Tijana Mamula interprets the contrasting histories surrounding the death of a phenomenal filmmaker on November 2, 1975, from Document's Fall/Winter 2012 issue.
Fourteen years ago, I didn’t know who Pier Paolo Pasolini was. I discovered the name on the first day of my first class on the history of film. ‘This course,’ a professor at the University of Rome proclaimed, ‘will take you to 1975. In 1975 Pasolini died, and Italian cinema died with him.’
So my first encounter with Pasolini was an encounter with the meaning of his death. I may not have known the title of a single one of his films, but I did know—and, being 17, I accepted this with little deliberation—that his demise marked the end of Italian cinema.
A decade and a half later, I now know a lot more about Pasolini. I know, for example, that he was many things. Not only a great filmmaker, as he is best remembered outside of Italy, but also a prolific poet and novelist, an erudite literary critic, wildly inspiring film theorist, staunch political activist and ever unorthodox dissident. He was (and this may be his brightest virtue, the phenomenal contributions to postwar Italian culture not withstanding) a uniquely independent thinker. Openly gay in a cultural moment that punished homosexuality with all but actual imprisonment, a leftist who broke with all the left-wing factions of the period, Pasolini never hesitated to voice his ideas. He also never feared to revise his thinking or his means of expressing it—his was a battle, above all, against fixity, against closed systems of thought and representation.
I also now know more about Pasolini’s death on the night of November 2, 1975. I know that it signaled not only the conclusion of a golden age of Italian cinema, but also the end of a hopeful political climate, and of a time when artists and writers were allowed (indeed expected) to function as public intellectuals and actively contribute to shaping the nation’s politics. Pasolini’s death, that is, has assumed many meanings and been appropriated to mark the ends of a great many things. At the same time, the unsolved mystery behind his murder has given rise to a host of contradictory interpretations; so many, in fact, that in Italy to speculate about it constitutes a kind of cultural cliché, like debating who was the more interesting comedian, Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, or whether the spirit of the ’60s is better embodied by the Beatles or the Stones. Or, to put it less irreverently, like wondering who really killed JFK.
“In positing that death shapes the meaning of a life, Pasolini mentions two figures whose legacies famously escape any interpretation. How do we square the notion that death gives meaning, which so many have turned to as precisely a means of resolving Pasolini’s work and life with these elusive examples?”
Pasolini was beaten to death on a deserted beach in Ostia, about a half hour outside of Rome, allegedly by one or possibly several youths who he had picked up for sex earlier that night; a scenario whose sordid poetry immediately triggered, for many, an association between the author’s death and his aesthetics.
From the start, the recurrent interpretations of Pasolini’s demise have emerged in close dialogue with his work so that his creative legacy now appears inextricably bound to the meaning of his death. This meaning shifts according to how we reconstruct the events surrounding his murder, how we understand his oeuvre, and how we interpret the connections between them. Yet each new interpretation claims to be the most definitive, most plausible fix to the interdependent puzzle of his death and life. It is above all this multiplicity of interpretations—not the singular but the many deaths of Pasolini—that best reflects, and illuminates, the author’s thought.
The first widely accepted interpretation of Pasolini’s demise centered on the 17-year-old Pino Pelosi, who confessed to murder in self-defense against anal rape. Pelosi’s defense, led by the lawyer Rocco Mangia, spun Pasolini’s oeuvre as the confessions of a depraved maniac, thus exploiting the Italian public’s homophobic attitudes to condemn the victim and justify the killer (no longer a hustler with a criminal record but a martyr to a cause bent against perverts and pedophiles). Pasolini, in short, had asked for it—his end was clearly divine retribution for a life of sexual depravity; all one had to do was flip through his books or watch his movies. Indeed, another version of the karma theory alleged that Pasolini was murdered by young actors in revenge for the painful humiliations suffered on the set of his last film Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, a violently graphic adaptation of Sade’s novel set in Mussolini’s Republic of Salo.
“Regardless of how it happened, or why, or whether Pasolini magically foretold it or went out and actively sought his own death, or indeed staged it as an extravagant last act, his enigmatic end allows the meanings of his work, and life, to remain open to interpretation, to perpetuate the revision and rethinking that Pasolini himself refused to abandon while he was alive.”
Pelosi eventually retracted his confession (which had been poorly substantiated by forensic evidence), lending currency to a conspiracy theory in Pasolini’s favor. Friends and family complained that the case had been wrongly open-and-shut, and soon attention fell on Pasolini’s systematic condemnation of Italy’s entire political class in the months preceding his murder. Writing on the pages of the daily Corriere della Sera, Pasolini had, amongst other things, accused the governing parties of corruption and collusion with the Mafia—all subsequently proven true—and, in a move typical of his unhinged intelligence, called for their mass imprisonment. These writings are collected in the volume Scritti Corsari (which still awaits translation into English), while similar accusations emerge even more forcefully in Pasolini’s last, unfinished novel, Petrolio. The conspiracy theory was later cinematized in Marco Tullio Giordana’s docudrama Pasolini: Un delitto Italiano (Who killed Pasolini?, 1995). Another watered-down version of it saw Pasolini as the victim of a hate crime, punished for being a communist and a homosexual in an already-violent political climate (these were the so-called anni di piombo, ‘years of lead,’ rife with terrorist attacks on the part of both the extreme right and extreme left). On the other hand, Pasolini’s biographer, Enzo Siciliano, argued that his murder was not in itself a political crime but rather “the catalyst for a feeling of collective revulsion, for a strange, almost continuous examination of the national conscience, or at least for a re-evaluation of Pasolini as a national figure.”
Less politicized interpretations followed suit. In Pasolini e l’abiura, Pasolini’s long-time friend and fellow artist Giuseppe Zigaina made the case for a premeditated and performative suicide, rereading the artist’s oeuvre accordingly. This particular hypothesis remains popular in artistic circles, offering a means of romanticizing his films and writings into an elaborate and imaginative suicide note. A not dissimilar theory sees Pasolini beaten to death by just the sort of disenfranchised youths whose turn to violence he had prophesied as an inevitable outcome of Italy’s cultural and political devolution in the early ’70s.
Pasolini contended that a person’s life acquires meaning only when they die; before that moment, it is ‘undecipherable, ambiguous, suspended.’ This thought, often quoted in discussions on his death, emerges most clearly in a well-known essay: ‘Some Observations on the Sequence Shot.’ Here Pasolini draws an analogy between the function of death in the life of a person and the function of editing in cinema, singling out their mutual capacity to give meaning. Just as a cut interrupts a continuous shot, forcing us to interpret the finite segment on its own terms, and as editing organizes a multiplicity of shots into a meaningful narrative, so death asks us to interpret the life it punctuates. Death, in a sense, invites us to recompose, to edit, the life that came before it into a narrative that makes sense. In this essay, Pasolini refers to Abraham Zapruder’s footage of the JFK assassination—a sequence shot that captured the moment of death. Kennedy’s murder, like Pasolini’s, gave rise to myriad interpretations that shaped not only our understanding of the president but also, more broadly, of American history. In his 1963 essay-film La rabbia (Anger), Pasolini reflects on the death of Marilyn Monroe in much the same terms: Marilyn would hardly be the icon she is today had she not died how and when she did. In positing that death shapes the meaning of a life, Pasolini mentions two figures whose legacies famously escape any interpretation. How do we square the notion that death gives meaning, which so many have turned to as precisely a means of resolving Pasolini’s work and life with these elusive examples?
“Pasolini was beaten to death on a deserted beach in Ostia, about a half hour outside of Rome, allegedly by one or possibly several youths who he had picked up for sex earlier that night; a scenario whose sordid poetry immediately triggered, for many, an association between the author’s death and his aesthetics.”
Less frequently mentioned than Pasolini’s ‘death=editing’ dictum is his later refashioning of this idea, as well as the ambivalence with which death emerges in his creative work from the start. Let’s take, for example, Pasolini’s first film, Accattone (1961). Even before the film begins, an epigraph taken from Dante’s Purgatory informs us that the story we’re about to see hinges on the uncertainty of the protagonist Accattone’s place in both life and death; a caveat that the film’s events repeatedly underscore. Thus when Accattone, in a prescient nightmare, envisions his own end, he asks the undertaker to move his grave from a spot in the shade to one in the light. His dream literalizes burial as the staking of a final resting ground for the subject—and for the meaning of his life—while also mocking and frustrating it by demanding that the grave be moved. This resistance to death’s fixed meanings carries over into much—if not all—of Pasolini’s subsequent work. It is recognizable, for example, in his propensity for depicting the passing of his protagonists in Christ-like ways, underlining the fact that Christ’s space on the cross and His death were, after all, never really more than temporary. It is also recognizable in Pasolini’s later theoretical writing, where he starts to emphasize that editing is also what gives cinema a non-chronological and ‘spiritual’ dimension; it is what takes the narrative out of its linear progression and allows the correspondences between shots to resonate poetically in the viewer’s imagination. The epigraph to his penultimate film, Arabian Nights (1974), expresses this higher dimension quite well: ‘The truth is not found in a single dream, but rather in many dreams.’
To paraphrase, we might say that the truth of Pasolini’s death is not found in a single interpretation, but precisely in many. In this, it resembles the nature of his work, which was riddled with revisions and an unrelenting experimentation with different media. In Italy, the obsessive drive to fix the meaning of Pasolini’s death is mirrored by an equally common tendency to categorize his work. For some, Pasolini was above all a poet; his films—of comparatively lesser quality—and his ‘naive’ theories should be appreciated in light of this foundational interest in poetic expression. Others believe he was first and foremost a filmmaker. In this case, cinema, which dominated the last 15 years of his creative output, should be seen as the culmination of his eclectic interests. Others still think the entirety of Pasolini’s artistic career was auxiliary to his role as a public intellectual, that his true value lay in his incredibly perceptive, often prescient, analyses of Italy’s cultural and political developments. All of these views may be debatable and, to some extent, defensible. Yet if Pasolini’s oeuvre expresses anything, it is a resistance to any sort of closure or fixed meaning. And that, if anything, is the value of the meaning(s) of his death. Regardless of how it happened, or why, or whether Pasolini magically foretold it or went out and actively sought his own death, or indeed staged it as an extravagant last act, his enigmatic end allows the meanings of his work, and life, to remain open to interpretation, to perpetuate the revision and rethinking that Pasolini himself refused to abandon while he was alive.