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ROME — Pier Paolo Pasolini is the JFK of Italy: a figure of courage and freedom for some; for others, a polarizing symbol of moral dissolution. His death, forty years ago this year, is still a source of debate. Officially, he was brutally murdered on the beach of Ostia, beaten to a pulp and then run over by his own Alfa Romeo, after picking up the wrong kind of rough trade; unofficially, he was assassinated just weeks before the release of the most politically scalding work of his (or anyone else’s) career, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.
Salò, once it enters your system, is a mental tapeworm that never lets go. Its casual sadism and wanton violence, committed upon a group of young men and women in the dying embers of World War II by a group of internally exiled Fascist plutocrats, is nihilism incarnate, a perfect primer for each new day’s headlines.
Pasolini was a prototypical polymath: one of the most important postwar Italian poets, a zealous proponent of the Friulian dialect, a painter, screenwriter and mold-breaking director. His feature debut, Accatone (1961), was condemned by the Catholic Church for the parallels it drew between the title character, a shiftless Roman street hustler, and Jesus. Three years later, he made Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew, 1964), dedicated to Pope John XXIII and the most compelling life of Christ ever committed to film. This unexpected move – from an openly gay, Communist and atheist public intellectual – proved to be less an aberration than an indication of the evolving paradox that Pasolini’s life would become.
His subsequent movies were scabrously comic indictments of bourgeois hypocrisy (Teorema, 1968; Pigsty, 1969); revisionist myths (Oedipus Rex, 1967; Medea, 1969); and adaptations of literary classics (The Decameron, 1971; The Canterbury Tales, 1972; A Thousand and One Nights, 1974), where eroticism is barely distinguishable from animal instinct. Throughout, he told the truth as he saw it, whatever the blowback, including the brawl he set off after he reminded his leftist comrades of the complexities of the social system, in which the police were the sons of the working class, while the students they were battling in the revolutions of ’68 were the children of privilege.
And so it was striking, though not surprising, to find him portrayed in a life-size piece of street art, wheat-pasted on a wall in Rome. The location was a bit odd – opposite the Fontana Monumentale delle Tartarughe (Monumental Fountain of the Turtles) – in a quiet piazza tucked away from the bustling thoroughfares. The image was also odd – a standing Pasolini cradling a dead Pasolini in his arms – a self-reflexive Pietà. There was nothing on the work to identify him other than his bony, pugilist’s face – nothing else was needed. Like Che or Bob Marley, he’s an icon of an Age of Rebellion whose mystique remains undiminished.
I am inferring, however, that the artwork is a double-portrait of Pasolini, because the standing figure has been defaced. A sliver of his head is all that survives; the rest has been torn off. But the high, chiseled cheekbones and deeply lined cheeks are unmistakably his.
The piece is realistic in the manner of Swoon, but more Caravaggesque in its expressive use of light and shadow. The image is printed on a large, single sheet of paper, which is cut away along the contours of the dead Pasolini’s body.
The jagged, peeled-off patches of the head terminate in downward-pointing, dagger-like shapes. The defacement (or, the vandalization of what is technically an act of vandalism) compounds the image’s enigmas. What are we to make of Pasolini carrying his own corpse? A sign of a death wish, or of an everlasting spirit? Pasolini would likely scoff at both. My sense is that he is simultaneously bearing witness and succumbing to forces beyond his control – the imbalance between the individual and the state, reason and compulsion, progressive action and reactionary resistance.
That the head of the living Pasolini is ripped away somehow completes the piece. It may have been done by a city worker, an unthinking teenager, or a still-virulent opponent of all Pasolini stood for – though with such a contradictory figure, it is hard to tell just what facet of his career is objectionable to whom.
The violence done to his image – a vivid reminder of his horrific death – carries his martyrdom into a time no less violent or unsettled than his own, tangible proof that his work still cuts like a double-edged blade. That’s something that used to be called prophecy.