Ostia, the harbor city of ancient Rome, is noted for its ruins of temples, baths and palaces, constructed in the centuries before Christ, that dot its sprawling landscape. It was on a deserted vacant lot, hard by an obsolete seaplane base in Ostia just 20 miles from modern Rome, that the mutilated, bloody body of Pier Paolo Pasolini, a giant polymath of postwar Italian culture — a filmmaker, poet, novelist, playwright, literary critic, political columnist and painter, who frequently celebrated homosexuality in his writings and films — was discovered on November 2, 1975.
In the wee hours of that November morning, a Carabinieri patrol spotted a gray Alfa Romeo speeding and careening wildly down the highway. The police gave chase and ran the car off the road. Inside was a 17-year-old boy, Giuseppe “Pino” Pelosi — a hustler and delinquent known as “Pino the Frog” — who’d been released from prison for auto theft only two months earlier. Pelosi jumped out of the car and tried to run, but was caught and arrested. The Alfa Romeo, it turned out, belonged to Pasolini.
After Pasolini’s martyred remains were discovered later that day, Pino the Frog confessed to having killed him. As a minor, he was given only an eight-year sentence for the crime.
Thirty years later, at the beginning of May, Pino the Frog recanted his decades-earlier confession in a headline-making, exclusive interview with the Italian television network Rai 3. In the wake of this development, the openly gay Italian deputy Franco Grillini (of the Party of the Democratic Left) led a group of 30 deputies demanding, during the Italian parliament’s question time, that Silvio Berlusconi’s government examine the Pasolini murder anew, that the left-wing mayor of Rome put his weight behind a new investigation — and the case was officially reopened. Pino the Frog was deposed by the Roman investigating magistrates freshly charged with re-examining Pasolini’s murder, and he reiterated his new statements to them under oath. The investigation is ongoing.
The impact of Pino the Frog’s recantation on Pasolini’s future reputation cannot be overemphasized. For years, Pasolini’s enormous body of work has been dismissed and compartmentalized because of the alleged cause of his murder in Pino the Frog’s first confession — a fictive S&M adventure gone bad, in which Pasolini supposedly tried to sodomize his putative murderer with a large piece of wood. That improbable version of the assassination, so out of character with Pasolini’s legendary gentleness toward the lower-class youth to whom he was attracted, is now definitively debunked. But one cannot grasp the significance of this revelation without understanding: Who was Pasolini?
Pier Paolo Pasolini was born in 1922 in Bologna into a family of modest means and spent his first 20 years in the impoverished native region of Friuli, whose mountains, plains and valleys are in the northeastern corner of Italy, just above Trieste. Pasolini’s father was a fascist and a noncommissioned officer, moving from one garrison to another. (Pasolini later said that, in his 1967 film Oedipus Rex, he told the story of his own Oedipus complex: “The boy in the prologue is myself, and his father, the infantry officer, is my own father. The mother, a governess, is also my own mother.”)
Drafted against his will by the Germans, Pier Paolo escaped and became an active member of the Communist-led resistance to fascism and Nazi occupation as World War II came to a close. Pasolini — who started writing poetry at the age of 7 — began winning poetry prizes at 19, and published his first volume of poems at the age of 20, while teaching elementary school and writing political reportages (especially on the postwar peasant rebellions) and literary criticism for the local newspapers to support himself.
Actively gay from an early age, Pier Paolo, when he was 27, was blackmailed by a country priest, who told him to abandon his left-wing political activities and journalism, or face exposure as a homosexual. Pasolini refused to give up his political commitments, and as a result was arrested by the police for “corruption of a minor” in a case involving a 16-year-old lad, after the priest informed on him. He was acquitted of that charge in a trial that got a lot of ink in the local press, but found guilty of “lewd acts” (in the occurrence, mutual masturbation) and fined. Following that conviction, the homophobic commissars of the Communist Party, fearful for its reputation, expelled him for “moral and political unworthiness” (he also lost his teaching job). But Pier Paolo’s love-hate relationship with the Communists, then Italy’s largest political organization, continued until his death (to the end, Pasolini called himself a “Catholic Marxist”).
Having already published four volumes of poetry, Pier Paolo moved to Rome in 1950, continued to write for newspapers and literary reviews, and accumulated more poetry prizes, of increasing prestige. With his reputation as an extraordinarily talented writer already burgeoning in cultivated circles, Pasolini burst onto the public stage in 1955, winning an instant and widespread notoriety that would not end even with his death, by publishing his first novel, Ragazzi di Vita (“The Boys in the Life”), which became a best-seller. Set in the crushing poverty of the shantytowns that surrounded the Rome of la dolce vita and saturated with literary elegance, it is the story of the uneducated teenager Riccetto and his friends, who hustle “queers” for a little money to make their pointless, wasted lives a tad more bearable. This scorching mirror that Pasolini held up to Italian society’s willfully ignored ills had enormous political resonance, but it was easier for the political establishment to deny the ills by trying to ban the mirror rather than try to cure them.
On a complaint to the public prosecutor in Milan (where the book was published) by the office of Prime Minister Antonio Segni, Pasolini was indicted in December 1955 for “publishing obscene material” and “pornography,” and the book was seized from bookstores by the police. “What pornography?” asked Pier Paolo’s friend Enzo Siciliano, co-editor of the prestigious review Nuovi Argumenti, in his superb study of Pasolini’s life and work (Pasolini: A Biography).
“A few ellipses: Vaffan . . . [‘up your . . .’], a few pederasts depicted like silhouettes against the partition walls of certain little neighborhood cinemas, or else the word cazzo [‘cock’], never fully uttered but allowed to run lightly across the surface of the story. What was pornographic,” wrote Siciliano, “was the odor of truth that circulates throughout this picaresque book — the sick, oozing vitality of the characters, their outspoken frenzy, the ludicrously brazen plasticity of their bodies.”
Six months later, Pasolini was acquitted, Ragazzi di Vita was returned to bookstores, and its sales soared. Pasolini was to be brought to trial many times for his work as a writer and film director — and organized gangs of homophobic fascist youth frequently attacked the cinemas showing his films (and the cinema-goers).
It was at this time that Pier Paolo became friends with an 18-year-old working-class house painter, Sergio Citti, who helped him with the Roman slum dialect that peppered Ragazzi di Vita and its 1959 sequel, Una Via Violenta, or A Violent Life. (Sergio eventually became an assistant director and co-scenarist on many Pasolini films, and a successful scenarist and film director in his own right — today he’s considered the only legitimate heir of Pasolini’s cinematic style.) Pasolini also enlisted Sergio Citti’s help when he wrote the Roman dialogue for Fellini’s classic 1957 film, Nights of Cabiria, the story of an aging prostitute.
Pier Paolo firmly established his reputation as one of Italy’s most important writers with those two novels and two stunning books of poetry — The Ashes of Gramsci, published in 1957, whose magnificent, long political-sexual title poem was written in reaction to Khrushchev’s revelations of Stalin’s crimes, and the Soviet invasion of Hungary (Antonio Gramsci, the founder of the Italian Communist Party and an important social theorist, spent a dozen years in Mussolini’s prisons, where he died in 1937); and, in 1961, The Religion of My Time. By the end of the decade, he’d also turned out 13 film scripts, been the founder and guiding spirit of the influential poetry review Officina, and translated Aeschylus’ Oresteia, which Vittorio Gassman was to stage. But “Pasolinian” had also become an adjective used by the press to indicate everything in Rome relating to the subproletariat, or lowlife and homosexuality in general.
This adjective was cemented in the public mind by Pasolini’s first film as director as well as scenarist, the 1961 Accattone, the story of a lazy, underclass pimp starring a nonprofessional, Franco Citti (Sergio’s brother). And by his second, the 1962 Mamma Roma, about a Roman prostitute and her teenage son, starring Anna Magnani, unforgettable in the title role.
Pasolini’s 26 films also included The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964); the 1968 Teorema (“Theorem”), starring Terence Stamp as a bisexual, Christ-like figure who transforms the lives of a bourgeois family by sleeping with them all (one of the earliest sympathetic portrayals of homosexuality in a major film); the 1969 Medea, starring Maria Callas; and Pasolini’s pansexual “Trilogy of Life” — The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1974). Pasolini used very few professional actors in most of his films.
In 1963, Pier Paolo met the great love of his life, Ninetto Davoli, then 15, the son of Calabrian peasants who’d moved to Rome, a skinny kid, “a madman, with soft and merry eyes, dressed like the Beatles . . . an innocent barbarian,” as Pasolini wrote in a poem about their first encounter. Pier Paolo made Ninetto, who turned out to have real talent as a comic actor, the star of his 1966 film The Hawks and the Sparrows (a medieval fable about religion), opposite the great Italian character actor Totò. Even though their sexual relations lasted only a few years, Ninetto continued to live with Pasolini and was his constant companion, as well as appearing in six more of his films. Even after Ninetto left Pasolini’s home (kept by Pier Paolo’s mother and female cousin) to get married and have children (in 1973, putting Pier Paolo into a profound depression), their deep friendship continued. And it was Ninetto, with whom Pier Paolo had dined the night of his murder, who, on behalf of the Pasolini family, went to Ostia the next day to identify the horribly battered corpse for the Carabinieri as that of his mentor and friend.
In his recantation of his “confession,” Pino the Frog told Rai 3 that Pasolini was killed by a gang of three men in their 40s who surprised Pino and Pier Paolo having sex and shouted “dirty communist” and fag-baiting Sicilian epithets at Pier Paolo as they beat him to death. Pino insisted that this gang and their friends kept him silent by intimidation: “I was terrorized; they had threatened my father and mother. But now my mother is dead of cancer, and my father died 10 years after her. And these people are either dead or old, about 80 now. I am no longer afraid.”
The well-known journalist Oriana Fallaci — in an article published a couple of years after the murder — articulated a theory of the murder as a political crime (the view always held by most of Pasolini’s writer friends, like Alberto Moravia and Italo Calvino). And she unearthed proof that Pino the Frog’s family had extensive ties to the neo-fascist party MSI (Italian Social Movement), which hated “Pasolini the fag” as the embodiment of left-wing “decadence” (and which had a record of violently disrupting his films and plays). After the Rai 3 interview, Sergio Citti said he had proof that the murder was committed by a gang and knows their identities — and the judge in Pino’s original trial gave an interview to the daily La Stampa, saying, “I always thought he was not alone,” adding that the possibility of the crime’s having been committed for political reasons was never examined by the police at the time. “The fascist angle? No one has ever investigated a motive,” the judge said. Could the “Sicilian epithets” Pino heard indicate Mafia involvement? (Pasolini was investigating the Mafia and prostitution for a documentary at the time of his death, and ties between neo-fascists and elements of the Mafia have been well-documented.)
Moralizing Pasolini critics have always insisted on seeing his murder through the prism of his last, posthumously released film, Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom, in which he took passages from the Marquis de Sade and transposed them to the fascist Salo Republic that Mussolini (supported by German troops) briefly established in the North of Italy after he was deposed in Rome by the king and Marshal Pietro Badoglio. Pasolini, as the screen credits indicate, based his film on the interpretations of Sade by such renowned writers as Roland Barthes, Pierre Klossowski and Maurice Blanchot. But its morbidity and sadistic images, including coprophagy, make for difficult viewing. And the moralizers have combined Salo’s death obsession with the original Pino confession — “he tried to sodomize me with a wooden stake” — to dismiss Pasolini as a masochist who sought his own death by provocation, and thus trivialize the great artist’s enormous body of work.
But Siciliano’s biography (which also recounted the huge contradictions between the forensic evidence and Pino’s confession) noted that even the final Appeals Court sentence of Pino the Frog held that “one finds nothing to make one believe that the defendant’s sexual freedom or his physical integrity had been truly endangered or could have seemed to him seriously threatened . . . No attempt at the violent subjection of the boy to [Pasolini’s] wishes emerges from the story.”
Pino’s recantation now makes it irrefutable that the version of Pier Paolo’s death that has reigned in the cultural and literary world for three decades was always a complete fabrication. And that revision of history may, in time, lead to Pasolini’s restoration to his proper place in Western culture as one of the 20th century’s most valuable, inspiring, groundbreaking and multitalented geniuses.
While nearly all of Pasolini’s 26 films are available on DVD, only a handful of Pasolini’s 50-plus published works have been translated into English — the ones that are, below, are easily obtained through Amazon.com:
PIER PAOLO PASOLINI: POEMS| Translation by Norman MacAfee and Luciano Martinengo | Foreword by Enzo Siciliano | Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996 | Paperback
THE RAGAZZI(Ragazzi di Vita, novel) | Translation by E. Capouya | Carcanet Press, 1986 | Paperback
A VIOLENT LIFE(Una Via Violenta, novel) | Translation by William Weaver | Carcanet Press, 1996
PETROLIO(novel) | Translation by Ann Goldstein | Pantheon Books, 1997
LETTERS, 1940–54| Translation by Stuart Hood | Quartet Books, 1992
. . . And the essential biography:
PASOLINI: A Biography| By ENZO SICILIANO | Random House, 1982