.Viva Pasolini!

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ‘Trilogy of Life’ visits the Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive

If Pier Paolo Pasolini had been born—and thus engaged in his creative career—50 years later than he actually was, he would have been right in step with the cultural and political mechanisms of late-20th-century and 21st-century Europe. His books, films and lifestyle could have been part of the mainstream. His name would be a household word in San Francisco, Paris, Cairo and Tokyo, as well as in his native Bologna. 

Pasolini might not have been viewed as such a maverick. Instead, he would be hailed as one of the world’s leading anti-fascist artists. He might conceivably even have become Italy’s prime minister. 

But enough fantasizing. In reality, Pasolini (1922-1975) was a poet, filmmaker, novelist and popular political gadfly whose work scandalized and illuminated the human situation with the power of unlimited outrage. Significantly, Pasolini was also nominally Roman Catholic, decidedly Marxist and openly homosexual (with a pronounced taste for adolescent males), and was prosecuted in the courts on account of the latter two. He made no bones about walking on the wild side, arm in arm with his comrades, the poor.

Pasolini’s film career is the entry point for most of his admirers today—notably the bitter boys-of-the-slums slice of life Accatone (1961), the Anna Magnani vehicle Mamma Roma (1962) and The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), with Jesus Christ as the ultimate “outside agitator.” Those three movies are part of “Pier Paolo Pasolini,” a concise eight-film mini-retrospective showing at the Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive. 

This week, the series takes up Pasolini’s self-labeled “Trilogy of Life”: The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1974). Think of it as the “graduate course,” with the filmmaker’s point of view entering its rococo phase, just before his untimely death at age 53.

Bawdy, grotesque, crude, sardonic, irreverent—that’s Pasolini’s reimagining of the Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th-century allegorical “human comedy” of short stories illustrating various follies. In this case, a mixed bag of Neapolitans clamors through ruins and gets into a salty variety of jams, most of them sexual and all of them poking fun at organized religion, greed and hypocrisy.

Thieves rob graves, a dead body gets stuffed into a bag and thrown off a cliff, horny nuns in a convent wear out a hired handyperson, a wife hides her vagabond lover from her husband, a bourgeois couple plays musical beds with their guests and the director himself portrays a fictional pupil of the painter Giotto. Lots of boys, in tights, naked, wearing codpieces, boys as sexual objects. This screening is recommended for adults only. Nov. 18.

Shot on location in England, The Canterbury Tales does what it can with Geoffrey Chaucer’s celebrated Middle English narrative poem of religious pilgrims getting into the same sort of trouble as the characters in The Decameron, with drastically mixed results. Bits and pieces of poetic splendor are scattered in the confusion. 

A man is burned alive at the cathedral for lechery, actor Hugh Griffith out-burlesques Orson Welles, and in “The Cook’s Tale,” frequent Pasolini cast member Ninetto Davoli does a Charlie Chaplin, complete with walking stick. It must have been chilly for those actors strolling naked through a garden on a foggy day, impersonating Adam and Eve. The producers should have left this one to Ken Russell. Nov. 25. 

Arabian Nights, the third film of the trilogy, is one of Pasolini’s finest, a dreamy rethinking of A Thousand and One Nights, with graphic softcore sex scenes and splendid ethnography filmed in Ethiopia, Iran, Yemen and Nepal. Eritrian-Italian beauty Ines Pellegrini commands the screen as Zumurrud, a slave market masseuse who insults prospective buyers. As with all the films in the trilogy, composer Ennio Morricone adds his touch to the music track. And as with the other two films, this is definitely not for children. Nov. 27. For more info, visit BAMPFA.org.  

Through Nov. 27 at BAMPFA

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