Pier Paolo Pasolini, born in Bologna on March 5, 1922, and raised in the Friuli region of Venetia, is, in the words of Alberto Moravia, the major Italian poet of the second half of the twentieth century. He was also a filmmaker, novelist, and political journalist of genius. He was murdered twenty years ago, on November 2, 1975.
A teacher and active Communist in the Friuli, Pasolini was accused of “obscene acts” with teenage boys and “corrup tion of minors” in the summer of 1949. In 1952 an appellate court finally determined that he had violated no Italian law, but by that time his prior existence was shattered. He had moved to Rome in 1950 and, having no work for two years, lived in abject poverty, sustained in every sense by his mother who had fled with him. Slowly he obtained a pittance for freelance writing of criticism and poetry. In 1955 he published the novel Ragazzi di vita [Real Life Kids], immediately prosecuted for containing “pornographic content” that was “contrary to good morals.” The book was denounced by the Vatican, and also by the Communist Party (PCI). But the prosecution failed (the judges in their opinion praised the book’s “authentic lyricism”), and Ragazzi di vita ended up as a finalist for the 1955 Strega Prize, Italy’s leading literary award. For the rest of his life, Pasolini was at the center of Italy’s living culture and politics. And this at a time when Italy’s culture (particularly its cinema) and politics were for a brilliant moment at the center of the global stage, perhaps to a degree not seen since the sixteenth century. Openly gay and a critical Communist, in 1964 Pasolini utilized the flicker of liberation sparked by Pope John XXIII to make the film The Gospel According to Matthew, said Pasolini: “…someone who walks up to a couple of people and says, ‘Drop your nets and follow me’ is a total revolutionary.” When, in the wake of 1968, full depictions of things sexual were permitted, Pasolini made the achingly lyrical films Decameron (1971), Canterbury Tales (1972), and Thousand and One Nights (1974), filled with a nostalgia for noncommodified human relations. He denied the films were an appeal for sexual “liberalization” said Pasolini: “If my films should happen to contribute to the present form of ‘permissiveness’ I would reject them. In fact, I find such permissiveness planned and programmed by those in power.”
In the months before his death Pasolini waged a campaign as a political journalist against the “genocide Marx prophesied in the Manifesto,” a consumerist “genocide in the form of the suicide of an entire country.” He called for the immediate abolition of television, explaining that “genocide” was the “acculturation by the power of consumerism” through the tool of television, that would soon overcome the difference between fascists and anti-fascists in a common imbecility. This has, of course, now come to pass in the form of the unprecedented Italian electoral victories of the television monopolist Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (a political commodity sold like soap) in alliance with the “post” fascists. But the truly awesome prophecy was in Pasolini’s final work as a journalist in September 1975; the consumerist degradation of the Italian people, the environmental degradation of Italy (“there are no more fireflies”), is, he wrote, “the crime of the Christian Democratic politicians who had governed the country since 1947. There is only one solution, the Christian Democratic leaders must be put on trial, and charged with “a moral list of crimes.” Pasolini wrote in September 1975 that these are crimes “which should drag a dozen political bosses into the docket in a penal trial in a courtroom” from which the Italian establishment defendants would emerge “handcuffed between carabinieri.” And so it came to pass.
When charged with sex play with teenage boys in 1949, Pasolini was expelled from the PCI. L’unita (the national PCI official daily) printed the expulsion notice warning its readers against “the most harmful aspects of bourgeois degeneration.” Pasolini wrote to L‘unita: “Despite all of you, I remain and will remain a Communist in the truest sense of the word.” After he was murdered by a male prostitute in November 1975, his coffin lay in state in the party’s Casa di Cultura in the center of Rome, and Enrico Berlinguer, general secretary of the PCI, took his turn as a guard of honor. In his final prophetic clarity, Pasolini had seen but one thing sound in Italy, the PCI (“a clean country in a dirty country, an honest country in a dishonest one…a humanistic country in a consumerist one…”). Yet he doubted that the PCI could remain long “uncompromised” (yet another prophecy) in such a divided country. For Pasolini hope lay in a spirit and tradition of revolt that would emerge wherever capitalism reproduces, as it must, a mass of people robbed and brutalized but conscious, for whom the social and cultural genocide by way of Disney is not an anesthetic but a foul sadistic joke.
Alla Bandiera Rossa
Per chi conosce solo il tuo colore, bandiera rossa,
tu devi realmente esistere, perché lui esista:
chi era coperto di croste è coperto di piaghe,
il bracciante diventa mendicante,
il napoletano calabrese, il calabrese africano,
l’analfabeta una bufala o un cane.
Chi conosceva appena il tuo colore, bandiera rossa,
sta per non conoscerti più, neanche coi sensi:
tu che già vanti tante glorie borghesi e operaie,
ridiventa straccio, e il più povero ti sventoli.
To the Red Flag
For him who only knows your color, red flag,
you must really exist, so that he can exist:
he who was covered with scabs is covered with wounds,
the laborer becomes a beggar,
the Neapolitan a Calabrese, the Calabrese an African,
the illiterate a buffalo or dog.
He who hardly knows your color, red flag,
won’t know you much longer, not even with his senses:
you who already boast so many bourgeois
you become a rag again, and the poorest wave you.
Pier Paolo Pasolini, Roman Poems, translated by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Francesca Valente, prefaced by Alberto Moravia (City Lights Books: San Francisco, 1986), pp. 78-79. All other quotes are from Enzo Siciliano, Pasolini, translated by John Shepley (New York: Random House, 1982) or B.D. Schwartz, Pasolini Requiem (New York: Pantheon, 1992).