Like so much of his art, the death of Pier Paolo Pasolini was open to interpretation. When his battered body, bludgeoned and crushed beneath the wheels of his car, was found near a soccer field on the outskirts of Rome – a setting common to many of his films – on Nov. 2, 1975, the circumstances led to a cacophony of judgments in the Italian press.
Because the poet/novelist filmmaker was known to frequent such places seeking sex with rough trade, his death was called inevitable and only a matter of time. The murder of Pasolini, an outspoken Marxist intellectual who abhorred power of any kind, was regarded by the left with suspicion and by the right as a kind of justice. Conspiracy theories abounded. Some even suggested a kind of prearranged suicide. Even today, nearly 40 years later, his death remains a source of morbid speculation.
As the TIFF Cinematheque retrospective Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poet of Contamination (March 8 to April 14) reminds us, Pasolini was an artist who not only courted controversy and conflict – his first film, Accattone (screening March 9), a 1961 slum-set account of a dissolute pimp, prompted neo-fascist attacks at its opening – but practised both in his art. Over the course of a 14-year career, he ran the gamut from poetic neorealism (Accattone; Mamma Roma, March 8; The Gospel According to St. Matthew, March 14) and polemic political fable (Teorema, March 15; Hawks and Sparrows, March 16; Porcile, April 6) to classical literary revisionism (Medea, March 13; The Decameron, March 21; The Canterbury Tales, March 22; The Arabian Nights, March 23; Oedipus Rex, March 30), all the while maintaining his poetry, fiction and painting.
A restless, constantly self-testing artist, Pasolini blended everything: painterly formal technique with rough naturalism, romantic proletarian politics with arcane didacticism, and taboo-busting sexual utopianism with utter political cynicism.
For Pasolini, art was a process of working through problems, of experimentation for the sake of testing the limits of a medium's language. When he first came to making films after establishing himself as one of Italy's brightest young literary lights, he was both delighted and frustrated to learn that movies weren't literary at all. They required a completely new mode of expression and, rather than borrow that language from established cinematic forms and traditions, he decided – arrogantly, naively and brilliantly – to create his own.
But where a filmmaker such as Jean-Luc Godard embarked on a similar project (also political, polemic, deconstructive and book-crazy), Pasolini was the far more accessible artist. His was a grounded, physical and earthy practice, and one of the tasks he set for himself was the fusing of the intellectual with the visceral. Charlie Chaplin and Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Ordet) were Pasolini's respective head/heart, mind/body movie-making inspirations, and one of the defining aspects of his "intellectual" cinema, as striking now as ever, is how rooted in terra firma it is.
For Pasolini, the Italian working class represented an almost childlike sense of cultural purity, and his movies celebrated this fragile state of grace by emphasizing both the bawdy vitality of the lower classes and allowing it to play itself. One of the most persistently distinctive elements of his work are the faces of real people he turned his cameras on, part of a process he likened to using reality as the raw material to dramatically represent reality.
If this sometimes verged on a kind of naive romanticism (nowhere more apparent than in his repeated casting of his working-class lover Ninetto Davoli in several films), it was also informed by Pasolini's sexual attraction to young underclass men, palpably manifest in the way his films longingly gaze on their subjects. Inevitably, this became a point of almost hysterical homophobic fixation after his murder.
Another instigator of passionate outrage directed at the deceased Pasolini was his final movie, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (April 12), completed just weeks before his murder. An inexorably unsettling work, set in 1944 and depicting the systematic sexual humiliation, torture and murder of a group of teenagers by four Fascist libertines, it was the most stark and confrontational movie of his career: an indictment of power, consumerism, exploitation and voyeurism that was all the more harrowing for its atmosphere of calm, modulated, detachment.
For years, the coincidence of this much-banned movie's completion and its creator's gruesome death made for a cause-and-effect equation: Either Pasolini died as just payment for creating such an obscene outrage, or Salo was seen as a premonition of the violence to come.
It was neither, of course, but there's no avoiding either the movie's enduring dark power or the punctuation it puts to this remarkable career. Where so many of Pasolini's previous movies, no matter how angry or despairing of power, held a kind of flickering candle of hope in the peasant class, in Salo all such hope is brutally snuffed out. Power wins.
It's hard to imagine a more bluntly final movie than this one, but in fact Pasolini was at work on two more films (in a cycle to be called "The Circle of Death") at the time of his death. After seeing Salo, the mind boggles at what this most radical and fearless of artists still had in store.