“You seduced me, God, and I let myself be seduced.” —Teorema
One of Italy’s most important intellectuals, writers, and directors, Pier Paolo Pasolini brought many of his great loves to the screen throughout his career, themes like rural Italian life, art history, and leftist politics. Though he considered himself an atheist, he felt there was something inherently sacred in nature, human life, and sexuality, a sacredness only corrupted by the machinery of capitalism. His life, perhaps more obviously than his films, was often shaped by his own sexuality and his decision to live as a relatively open, uncloseted gay man, which had its occasional consequences. In the late ‘40s, when he fell in love for the first time — with one of his male students — he was soon charged with corrupting a minor, which resulted in him losing his job and relocating to Rome, where he soon began his career as a writer and then a filmmaker.
Unlike many of his contemporaries — Fassbinder and Godard come to mind — Pasolini was a walking contradiction, living a bold, controversial life, but with a head immersed in history, tradition, and religion. While criticizing the Catholic church (and religion in general), he thought of medieval Europe as a pre-capitalist idyll, the ancestor of his beloved Roman slums. Most of his films lack the punk aesthetic of someone like Fassbinder — he frequently adapted classic literary texts and his camera worshipped stately actresses as often as it did young delinquents — but he was also taken to court for obscenity more than 30 times throughout his career. He thought of cinema as a language all its own, one suited to exploring the relationship between sex and death, the sacred and the banal, and, above all, the inherent cruelty of modern life.
A relationship central to this dichotomy in his work and in his life, perhaps more than any other in his life, was his friendship with the young actor Ninetto Davoli, who Pasolini met in the early ‘60s and soon cast in his films. They had an alleged romantic relationship for several years, until Davoli eventually got married in 1973, but he remained Pasolini’s frequent companion until the director’s death in 1975. It’s easy to see why the older director was entranced by this teenager — then not a professional actor, but someone Pasolini just happened to meet when the boy was coincidentally watching the filming of “La ricotta.” Davoli is the kind of natural performer whose face lights up the screen, partly because he always seems to be smiling (and, as a result, was perfect for comedic roles). Of Davoli, Pasolini said, “Everything about him has a magical air…an endless reserve of happiness.”
While Davoli’s first film role — for Pasolini and in general — was as an uncredited shepherd in Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964), their first real project together was the glorious comic parable Uccellacci e uccellini (Hawks and Sparrows, 1966). Totò (the great comic actor of the same name) and his son Ninetto (Davoli) travel around the Roman countryside having adventures until they meet with a wise crow. He tells them the story of two friars, Ciccillo and Ninetto, who are tasked by St. Francis to teach a message of love to the nearby hawks and sparrows. A frustrating undertaking, they manage to communicate to the two bird species separately, but can’t convince them to love each other. After the crow is finished his story, he tags along on Totò and Ninetto’s journey through the country.
Literally meaning “Ugly Birds and Little Birds,” this was allegedly Pasolini’s own favorite among his films — and is definitely among mine — though it’s certainly not for everyone. This is essentially a tale of inherently innocent, naive characters caught up between Marxist (as represented by the crow) and Christian ideals. Nearly all of Pasolini’s early films — Accattone, Mamma roma, La ricotta, and even the documentary Comizi d’amore — reflect these contradictory themes and contain religious themes. Uccellacci e uccellini served as something of a warm, humorous farewell to those themes as Pasolini moved on to a mythic cycle after this. A fact reflected by the whimsical score from Ennio Morricone — and one of the best opening credits sequences of all time where Domenico Modugno sings the credits — this is among the lightest of all Pasolini’s films.
The humor might be a little difficult for some audiences, in the sense that some of it is topical and language-based, but there’s some wonderful, Chaplinesque physical comedy and a persistently surreal streak. But even if you don’t get some of the jokes, it’s hard to even look at Totò without being warmed down to your toes. Davoli, then just a teenager and a non-professional actor taking on his first big role, is more than able to hold his own against Totò and the two have a delightful chemistry together that makes me sorry they didn’t appear in far more films together over the years. They simply belong together.
Fortunately they did team up again the following year for Pasolini’s segment in the anthology film Le streghe (The Witches, 1967): “La terra vista dalla luna” (“The Earth as Seen from the Moon”). This second anthology film that Pasolini participated in — after 1963’s Ro.Go.Pa.G. — also includes shorts by Luchino Visconti, Franco Rossi, Mauro Bolognini, and Vittorio De Sica, and all five star Silvana Mangano (then married to producer Dino de Laurentiis who organized the project). Pasolini’s short is by far the best in the film — and is even funnier than Uccellacci e uccellini and follows a vibrantly red-haired father (Totò) and son (Davoli) as they search for a new “mama” after their matriarch has passed away. After a number of false starts, they encounter the beautiful Assurdina (Mangano), a mute and deaf woman with greenish hair and a generous spirit, who agrees to join the little family. She fixes up their tiny shack, but accidentally dies when her new husband cooks up a scheme to earn them enough money to buy a house. A funny, endearing romp that pokes fun at the human quest for advancement, this was also the start of a multi-film collaboration between Mangano and Pasolini that includes many of his mid-period films like Oedipus Rex and Teorema. If, like me, you think death by slipping on a banana peel is hilarious, then this is definitely the film for you.
Totò and Davoli teamed up with Pasolini one last time for another anthology, Capriccio all’italiana (Caprice Italian Style, 1968); Totò was actually featured in two of the segments and they represent his two final onscreen roles and the film was released after his death. Pasolini’s film, “Che cosa sono le nuvole?” (“What are the clouds?”), features a group of puppets (actually real-life actors like Totò, Davoli, Laura Betti, and Franco Franchi) are involved in an adaptation of Othello. While waiting between acts, they discuss the events unfolding on stage. For example, though the puppet played by Davoli has been cast as Othello, he recognizes him to be a flawed and negative character and he’s upset that he has to repeat this performance over and over.
Davoli and Pasolini’s next film together was far from the comedic notes of the three anthology segments. Edipo re (Oedipus Rex, 1967) is Pasolini’s journey into mythic storytelling, the first in a series of important literary adaptations that would continue throughout his career. Set in pre-war Italy, the film transitions to an ancient, mythic time, where the baby is found in Corinth and adopted by the joyous King Polybus and his wife, Queen Merope. They name him Oedipus and he grows into an energetic young man. After a playmate taunts him about his parentage, he goes to the oracle of Apollo and learns there’s a prophecy saying he will kill his father and marry his mother. Dejected and miserable, he refuses to go home, setting in motion a chain of tragic events.
A bridge between The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Pasolini’s later films like The Decameron, Oedipus Rex is marked by a dramatic visual sense and use of color that would continue throughout the second half of Pasolini’s career. It also provides an interesting precursor to Salò, as the film is consumed with anger about the actions of previous generations, those that began WWII. Like many of Pasolini’s works, this can be seen as a meditation on the effects of WWII and the postwar world. The film’s opening takes place in modern day — the 1920s — with Oedipus’s father, Laius, garbed in military uniform, the kind worn by men who would soon before part of the fascist movement.
Davoli only has a small role in the film and the meaty role of Oedipus goes to his first muse, Accattone’s Franco Citti, who tended to play more of Pasolini’s angst-ridden and violence-obsessed characters and, unlike his string of comic shorts, this film touches at a lot of personal themes, namely Pasolini’s investigation of his own complicated relationship with his mother and his father. He had a very close relationship with his mother; he lived with her for his entire life and even cast her as Jesus’s mother in The Gospel According to St. Matthew. His father, on the other hand, was an Italian soldier not unlike Laius. With a gambling problem and an arrest record, he was in and out of the young Pasolini’s life and ultimately abandoned his son. Anxiety about fathers being usurped by their sons is a common theme in Greek myth — such as the founding myth that Zeus, the father of the gods, rises up against his own father, the Titan Cronus, who has consumed all his children and imprisoned them within his stomach.
Family themes were also at the heart of his next film, the masterpiece Teorema (Theorem, 1968), where Davoli had a role as a messenger, perhaps ironically named Angelino. A bourgeois Italian family receives a visit from a mysterious stranger (the angelically beautiful Terence Stamp). He proceeds to seduce and have sex with all the members of the family — the religious maid (Laura Betti), the somewhat effeminate son (Andrés José Cruz Soublette), the repressed mother (Silvana Mangano), the shy daughter (Godard regular Anne Wiazemsky), and eventually the uptight, businessman father (Massimo Girotti). He speaks very little, gives himself to them completely, and asks for nothing in return. Then he disappears, throwing them all into a state of spiritual upheaval and emotional chaos.
Teorema is a weird little film that fits in with the mid-period of Pasolini’s career in the sense that he was past the early religious allegories set in Roman slums (Accattone, Mamma Roma, La ricotta), past the Marxist-leaning documentaries (La rabbia, Comizi d’amore), and was almost finished with his mythic period (The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Oedipus Rex, while Medea would follow a year after Teorema). This period of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s — before the Trilogy of Life and his final film, the death-obsessed Salò — Pasolini made a number of allegorical parables that define the sort of post-Marx, post-Freud, postwar world that defines his body of cinema in general. It was one of Pasolini’s few films to feature homosexual relationships (between the visitor and both father and son) and it is Pasolini’s first film with an abundance of sex and nudity. Like Salò, naked flesh and sexuality are tied into themes of mortality and the horrors of modernity. All of the members of the family are ashamed of their own sexuality, but unable to resist their attraction to the guest, who openly, almost innocently returns their affection. The visitor’s sexual acts serve to set each of the family members free from their bourgeois prison, but this isn’t entirely positive or care free — Pasolini in no sense gives the idea that the film has a happy ending. The visitor could be seen as God or the Devil, or merely as a force of profound change — a living epiphany.
Porcile (Pigsty, 1969) is loosely similar in tone to Teorema, though it is far more surreal. This difficult, avant-garde film presents two parallels stories. In a volcanic wasteland, a young man — played by one of my favorite European cult actors, Pierre Clémenti — becomes a cannibal and is eventually executed for his troubles. In postwar Germany, during the economic miracle, a businessman focuses on a relationship with his rival, while his adult son (Jean-Pierre Léaud) seeks company in a pigsty rather than by his fiancee’s (Anne Wiazemsky again) side. The violence, chaos, and social breakdown introduced in this poetic work is something of a foreshadowing of the atrocities in Salò.
Both Davoli and Franco Citti have side roles in a film that is primarily populated not by non-professional actors, or even by Italian performers, but by an international cast of primarily French arthouse favorites, perhaps speaking to Pasolini’s rise in status during this time. One of Pasolini’s most difficult films, but also one of his greatest triumphs, Porcile is at the center of a fascinated web that connects the director’s cinema as a whole. It strikes a fine balance between the mythic works like Oedipus Rex, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, and Medea. Like Oedipus Rex, it is concerned with polluted lands, patricide, and crimes against the family. Like the later Salò, this is one of Pasolini’s few films overtly about the devastating effects of WWII, and also like that last, greatest of his films, it is comprised of a mix of storytelling and highly intellectual language. This is closely related to the bourgeois satire found in Teorema, but here Pasolini exchanges sex and religious epiphany for violence and discussions of the Holocaust.
1969 also saw Pasolini’s final participation in an anthology film, Amore e rabbia (Love and Anger), which also includes short works by Marco Bellocchio, Pasolini’s protege Bernardo Bertolucci, Godard, Pasolini collaborator Carlo Lizzani, and Elda Tattoli. In Pasolini’s strange tale, “La sequenza del fiore di carta” (“The Sequence of the Paper Flower”), an innocent young boy (Davoli) leads a life of goodness — which is contrasted by the world’s evil deeds during WWII — and the boy is ultimately punished for his happiness and ignorance. This segment seems very much like a tragicomic response to the events of 1968, which included protests, strikes, and government-wide shut downs; this period was the closest Europe has come since 18th century France to attaining revolution.
It’s nice to see Davoli front and center again after a few years relegated to side roles — though he barely has any dialogue — and the segment as a whole rides on his irresistible charm and irrepressible likability. He plays an innocent young man who wanders the streets in utter harmony with the world, sometimes carrying a large paper flower. These images are contrasted with clips of atrocities and historically important moments and the youth is eventually struck dead, as if the heavens are outraged by his innocence and gaiety.
He would also be a main focus of Pasolini’s Trilogy of life: Il Decameron (The Decameron, 1971), I racconti di Canterbury (The Canterbury Tales, 1972), and Il fiore delle mille a una notte (Arabian Nights, 1974). Pasolini’s career began a new chapter entirely when he adapted nine of Boccaccio’s 14th century stories written in the aftermath of the Black Death in this first film in a soon-to-be series dubbed the Trilogy of Life. Though all the stories are inherently morality tales, Pasolini infused the film with modern political context, his own thoughts on the hypocrisy of the Catholic church, a ribald sense of humor, and plenty of sexually explicit content that ushered in a wave of imitators in European erotic cinema.
Renaissance paintings come to life in this most beautiful of Pasolini’s films to date, and Pasolini chose nine stories of varying content — he himself plays an apprentice of real-life 14th century painter Giotto, a contemporary of Boccaccio, in the film’s loose framing device. This wondrous portrait of daily life in medieval Italy has a few professional actors — including some great performances from Citti as a luxuriously sinful man and Davoli as an innocent tricked into jumping into a latrine in the first episode — but is primarily made up of extras and non-professional actors from rural Italy that brings an enormous weight to the proceedings. While Boccaccio’s novel is set during a plague outbreak in Florence, Pasolini moved the proceedings to the southern Italian kingdom of Naples. You can occasionally hear the Neapolitan language, an Italian dialect, and the southern setting is an intentional movement from “civilized,” cultured northern Italy to the more unruly, rural south.
Despite the use of earthly humor, frequent nudity, and sexual themes in Il Decameron, there is something inherently innocent and optimistic in all the film’s debauchery. Characters are frequently punished — a young man is dumped in a pile of shit and then locked in a tomb, another dies of a life-threatening illness, a woman’s lover is killed by her brothers, and so on — but they are not presented as being fundamentally changed or ruined by these hardships. Nearly all of the stories have happy endings and the characters are often presented as ridiculous, if sympathetically so. Like all of Pasolini’s films, Il Decameron is undoubtedly satirical of religion and bourgeois society, but he seems to have left the scalding, Marxist criticisms of bourgeois life — the kind found in Porcile and Teorema — behind for something lively, earthy, and utterly devoid of cynicism.
I racconti di Canterbury (The Canterbury Tales, 1972) turns to Chaucer for inspiration and adapts eight of his often bawdy tales about English life in the Middle Ages with a focus on sex, infidelity, difficult marriages, and sin. Violent, erotic, and comical, Pasolini celebrated Chaucer’s love of life and sex, as well as his hatred of church hypocrisy. Darker and more complex than Il Decameron, this film is more over-the-top than even Chaucer’s original work. I racconti di Canterbury is maybe not as whimsical and celebratory as the other two films in Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life and there is more of a sense of underlying bitterness. The characters simply don’t have the same lighthearted attitude as in Il Decameron and the body, sometimes a source of pleasure and humor, is also frequently a source of pain. One character gets a hot poker in the ass when he participates in a fart joke that a woman is playing on her other lover, while a man trying to have sex with someone else’s wife pretends to have arrived on an errand of prophecy and predicts an apocalyptic flood to the tearful husband.
There are some raucous depictions of Hell in Pasolini’s interpretation of “The Summoner’s Tale,” complete with more asses and fart references, the appearance of the grim reaper, and Citti as a charming, if not outright smarmy Devil — undoubtedly one of the film’s best characters. One of the most disturbing, knowing Pasolini’s own history, is an anti-gay segment where a man caught having an affair with another man is saved from prosecution because he is rich; his destitute partner is not so lucky. If anything, this is a celebration of the anti-sacred and is surprisingly darker than his spiritually-themed first films, Accattone and Mamma Roma, with their depictions of martyrs from the Roman borgate.
While Pasolini himself puts in an appearance as Chaucer, and Laura Betti shows up as the infamous Wife of Bath (and I’m absolutely never going to recover from the fact that this segment features a naked Tom Baker), Chaucer’s brief “The Cook’s Tale” is here turned into one of the most lighthearted segments — a lengthy homage to Charlie Chaplin starring Davoli as a fool who causes destruction while searching for employment. The sweet-faced Davoli’s character has a lovely dream sequence where a band of female musicians is suddenly playing naked, and when he’s later carted off to the shackles, he signs a delightful song. It’s likely that the dark tone of the film is due, at least in part, to Davoli finally leaving the director (at least in a romantic sense) to get married.
The last of these — and the last collaboration between Pasolini and Davoli — is Il fiore delle mille e una notte from 1974, one year before the director’s tragic and violent death. Pasolini’s adaptation of the anonymous collection One Thousand and One Nights foregoes the popular framing story — Scheherazade telling her new husband the king story after story so that he doesn’t kill her — in favor of some of the more obscure tales of young lovers, murder, loss, and much more. As a framing story, Pasolini selected that of Zumurrud (Ines Pellegrini), a headstrong, beautiful young slave who chooses her new owner, Nur Ed Din (Franco Merli), a handsome young man. They fall in love, but are soon parted when Zumurrud is kidnapped. She escapes and finds her way to a far off kingdom, where they mistake her for a man and, thanks to a prophecy, crown her king. She is determined to use her new power to reunite with her lost love.
Arabian Nights, the actual title of of which translates to “The Flower of the Thousand and One Nights,” is the grimmest and most downbeat of the trilogy. The film is essentially an anthology of tales all about jealous and/or heartbroken lovers who are mourning the loss of their lovers. This is the only film of the trilogy in which Pasolini did not appear, but it is arguably his most autobiographical of the three. The story of Aziz (Davoli) and Aziza (Tessa Bouché) is particularly heart-rending. On the eve of his wedding to Aziza, Aziz falls in love with another woman. Though heartbroken, Aziza stands by him and gives him advice on how to woo his new love. When he eventually wins her over, Aziza kills herself. His new partner declares that he must build a marble temple to Aziza, but when he goes on a quest to make that happen, he falls in love with a third woman. He is eventually castrated for his troubles. Though Davoli remained Pasolini’s close companion after his marriage (to Pasolini’s death the following year) and it’s impossible to ignore this subtext of heartbreak and betrayal.
The stories are far less humorous than the first two films of the series and the majority of the film’s characters have at least one scene where they shed tears and the violence is more extensive than in the rest of the trilogy. For example, Aziz is castrated and in another tale, Citti stars as an improbably red-haired demon (with giant earrings) who hacks a female lover to pieces and then transports her boyfriend through the air and turns him into a chimpanzee (!). But there are also plenty of trademark humorous and surreal touches. Thanks to Walerian Borowczyk’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, I’m a little obsessed with cult films that feature use of a bow and arrow and Arabian Nights has not one, but two instances of someone shooting a golden bow and arrow. The first time, in Davoli’s Aziz segment, is a real doozie where Aziz symbolically shoots a golden, penis-shaped arrow (!) into the woman he has fallen in love with as symbolic of their first sexual encounter.
While Davoli has remained active as an actor in the years after Pasolini’s death — he is actually about to star alongside Asia Argento and Franco Nero in The Executrix (2017) — his legacy is and will always be associated with Pasolini. And while the director had a stable of recurring actors throughout his films, Davoli’s presence in his work is iconic and Pasolini makes it abundantly clear why he fell so deeply in love with the young actor: the qualities of innocence and a profound, radiant joy shine through regardless of the varying roles he played. As a viewer, it’s impossible not to fall in love with him a little bit too.