Mere Mortals: Myth and the Mundane in Pasolini’s Neorealist Film

by Anna Khachiyan

Summer 2011

If the restoration of mythical stature to everyday life is to become a cultural agenda it demands the guidance of an equally mythical persona. On the continent, such a role was primarily filled by Pierpaolo Pasolini (1922-1975), Italy’s most prominent auteur after Fellini and Antonioni, but one who has nonetheless remained relatively obscure outside of his home country. Pasolini’s idea of myth was not, as we might imagine, deprived of the favored motifs of scat and sex and as such ought to be particularly appealing to our postmodern sensibilities, which have revised time and again what is fair game in the realm of art. This restorative theme, which has its origins in Pasolini’s poetry and prose of the forties and fifties, reaches critical mass in his early neorealist films, Mamma Roma (1962), his work for Fellini’s Le notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria, 1957) and most notably, Accattone (1961). The film stars Pasolini favorite Franco Citti as the disarmingly churlish hustler Vittorio, nicknamed Accattone.

Accattone—literally “beggar” but colloquially “deadbeat” or “grifter”—is a pimp, but just barely. His operation is limited to but one prostitute, Maddalena (Silvana Corsini), and together they exist at subsistence level, made somewhat more benign by the canvassing warmth of the sun and the homely Roman ruins that seem to stand on every street corner. When Maddalena is roughed up by neighborhood rivals, Accattone’s existence is sent into a tailspin. It is the beginning of the end, and though we can see it coming, he cannot. Instead he views this most recent misfortune as another in a series of setbacks that are, in effect, the milestones of his life and scrambles to find a replacement in the good-natured and naïve Stella (Franca Pasut). One gets the impression that Accattone is a pimp not because he’s particularly good at it, but because he’s too lazy to do anything else. But then again, who needs imagination when you have Italy?

Accattone and friends inhabit a de Chirican landscape of boxy project housing, empty lots and long shadows cast across wide boulevards. It is a liminal space between nature and postindustrial, postwar urbanism. But this is not the poverty of Raskolnikov—no below-freezing temperatures, no piss-colored Neva—or of Knut Hamsun’s unnamed protagonist in Hunger, wrapped up, as it were, in the intellectual exigencies of the time. It is a leitmotif we encounter again and again in twentieth-century Italian art—in the films of Fellini, with their vignettes of drowsy provincialism, and in the literature of Alberto Moravia, where the boundaries between pastoral and metropolitan are traced out with masculine precision.

In La Romana (The Woman of Rome, 1947), Moravia’s own tale of street life, told this time from the first-person perspective of the prostitute Adriana, the crisp, unadorned imagery is straight out of de Chirico’s L’enigma di un giorno (Enigma of a Day, 1914). Adriana recounts: “Every morning I used to take the streetcar in the square not far from our house, where among a number of newly erected buildings, I noticed one long, low structure against the city walls that was used as a garage” (Alberto Moravia, The Woman of Rome, 2000). Or perhaps, Sironi’s Periferia (Periphery, 1922): “We left my neighborhood by the avenue running along the city walls, went along the wide road with warehouses and little hovels on each side, and at last reached the country. Then he began to drive like a madman down a straight track between two rows of plane trees.” Here is the idiocy of rural life transposed onto the urban environment to create a new subset of city dweller—the lumpenproletarian. The people, bored to death by their own mediocrity, live out their lives in a series of practical jokes and muted tragedies—joyriding, making love, bashing in the mailboxes of upstanding bourgeois citizens. Yet Adriana is quick to point out that she “never really noticed” the wretchedness of it all. She, like Accattone, remains relatively unfazed by her circumstances, at least initially, until she gets her first taste of the good life. And Accattone’s grumbling proves mostly rhetorical, even as his fate continues to intervene in the most unappealing of ways.

Moravia and Pasolini are sketching out the framework of a certain kind of alienation, one that has been virtually ingrained in the national character, and certainly, in the national aesthetic, using class politics as their instrument of choice. The proletariat—a cultural entity that belongs neither here nor there, and the various subcultures it issues, are the unlikely idols of neorealism. The pimp and the prostitute are no accidental protagonists—they are minorities within a minority, ostracized as much for their economic want as for their moral wantonness. It is this notion of estrangement within the multitude that Pasolini explores in his own literature, most notably Ragazzi di vita (Boys of Life or the Hustlers, 1956) and Una vita violenta (A Violent Life, 1959), the book that inspired the screenplay for Accattone. In spite of their industriousness, these denizens of the night are cosmically unconcerned, spiritual but not religious, steeped in superstition, and thereby, essentially passive, an example of the ways in which environment exerts itself on the individual. Even as some, like Mamma Roma (Anna Magnani) of the eponymous film, attempt to reverse their fates through active intervention, they are mowed over by the folly of others. Roma, handsome, resigned and implacably upright in her amorality, is Adriana twenty years later—their lives are cyclical, interchangeable. As the name implies, she is more than just an archetype, rather a synecdoche for the city and its dissolute masses.

The isolation of the individual psyche is immediately tied in with the socioeconomic divisions wrought by Fascism, materialized, architecturally speaking, by Mussolini’s campaign of expansion from Rome to Ostia on the sea, yet Pasolini’s characters are strangely apolitical, or rather, pre-political. They exist in a mythopoetic continuum that has its origins in a nostalgia for the classical world. Neither is it an accident that Pasolini’s classically themed Edipo Re (1967), like Fellini’s Satyricon (1969), recursively makes use of modern Italian pidgin to effect a commentary on class difference. Pasolini’s irregular regulars—the sweet, sleepy-eyed boy hustlers, docile, sexually-forgiving maidens, and busty matrons with voices like sandpaper dipped in honey—are at home anywhere along this timeline. In Il Decameron (1971), his take on Boccaccio’s medieval allegory, the simple-minded Andreuccio da Perugia, played by another Pasolini favorite, Ninetto Davoli, schemes and rabble-rouses and—literally—falls into a cistern of shit.

Indeed, Pasolini himself “lays increasing stress on the need to restore an epic and mythological dimension to life, a sense of awe and reverence to the world: a sense which, he believes, the peasantry still sustain, though the bourgeoisie has done everything in its power to destroy it” (Oswald Stack, Pasolini, 1970). It is through the divestment of false monumentality that Pasolini achieves epic significance. By excising overblown romance narratives, melodrama and, ultimately, the ego of the protagonist from his work, Pasolini denies the force that turns cultural homogenization into political hegemony. There is no place for love in Pasolini, not the kind of poetic love that Dante felt for Beatrice, anyway, just as there is no place for such love in the world. Pasolini’s women, like Moravia’s, are perpetually under-appreciated, and his men, perpetually shirking personal responsibility. That his classical overtures are mixed in with an almost ahistorical scorn for modern systems of law and morality is no matter; Pasolini famously said of himself, “I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.” For Pasolini, “(Neo-) capitalist society is a moral category—a malum—to be rejected tout court in the name of a purer (pre-industrial) one threatened with extinction” (Wallace P. Sillanpoa, “Pasolini’s Gramsci,” Modern Language Notes, January 1981).

In explicit terms, it is the peasantry, in their new role as lumpen, who bear the brunt of this unholy transition. The collision of a timeless agrarian lifestyle with the special demands of city living leads to existential decay. Phlegmatic and itinerant, Accattone has no goals, no convictions, and any plans he does have for himself are vague, ill-conceived, destined to fail from the outset. But it is this marginal, morally nebulous existence that saves him and the rest of the Pasolinian cadre from the complications of modernity, fixing them, in effect, to a more idyllic and authentic way of life. Pasolini’s representative man is at the same time typical and idiosyncratic. He exists, enduringly, in spite of time and outside of any Zeitgest. If Raskolnikov’s suffering comes from the inevitable task of having to negotiate his mortality, there is no such friction here, only begrudging acceptance. And it is this sense of surrender that Pasolini views as the primary ingredient in reverence. Pasolini’s peasants are fickle and mercurial, just as likely to curse the gods as to invoke them, an irony lost on no one. In the end, Accattone is not a rebel, as society would have it. He’s just being himself.

Even his death comes in the tradition of his life. Caught attempting to steal a truck with two others, he gives chase on a stolen motorcycle. In an absurdist twist, he is killed not by the police, who are busy apprehending his conspirators, but in a traffic accident while evading capture. It almost seems too absurd to be credulous, until we remember how often preventable misfortune affects the poor. Like his life, his death is swift and anticlimactic. Once again, fate intervenes. In earlier scenes, we see Accattone wandering through a landscape of squat and desolate buildings, his brow furrowed in an expression of misplaced antipathy. Alone, in his worn henley and worker’s slacks, he is a pedestrian—an accessory to the setting. But it is this final scene that perhaps best captures the essence of Pasolini’s aesthetic imperative. As he lays dying, surrounded by a growing crowd of bystanders, Accattone is dwarfed by the expanse of the boulevard, gleaming white against the blackness of his broken figure. Yet just minutes before his death he is listless as usual, sitting on a curb, joking with his friends, and very much alive. Tellingly, we don’t actually see the fatal encounter unfold, as we surely would have in an American production, for example; it is announced in passing by a woman’s scream.

But for all of his myth-building and courting of populism, Pasolini’s alienation is decidedly anti-nationalistic. In essence, he is laying out the solitary project of the intellectual. In recognizing this unique moral imperative, he denies himself the comforts of communal ignorance. And, in taking up the unpopular cause of criticism, he opens himself up to violent retaliation. (Pasolini’s own death is an eerie reminder.) For instance, Pasolini, “almost alone among contemporary critics, staunchly defended spoken and literary dialect against the assaults of an imposed national idiom that he believed came more and more to serve the ends of Neocapitalism” (Wallace P. Sillanpoa, “Pasolini’s Gramsci,” Modern Language Notes, January 1981). Even his homoerotic fascination with the ephemeral boys of the street can be said to be something of a fetish—a preoccupation with the novelty of exoticism. It is a sign that the intellectual, if he has a gender, is most certainly male. Though the plight of womanhood is portrayed with depth and sympathy in Pasolini’s oeuvre, his is essentially a man’s world. His films, especially Accattone, are punctuated by moments of tender, fleeting contact between men—they are always teasing, scuffling, bickering affectionately, walking with arm-in-arm. This is perhaps more apparent in the case of Moravia. In spite of the great pains taken to convey the female perspective, an irretrievably male voice courses through La Romana (no woman would speak so gingerly of her own appetizing contours or so clinically of her surroundings).

In this capacity he more closely resembles someone like de Chirico, whose cryptic orthogonals he often appropriates in his cinematic work to further cleave out the distinction between organic and inorganic matter. If de Chirico, along with his brother and frequent collaborator Alberto Savinio, represent one (Nietzschian) pole of Italian intellectual life, one that privileged the esoteric vision of a chosen few at the expense of the common, presumably hostile crowd, Pasolini’s brand of intellectualism is more long-sighted, more didactic, more conscious of ethical consequence. The extinction of myth and epic, according to Pasolini, is no theoretical fancy, the indulgence of the “serious” academic, but a practical threat to the constitution of man—a threat materialized in both the postwar political climate of Italy and the growth of a global consumer culture. Where Fascism had repurposed the classical myth in service of its revisionist narrative, Pasolini sought to restore what he saw as its rightful place in the collective consciousness.