Swine Whine: Pasolini’s Pigsty (1969) – Masters of Cinema DVD review
Aiming for scandal but achieving only annoyance, Pasolini’s parable of filth is as welcome as a dose of swine flu.
(Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969)
Half an hour into Pigsty, a wandering medieval cannibal throws the severed head of his latest victim into a volcano. Ordinarily, this would be an image of shock and outrage, yet I must admit to feeling the searing pain of envy for that head. The unnamed bonce might have nothing left to experience but the primeval flames of purgatory, but it had at least escaped from the unpleasant duty of watching the rest of Pigsty. This reviewer was stuck with another hour of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s dour, sour, deeply unfunny satire – and, little did I know then, that I’d just watched the film’s most exciting scene.
Earlier this year, when Masters of Cinema released two early classics by Pasolini – Accattone and The Gospel According To Matthew – I jumped to the conclusion that here was a major talent of world cinema that I had hitherto missed. I desperately wanted to see more and Masters Of Cinema has granted this wish with two further films. It’s almost as if they knew, and wanted to teach me a lesson in not getting too carried away.
Be careful what you wish for, right? Fellow new release The Hawks And The Sparrows didn’t work for me, but at least it had a purpose and playfulness. Pigsty, in contrast, is a film that is consistently berating us for watching it, pushing our faces into the shit. The logical evolution of this approach is Pasolini’s notorious final film, Salo, where characters are literally made to eat shit.
From Gospel’s impassioned, relatively hopeful Civil Rights-era parable of Christ, to this depressing time-capsule of post-1968 anarchy – it’s like reliving the decade’s major themes on fast-forward. Pigsty is one of those films in which function loses any last vestige of entertainment and form follows suit. It is, in fact, two stories, intercut in ways that promise ironic symmetries and intriguing juxtapositions, but which simply prolong the agony of the running time. It’s the kind of things wise critics call formally challenging, but which is really shorthand for saying that the audience has to do all of the work because the director couldn’t be bothered to work out what he wanted to say.
The first story is that of the afore-mentioned cannibal, whose flouting of authority leads him to join forces with a band of thugs and rapists (and, eventually, their victims) who roam the land looking for fresh blood. Shot on the slopes of Mount Etna in Pasolini’s trademark blend of looming close-ups and scorched-earth landscapes, it’s visually compelling but interminable in theme and content. Pasolini’s attempts to imbue this unlikely bunch of drop-outs as counter-cultural outlaws is a trite pastiche of revolutionary Third Cinema movies like Antonio Das Mortes, while his allegory of brutal, man-eat-man anarchy lacks the wit of that other 1960s cannibal apocalypse art-house movie, Godard’s Weekend.
But for sheer annoyance, nothing beats the film’s second tale, in which prissy Jean-Pierre Leaud escapes from the yoke of his father, an ex-Nazi turned bourgeois businessman, by retreating into an unusual farmyard hobby. Meanwhile, dad forms a merger with his rival, a notorious Jew-killer now trading under the name of Mr Herdhitze. The (understandable) toxic hatred Pasolini feels for these characters spills out, undiluted, in deliberately banal, awkwardly framed compositions and gnomic conversations that reinforce every criticism you’ve ever heard about subtitled movies. Leaud, an actor whose pseudo-intellectual self-regard has always grated on me, is encouraged to amplify his faults; a deliberate tactic by Pasolini to add to the unpleasantness that is a little too effective. And then there’s that appalling pun, Herdhitze (try saying it with your right arm stretched upwards) which is repeated so often it’s like a fingers on a blackboard.
Part of me admires Pasolini for making a film so deserving of its title: if nothing else, it’s bold, uncomfortable work. Yet satire should a) have something worthwhile to say and b) be funny. Comedy really doesn’t suit Pasolini: his targets are too obvious for such a blunt approach, and only the final scene – too little, too late – musters up the kind of genuinely subversive chuckles that an expert satirist like Luis Bunuel could summon at will. The rest is as self-indulgent a wallow as you’d expect from the pigs.