Pasolini’s Accattone (1961) – Blu-ray review
Here’s the first of two Pasolini Blu-ray reviews this week to accompany my short introduction to Pasolini. This is a typically loving Masters Of Cinema release, with the Rome sunshine looking absolutely dazzling in a pristine transfer, Tony Rayns providing context in an informative commentary and a whole other film (Pasolini’s documentary Love Meetings) to enjoy.
(Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1961)
Raw but romantic, Pasolini’s rewiring of gangster chic makes it the prototype not only for his provocative career but also the American Movie Brats
Think Italian gangster chic began with Coppola and Scorsese? Think again. Pasolini’s debut, made a decade earlier than the Movie Brats’ breakthroughs, followed pimp Accattone and his entourage of criminals and wastrels through their episodic life of scams, dodgy deals and general hucksterism. The wise-talking ensemble crackles with the same camaraderie as Mean Streets, and Coppola even cast Pasolini’s non-professional lead Franco Citti as one of Michael Corleone’s Sicilian contacts in The Godfather.
But before the ripples of Pasolini’s film spread across the Atlantic, it was also a bomb in the Italian film industry, a provocative blend of the neo-realism that had made the country’s reputation and the baroque stylisation then coming into vogue through the work of Fellini. Pasolini was nearly as old as the latter but, just shy of his 40th birthday, was a newcomer to film, having served his apprenticeship as a poet and author. With that life experience, Pasolini sees no boundaries between the real and the dream-like, transforming the coarse subject matter and crude material through vivid cinematography and the ironically spiritual strains of a Bach soundtrack. It’s a film – as Oscar Wilde would put in – living in the gutter but looking up at the stars.
There’s a distinct lack of moral judgement attached to the central character. Accattone is a misogynistic, workshy thug, who is only too happy to send his woman out into the night where she runs the constant risk of being beaten up or arrested, but ask him to do an honest day’s work and he rolls his eyes in self-pitying narcissism. He has abandoned the mother of his children, isn’t beyond stitching up his mates for a bowl of pasta, and the main thread of the plot involves his attempts to sweet-talk innocent girl Stella into walking the streets for him.
And yet, as played by Citti, Accattone is intensely charismatic. His beautiful/ugly features – crooked teeth and pock-marked skin in a rugged physique and fiercely direct eyes – lend Accattone’s posturing real conviction. He’s a man of the streets and proud, and the film offers no real alternative to his lifestyle: there’s no Church, the cops are to be distrusted, and work is arduous and boring. For all the self-inflicted poverty, days of hanging out at bars with your mates, egging each other on with dares, is all there is.
And the film takes wing on this subversive, amoral idea. The locations are a veritable Desolation Row, a waste ground of parched land and shanty houses, but the cinematography (by Tonino Delli Colli, who would become Leone’s go-to guy) has a bleached-out beauty: hard-edged in the shadows it casts, but luminous in the intensity of its light. The compositions, too, gradually shift from forensic close-ups to dainty tracking shots as Accattone meets Stella – who might be his salvation if he doesn’t grind her into the dirt. The only misfire is the rather obvious dream sequence in which Accattone imagines witnessing his own funeral, but Pasolini wasn’t the first or last debut director to make that error.
The end result is just as political as the more overtly documentary-style films of the neo-realists. For starters, consider that this was made the year after La Dolce Vita (a film that Pasolini wrote a rave review of) – and yet this is poles apart from that film’s vision of Rome as a carnival town for playboys and paparazzi. Nobody cares about the men or (especially) women here and even if they find some glimmer of redemption, their options for an honest life are limited. This would mark Pasolini’s love affair with trying to find the sacred in the rough trade, a journey that would take him from Jesus to the Marquis De Sade – and a generation of American directors were taking notes.