Pasolini Screens at HFA

Complete works of controvercial Italian auteur


In Pasolini’s 1974 film, “Arabian Nights,” the Italian director highlights human sexuality with an explicit level of frankness and sincerity.

Throughout September, the Harvard Film Archive (HFA) will screen “The Complete Pier Paolo Pasolini,” a series comprised of the thirteen features and five short films directed by one of the most controversial and important intellectuals of the twentieth century. According HFA programmer David Pendleton, “There is nobody like Pasolini in the American context. He is someone who is up there with Godard and Eisenstien, someone whose formal experimentation goes hand in hand with a coherent philosophy and ideology about the world.”

Pasolini’s first contact with cinema was in 1957, when he collaborated with his friend Federico Fellini on “Nights of Cabiria.” By the time Pasolini directed his first film, “Accatone,” he had already become famous as a poet, screenwriter and critic. But for so critically acclaimed a director, the opportunity to see prints of his films is rather difficult. This is largely because there are no well-made English subtitled Pasolini prints stored anywhere in the United States. In order to get their prints, the HFA established a relationship with the Pasolini Fund, and then imported the films from the Cinemateca in Bologna.

Moreover, it is vital to see Pasolini’s visuals on the big screen. “This way you can appreciate both the beauty of the film and the strategy with which Pasolini frames his shots,” Pendleton says. In his films, Pasolini highlights base reality, but he frames his shots using the aesthetics of great Renaissance and Baroque painters, such as Masaccio, Caravaggio, and Giotto. According to Pendleton, the projection of his films will reveal that certain shots look surprisingly similar to famous Italian paintings.

As noted, Pasolini’s goal as a filmmaker was to directly show reality as it was, in all its sex, violence, cruelty, and injustice, and, simultaneously, to open the viewers’ eyes to the poetic aspects it contains. Pasolini said in an interview in the 1960s, “I love cinema because through cinema I always stay at the level of reality.” To construct his films in as authentic a manner as possible, he used very few professional actors, and allowed the people he filmed to speak the everyday language of their own region. At a time when Mussolini was forcing his citizens to use a standardized version of Italian, Pasolini openly declared that he loved differing Italian dialects just as much as he loved the work of Dante.

Pasolini lived in an Italy that changed rapidly during an economic boom that started in the 1950s, and the industrialism and consumerism that followed. As this Italy was developing a conformist mass-culture, Pasolini was especially interested in revealing the fragments of reality that were censored or suppressed by the dominant ideology of the time. He remains famous for filming Italy not as it should have been, but as it was, including the Italy of those who stood at the fringes of society.


Pendleton says, “He was interested in the outsider—not the heroic working class [which Italian neorealism championed], but the people who are not even looking for work and live off of petty thefts.”

The director also promoted “natural sacredness,” the idea that the world, including every single being, is holy in and of itself. In “Arabian Nights,” he shows that all bodies are sacred and have an innocent eroticism. In films such as “Ricotta” and “The Gospel According to Matthew” he shows that there is more spirituality in nature and regular people than there could ever be in organized religion.

Atheist, homosexual, and never hesitant to express an alternate viewpoint, Pasolini was always a scandalous figure. He recognized the importance of scandal in its ability to reveal what no one wants to know; the aspects of themselves that people want to keep hidden. He always described the world from an eccentric point of view, not consistent with the mainstream cultural, political, or religious views of his era. As a result, he has been constantly insulted, denigrated, and accused. But he never considered himself a victim. According to Walter Valeri, a former Harvard Italian teaching fellow who knew Pasolini personally, “Pasolini was a happy man, filled with humanity, warmth, and affection. He did have a critical judgment on society, but he was not a bit arrogant.”

This HFA series is a remarkable panorama that will give viewers the sense of Pasolini’s whole range as an auteur.  It lets viewers appreciate Pasolini’s early directing style which has a strong neorealist character and then observe his transition to a completely different aesthetics whose diversity alone speak to Pasolini as a unique creative force. Valeri advises, “It is important to not judge the films right away. Rather, let the images seep inside you, like the words of a poem. His images can’t be immediately consumed or labeled as beautiful or ugly, but they will stay in your memory and keep growing and developing for years after.”

—Staff writer Elizabeth D. Pyjov can be reached at


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