and harshest film ever created by human hands. A cold, calculated, and dangerously unflinching look at abased degradation, Pasolini adapts the Marquis de Sade into a fascist text set in 1944. As incendiary a work as was ever created, it’s a singularly harrowing and disgusting work of pure art that would lead to Pasolini’s life being threatened, quite possibly valid obscenity charges, and possibly even lead to his murder in 1975 after being run over with his own car several times over.

Regardless of how his career ended, Pasolini left behind one of the greatest and most untouchable legacies in Italian cinema. Even those who only know him from the infamy of his most controversial work will be taken aback by his balance of the dramatic, the spiritual, and the intellectual. A comprehensive series that won’t be screened again for quite some time, it might be the only chance people will get to see a majority of these films in their lifetime. It’s a must see event for anyone with even a passing interest in world cinema in the second half of the 20th century. His influence and the lessons taught about filmmaking within his works is undeniable.

For a full list of films screening, showtimes, and tickets, please visit TIFF.NET.

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