Sunday, December 28, 2008
#348 in the TSPDT's list of the 1000 greatest films
I've heard great things about Pier Paolo Pasolini, the iconoclastic Italian film-maker, novelist, and philosopher that repeatedly dazzled the world in the 60s and 70s with his shocking films. He's probably best remembered for his last movie Salo, or the 120 days of Sodom, a decadent depiction of the twilight of Italian fascism. It's still banned in several countries around the world for its unparalleled depictions of sadistic violence and sexuality. Unable to temper my impetuosity, I would normally have skipped all of his preceding films and cut straight to the chase, but until very recently, Salo was out of print, and the rare copy went for upwards of $1,000. My art-film hookup burned a copy of Pasolini's first film, Accattone (The Scrounger) for me for Christmas, and since the holidays have left my wallet so empty that even the new $40 Criterion Salo is still too pricey, I decided to give Accattone a shot.
From the start, it was apparent that Pasolini's reputation was not based on his first film. The title character is a one-whore pimp. He and his friends lead the care-free lifestyle of moochers, lay-abouts, and thieves. In the beginning, one of them bets Accattone that he would drown if he tried to swim back and forth across the river after stuffing himself with food. Accattone either doesn't believe in the old wives tale, or doesn't care. Perhaps he just wants the fame; the entire community turns out for the spectacle.
The film is bereft of graphic violence, nudity, and sex; the tone of the film, did, however, shock me. Accattone is an entirely despicable human being, but Franco Citti plays him with a pouty affability. The women in the story are portrayed as helpless fawns, subservient to their men. In one of the early scenes, some young thieves lament that Accattone had not joined them the preceding night. Laughingly, they recall picking up a hooker, taking her to a field, and pummeling her. Later, some of Accattone's rivals pick up his sole whore, Maddalena, drive her out beyond the city's lights, and wallop her after one of their crew has sex with her. The intercourse is only alluded too, and the violence is filmed in a distanced, detached manner.
I don't think that Pasolini sympathized with the misogynistic, exploitative lifestyles of the characters, just like Kubrick obviously didn't endorse the ultra-violent lifestyles of his droogs in A Clockwork Orange. But unlike A Clockwork Orange, which ends on an extremely cynical note where Alex is ultimately rewarded for his criminal lifestyle, Pasolini's film inhabits a universe with at least some sense of cosmic justice. At the end of the film, the police catch Accattone and his friends stealing several large sausages from a meat truck (a presumably minor offense); Accattone dies in a motorcycle crash while attempting to escape.
I think that in depicting these characters as mildly likable fellows, Pasolini is only attempting to point out their wasted potential. And in the end, there's no joy in Accattone's death; it's a meaningless, chance death. We miss the catharsis that we've all come to expect, raised on Hollywood's unending tale of good's triumph over evil.
Aesthetically, Accattone has all the marks of a low-budget debut. Aside from Franco Citti, the acting is mediocre at best. I felt like Pasolini was not yet comfortable with utilizing space in his film; the pacing feels rushed, and every frame seems filled to the brim with incessantly realistic dialogue - in fact, the entire film could have benefited from some suspension of disbelief.
Despite these foibles, Accattone is still a cohesive work of art; flawed, certainly, but indicative of potential greatness. Pasolini obviously has something to say, and I only hope that as I discover his following films, I'll find a film-making prowess commensurate with his thoughtful themes.