Essays (book reviews)

The Passion and the Paradox:
The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini
by Sam Rohdie
(London: British Film Institute, 1996)


Near the end of the candid 1966 documentary portrait Pasolini l’enragé shot in 1966, the French critic Jean-André Fieschi casually asks Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini whether art is for him a “matter of life and death”. Pasolini – who up to this point has been discoursing urbanely on class, culture, cinema and language like a true public intellectual – is floored by the question. “This changes the whole basis of our discussion”, he declares, and goes on to confess that everything he has previously said is a mere mask hiding his actual, primal, angst ridden feelings about life, death and survival. Unmasked as a trembling existentialist, Pasolini announces that the interview is over. And there Fieschi’s film abruptly ends.


Sam Rohdie’s The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini helps us to understand the drama of revelation which unfolded in that memorable documentary moment. Rohdie is always reminding us that what Pasolini was nominally addressing, and what he was really expressing, were often two very different and divergent things. Pasolini posed for a spell as a cine-semiologist – but the Cinema he theorised was a mad dream, one infinite camera shot that would hypothetically contain the ideal world for which he so pined. And when, as he often did, Pasolini mourned the ‘dying primitives’ of the Third World, he was in fact lamenting the passing of the Italian peasantry – or perhaps even more acutely the loss of his own youthful self.


Rohdie, who spent many years teaching, writing and speaking in Australia, can be included among those Australian writers whose book publishing career has happened elsewhere – in his case, under the auspices of the British Film Institute, which has also published another important Australian book, Lesley Stern’s The Scorsese Connection. Before this Pasolini book came Rohdie’s Antonioni (1990) and his contribution to the remarkable BFI Classics series, on Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1993). Together, these three books constitute a strikingly sustained and original exploration of contemporary Italian cinema.


Rohdie, like Stern, is a scholar who has managed to salvage what is best and most useful from the heady period of intense theorising that swamped cinema study in the 1970s, and who renews and extends these insights in a poetic, searching way. Rohdie and Stern both still draw vivid inspiration from the Barthesian notion of film as a text – allusive, dynamic, energetic, phantasmatic – as opposed to the more classically literary model of the film as a mere work. Although Jacques Derrida is never cited in The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini, it is clear that Rohdie approaches every film in a Derridean way, grasping it as a potential conceptual paradox – a statement or position that is always undoing itself, implying its opposite term.


This idea tracks through all of his writing on the great auteurs of Italian cinema. Fellini, for instance, may make films that, on the surface decry a world of artifice and superficiality – but, in their very being, they celebrate this artifice. Rocco and His Brothers may seem to be groping toward a stern moral statement about the “conflicting claims of passion and duty, art and reason”, but Visconti is forever fascinated by the decadence that he dramatises. Rohdie is not out to expose or correct these wayward, paradoxical expressions. On the contrary, he grasps them as constitutive paradoxes, generating the most agonised, soulful and beautiful of films.


In the art of Pasolini, across his films, poems, essays, novels and plays of almost thirty years, constitutive paradoxes like these multiply as in a hall of mirrors. All of his works evoked a purer, more authentic, more sacred world – a world of peasant culture, unfettered bodily sensation, kindly fathers and obedient sons. Yet this world, on almost every real level, was already lost, gone – and Pasolini always found a way to acknowledge and inscribe the recognition of this loss into the very textuality, the deepest formal and linguistic structures, of his works.


As Rohdie reminds us, this is perhaps the oldest existential paradox of all: a state of innocence is sublime, but the naming of that innocence, the recognition of it, inevitably kills and corrupts it. Pasolini plays out this vicious, melancholic, but somehow tantalising cycle of innocence and experience time and time again, in films including Edipo Re (1967) and Il fiore delle Mille e una Notte (Arabian Nights, 1974).


The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini is in many ways a challenging and unusual book. Like The Scorsese Connection, it is a fully literary enterprise, dotted with autobiographical vignettes and asides, constructed on essasyistic swirls of tangential associations. It is certainly not a conventional study of a director and his oeuvre: no single film of Pasolini’s, and hardly even a single scene, is analytically reconstructed for us in depth. Instead, Rohdie’s text appears to go around and around, figuring out very slowly and gradually the essential, interlocking paradoxes that underlie Pasolini’s expressive output, repeating in many different contexts the director’s puzzling theorems about writing, poetry, revolution, desire, loss and ‘the ideal’.


There is perhaps a justification for all this literary circling and crawling around the subject of Pasolini. In his Preface, Rohdie forewarns us: “There is more than a single voice in this essay”. Deep into this 230 page book, I was still puzzled by the author’s claim: unlike Stern’s book, which is obviously a jazzy, performative montage of fragments, this one is calm, even, and quite consistent in its tone. But then it dawned on me: much is made of Pasolini’s life-long penchant for mimicry, for taking on the voice of an Other, and that is exactly what Rohdie has attempted to do here. The slightly hectoring tone, the obsessive replaying and realigning of fundamental conceptual paradoxes, the “theorising about theorising”: all this is itself, as literary form, a “Pasolinian analogy” for Pasolini’s art.


And if there moments of difficulty and unpleasure in this book alongside its many epiphanies and lyrical insights, that too is a reflection: an image of Rohdie’s own slightly troubled, not always rhapsodic relation to his subject. Pasolini’s films are beautiful, but completely unsensual; they are seductive, but also grating; they are inspiring as idealistic dreams, but hopeless as political manifestos. If Rohdie’s earlier book on Antonioni strikes me as a better, fuller – and certainly more elegant – text, it is because, there, his own passion is whole-hearted, never beset by doubts or confronted by the childishness or morbidity that (as he acutely demonstrates) mark Pasolini’s expression.


Rohdie, in a magical literary moment, in fact gets to ask his beloved Antonioni – now virtually paralysed and mute, but still making films – about this most difficult of twentieth century artists. “His assessment of Pasolini? Antonioni looked straight at me, and then, turning his head repeatedly, he looked over his shoulder, backwards”.



© Adrian Martin February 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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