Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be exploring the filmography of one of the most subversive and iconoclastic directors of the 20th century, Pier Paolo Pasolini. Like most Italian directors of his generation, Pasolini came of age during neorealism’s brief period of dominance in his national cinema. His first feature film, Accattone, displays the influence of neorealism on the director’s work and worldview in a manner which would be absent from his later, increasingly inventive and experimental works. Like the films of De Sica and Rossellini, Accattone depicts life on the fringes of post-war Italian society. The landscapes are bombed out and squalid, and the director uses a documentarian style to capture the naturalistic performances of his non-professional actors. Therefore, on the surface level, this film seems very much of a kind with the movies which preceded it. However, key differences exist between the world Pasolini constructs here and the paradigm presented by the more traditional practitioners of neorealism.
While Pasolini displays a degree of empathy and care for the pimps and prostitutes who people Accattone, many of these characters are undoubtedly self-serving and predatory. Such characterizations directly contradict the humanistic depictions of the Italian people seen in films like Rome, Open City and Bicycle Thieves whose visions of the Rome are populated with principled, downtrodden saints. Similarly, Pasolini deals more directly with the economic realities facing his characters, constantly bringing to the forefront squabbles over small amounts of money and discussions about the foolishness of working as a wage laborer in a legitimate occupation when crime pays so much better. It is hard to imagine De Sica writing a version of Bicycle Thieves from the perspective of the thief without offering overt condemnation of his actions. That is the feat Pasolini manages to accomplish with Accattone, in constructing a protagonist who is not particularly likable but is compelling and sympathetic nonetheless due to his inability to extricate himself from the desperate circumstances into which he was born.
Pasolini’s overt critique of the underlying economic systems at work in Accattone positions him as a more radical voice than the Italian filmmakers who preceded him. Along with Luchino Visconti, Pasolini would help to usher in a new age of politically motivated cinema with a basis in Marxism. The development of these pre-occupations in his cinema are obvious from the outset with his stark, unflinching portrayal of life on skid row offering a bleaker, more fatalistic vision of life below the poverty line than earlier works while also managing to avoid the trap of canonizing his poverty-stricken characters. That the film manages to repurpose the techniques and stylistic flourishes of neorealism to its own purposes is a testament to Pasolini’s artistic vision and his early mastery of cinematic storytelling.