There’s a segment in Arabian Nights, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s loose adaptation of the ancient Persian folk tales and his penultimate film, which encapsulates the director’s sensibility. The scene relates the well-known story of Aziz and his cousin Aziza, to whom he has been arranged to marry. On the morning of the ceremony, Aziz, briefly leaving the proceedings to fetch a missing guest, happens upon a young woman in town named Badur, whose beauty proves such a distraction that he fails to return in time to be wed. Aziza, though devastated, loves her fiancé so deeply that she conspires to help him win the affections of the woman of whom he’s now clearly enamored, guiding him through a series of arcane rituals and challenges in code toward the object of his desire. Aziz soon prevails and is united with Badur; Aziza, her sacrifice complete, suddenly dies. The story ends when Badur decides to murder Aziz as punishment for his cruelty to his former fiancé. In a desperate appeal for clemency he invokes an aphorism offered by Aziza before her death: “Fidelity is splendid, but not more than infidelity.” Badur relents, opting for a different sort of retribution: she castrates him.
This sequence, which spans no more than 15 minutes and concludes with the end of the film’s first act, contains nearly every hallmark for which Pasolini’s rather diverse filmography remains best known. Pasolini, broadly speaking, is a difficult artist to pin down or summarize. Over the course of only 14 years the Italian writer, poet, journalist, painter, and public intellectual somehow found the time to direct a staggering 15 feature films—a complete retrospective of which begins Saturday, March 8th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto—which together cover an exceptional variety of styles, modes and themes. Consider the diversity of interests suggested by the Arabian Nights story alone: like his early neo-realistic pictures, Accattone and Mamma Rosa, it finds Pasolini embracing the reality of the world as it lay before him, shooting on location in Yemen, Iran, Nepal, and Eritrea with a minimal crew and a cast composed of nonprofessional actors. Like his other literary adaptations, and in particular The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales, it furnishes a traditional story with flourishes of modernism, reciting iconic material with a novel and often surprising inflection. And like his most notorious film, Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom, it’s as shocking in its approach to pain as to pleasure.
It’s tempting to overstate the importance of sex in the films of Pasolini—a consequence, I suppose, of his legacy having been defined long ago by the controversy his work once provoked. It isn’t difficult to understand why. Certainly the degradations boasted by Salo prove no less an endurance test to watch today than they doubtless were in 1975, and much of what Pasolini accomplished with that film and others would qualify as transgressive even by contemporary standards. The castration of Aziz in Arabian Nights is disturbing at least in part for how realistically it’s been depicted: we’re shown in candid detail the genitals tied and bound by string, and when they’re yanked down we see just enough of it to wince. In other words Pasolini’s uncompromising approach to naturalism extends to the one thing we don’t expect to see so naturalistically. Elsewhere in the film nonviolent sex still surprises both for how frankly it’s shown (the camera shies from nothing) and, perhaps more significantly, how openly it’s engaged in. In the world of Arabian Nights sex is conducted without bias or inhibition: strangers delight in one another’s bodies spontaneously, old men enjoy the pleasures afforded by nubile boys, and in general it seems pansexuality reigns.
What’s refreshing about this conception of sex is that it has nothing to do with sensationalism—it never feels embellished, exaggerated, or romanticized. Pasolini’s characters are simply governed by desire, and it takes them where it may. (Critics and scholars tend to attribute this quality to the director’s somewhat conflicted homosexuality: he liked to imagine a world in which all sexuality could be indulged in omnivorously.)
This approach to sexuality could prove deeply rewarding. The most satisfying and substantive of Pasolini’s films about sex, to my mind, is 1968’s Teorema, a sort of allegorical mystery which combines Marxist social theory, existential philosophy, and religious rumination—as well as, naturally, an incredible amount of sex. The hero, so to speak, is a steely-eyed man named The Visitor (none other than Terence Stamp), a figure of some supernatural power who one day appears at the home of a bourgeois Italian family and seduces each member in turn. The film’s first half is dedicated to a catalog of sexual encounters: Stamp beds the depressed maid, the queer son, the inexperience daughter, the dissatisfied mother, and finally the figuratively impotent father, bringing newfound calm and happiness into their lives by so doing.
And then he leaves. Feeling themselves abandoned, the family begins to fall apart: the daughter slips into sudden catatonia and is hauled off to an asylum; the son loses himself to abstract art until he’s found urinating on his canvases; the maid quits, returns to her working-class village, and sits in stoic silence without food and water until, in a burst of divine transcendence, she starts levitating in the air; and the industrialist father, in the film’s extraordinary last scene, sheds his clothes on the factory floor and wanders off into the desert, where he sounds a barbaric yawp. It’s an ending not unlike Mamma Roma: a tragic figure stares out into the void, ruined by loss. But where Mamma Rosa grounded its story of a reformed prostitute and her law-breaking son firmly in the streets of modern Italy, Teorema looks to the expanded canvas of fantasy and allegory, where Pasolini can articulate his themes on a cosmic scale. The effect is commensurately profound.
Let’s return, finally, to the story of Aziz and Aziza—what interested Pasolini in the story to begin with? We see him deploy in the sequence his favoured styles, themes, and methods; but the significance in fact runs deeper. For Pasolini, the story of Aziz and Aziza was chiefly autobiographical. Aziz was played in the film by Ninetto Davoli, the actor who had performed in 11 of Pasolini’s films and had shared with him a secret romance for more than 10 years. Critic Colin McCabe explains, in an essay on the film, that shortly before production began on Arabian Nights, Davoli had “broken Pasolini’s heart by deciding to marry, leaving the director.” It seems clear that Pasolini saw himself as the Aziza to Davoli’s Aziz—the spurned lover sacrificing his happiness and ultimately dying of heartbreak. In this light the sequence becomes doubly powerful: we are watching as a man depicts his own rejection at the hand of the actor in the scene, an allegory with painfully real consequences. This, too, seems a succinct encapsulation of the genius of Pasolini: amidst all the sex and violence lay the real candor, that of putting his own heart and mind on the line.
The Poet Of Contamination, a complete retrospective of the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini, begins Saturday March 8th at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.