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The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini

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In the early hours of 2 November 1975, the body of Pier Paolo Pasolini – writer, poet, film director and one of Italy’s leading intellectuals – was found on wasteland in Ostia, just outside Rome. Several hours later, Pino “The Frog” Pelosi, a 17-year-old male prostitute, was arrested speeding along the Ostia seafront in Pasolini’s Alfa Romeo. Pelosi was accused of Pasolini’s brutal murder. It was alleged that Pasolini had picked up Pelosi outside Termini train station, taken him to a pizzeria and then driven to Ostia for sex. Pelosi himself claimed that he had killed Pasolini in self-defence after the latter had attempted to sodomise him with a wooden stick, but after a lengthy trial he was found guilty in 1976 and sentenced to nine years in jail.

On the night of his murder, Pasolini had dined with Ninetto Davoli and his family at the Pommidoro restaurant in the San Lorenzo district of Rome. Davoli had come from a poor Calabrian family and been discovered by Pasolini in the Rome slums in the early 1960s. He became Pasolini’s main actor, for a time his lover and subsequently one of his closest friends. It was Davoli who had to identify Pasolini’s corpse the following day.

Many people were unhappy with the murder verdict. The actress Laura Betti, who had appeared in many of Pasolini’s films, organised a campaign for an inquiry into his death. She argued that it had a deeper political significance. After all, Pasolini had made many enemies. In the weeks leading up to his murder he had condemned Italy’s political class for its corruption, for neo-fascist conspiracy and for collusion with the Mafia. In articles for Corriere della Sera he had called for Italy’s political class to be put on trial.

Other friends and supporters of Pasolini, like the film director Bernardo Bertolucci, used the absence of blood on Pelosi’s clothes and the nature of the marks on Pasolini’s body to cast doubt on the notion that Pelosi alone could have committed the murder. Bertolucci, who worked as an assistant on Pasolini’s first film Accattone, spoke of the way Pasolini’s life and public image had been “savaged” in the period leading up to his murder. Pasolini’s last film Salo o le 120 Giornate di Sodom depicted Mussolini’s fascists as sodomites, and he had received death threats from active neo-fascist groups.

Geoff Andrews is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005)

Also by Geoff Andrews in openDemocracy:

“Bologna’s lesson for London” (August 2005)

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The doubts that emerged over responsibility for the killing did not abate after Pelosi’s confession. The trial pathologist, Faustino Durante, suggested that the murder was likely to have been committed by more than one person. The newspaper Paese Sera published a letter from a witness saying that a car containing four people from Catania in Sicily followed Pasolini to Ostia. This material, though submitted, was never used in the trial. These concerns were partially reflected when a court decided in 1977 that Pasolini had been “murdered by Pelosi and persons unknown”; but at the appeal in 1979, this judgment was amended and Pelosi now regarded as the sole murderer.

In 2005, the 46-year-old Pino Pelosi made a startling new statement in an interview for RAI 3: “I am innocent. I didn’t kill him”. He now accused three strangers - “youths with southern accents” – of the killing. After meeting Pasolini at Termini station, and going with him to Ostia, he now claimed that three “mysterious” individuals were waiting for the pair. After restraining Pelosi, they dragged Pasolini from the car, called him “a dirty communist” and a “piece of shit” before beating him to death. Pelosi claimed he then panicked and drove over Pasolini’s body in his bid to escape.

At the same time, Sergio Citti, film director and former colleague of Pasolini, disclosed to La Repubblica that someone who knew the truth had told him that Pasolini had been killed by five people. Citti’s account differed from Pelosi’s: “Pino Pelosi was only a boy. He acted as bait for those five and they used him. They needed somebody to blame for the crime. Respectable people ordered the murder. (Pasolini’s) death was convenient to many; to all those who were afraid of his mind and free spirit.”

Walter Veltroni, Rome’s mayor, responded to these statements by calling for a new inquiry. There was a “need for truth” he said; “Pelosi’s statements rekindle doubt and questions which the poet’s friends, many intellectuals and a good part of public opinion have always had on what really happened that night”. Italian magistrates reopened the case in May 2005 and promised to consider the new evidence.

On the thirtieth anniversary of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s murder, Doug Ireland – who has written extensively about the case – publishes, for the first time in English, Pasolini’s poem “Victory

For a good website about Pier Paolo Pasolini in English, see here

A cultural subversive

The starting-point for any criminal investigation is the underlying motive; who had reason to kill Pier Paolo Pasolini and who benefited from the death? It is impossible to answer these questions without considering Pasolini’s role as a dissident and one of Italy’s most prominent intellectuals.

Pasolini’s work spanned the disciplines of poetry, literature and cinema, while his political commitments were intense, controversial and unpredictable. The recurring theme dominating Pasolini’s life was power. In his work, as in his personal experiences, he encountered power in all its hidden, conspiratorial and censorious forms. More than thirty legal cases were brought against him for blasphemy and obscenity arising from his films and writing. His confrontations with power kept him simultaneously at the margins and the centre of Italian public life. He was a dissident not only from the Italian mainstream but also from the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and the wider left, whose orthodoxies and conventions he often contested.

Pasolini, born in Bologna in 1922, was brought up in the family home in Casarsa, in Italy’s northeast Friuli province; it was here in 1942 that he produced his first published work, Poems of Casarsa – and collection written in Friulian dialect.

Pasolini’s use of dialect owed much to the influence of Antonio Gramsci, the Sardinia-born Marxist who wrote his major works from Mussolini’s prison cell. Pasolini took from Gramsci the need for a national popular art that would engage a critical working class. This was to be part of a wider political struggle to project an alternative proletarian culture in opposition to ruling-class hegemony and occupied the breadth of Pasolini’s early work, through his poetry and subsequently through his writings and films. His celebrated 1957 poem, The Ashes of Gramsci, reflected his debt to Gramsci’s thought; notably the way “forbidden voices” can inform social change.

His concern with marginal working-class culture was evident in his first novel published in 1954, Ragazzi di Vita (Boys of the Street) which depicted the violent existence of the Roman sub-proletariat and the repressive nature of the state. The raw daily realities of Rome’s young poor in slums like the borgate, apparent to Pasolini from his homosexual encounters, were further portrayed in his second book, Una Vita Violenta (A Violent Life), which won the Premio Crotone in 1959.

Una Vita Violenta formed the basis for Pasolini’s first film, Accattone, made in 1961 in the borgate (slums), in the spirit of the Italian neo-realist tradition (though with some innovations, notably camera focus and lighting). Writing about Accattone in 1975, Pasolini described it as a “laboratory” for understanding a “way of life”: “The peasant culture of the south gave the Roman sub-proletarians not only psychological traits but completely original physical traits as well. It located a real ‘race’”.

He attributed the way of life of the Roman poor to the combination of economic deprivation and the seedy underworld which characterised the repressive 1950s, which Pasolini saw in some ways as a continuity between the fascist era and the subsequent Christian democrat regime. He defined this regime as “clerico-fascism” for its repressive use of the state and its manipulation of power. He argued that this was illustrated in Rome by the marginal existence of the sub-proletariat which was in conflict with a criminal police force. Other social classes had little knowledge of the real conditions of the Roman slums, where different ways of living and value systems were evident.

These ways of living were transformed as the 1960s unfolded, when Italy underwent an economic consumer boom with the new freedoms and aspirations epitomised by films like Fellini’s La Dolca Vita. After Accattone and Mamma Roma (1962), Pasolini lost his earlier optimistic belief that neo-realism and other critical cultural forms could drive radical social change. He despaired at the emergence of a neo-capitalist empire set on destroying popular culture. He no longer believed that Gramsci’s reconciliation between popular culture and political change was possible. For Pasolini, the kind of mass hedonism that emerged during the 1960s shattered his belief in working-class innocence. “My films were not for mass consumption”, he said later. “I could imagine nothing worse than producing something for an alienated mass culture, which I had no sympathy for”.

This shattering realisation remained with Pasolini and dominated his remaining work. His films took a new direction and reflected a more complex philosophical commitment, with points of convergence as well as contradiction between his Marxism and Catholicism. Il Vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to Matthew) filmed in 1964 in the poor southern town of Matera – amongst the Sassi, the ancient cave-like dwellings that had symbolised north-south differences in Italy – marked a departure from neo-realism.

A year earlier, Pasolini had received a four-month suspended prison sentence for “publicly undermining the religions of the state” for his short film La Ricotta, part of a neo-realist trilogy (RoGoPaG) which also included shorts from Goddard and Rossellini. Now, The Gospel…, produced at a time when Pope John XXIII had initiated a communist-Christian dialogue at the Second Vatican Council in 1962, reflected Catholic as well as communist beliefs in its literate reading of Matthew. The film, in which Pasolini’s mother Susanna plays Mary and an unknown Spanish student Jesus, is an unequivocal condemnation of materialism and an attempt at a new spiritual reconciliation between Marxism and Catholicism.

Pasolini followed The Gospel… with Uccellacci e uccellini (Hawks and Sparrows, 1966), one of his most philosophical films which starred Toto the celebrated comic and Ninetto Davoli as father and son. They embark on a journey where they encounter a crow who attempts to enlighten them with stories from a Marxist position. It is a difficult task and the father and son, whose destination is never clear and who appear unaffected by either consumerism or idealism, eventually eat the crow as a mark of their indifference and security in their predicament.

Pasolini’s intention in Hawks and Sparrows was to articulate a critique of consumer capitalism and the vacuous pleasures it produced, while holding out the possibility of social justice and renewed political consciousness. His critique of bourgeois materialist values was further developed in films like Theorem (1968), and reached its pinnacle with Salo (1975).

By the mid-1960s, Pasolini was facing a breach with the left, despite maintaining much of his Marxism (he had been expelled from the PCI in 1949 following his dismissal as a teacher for alleged homosexual liaisons with his pupils in Friuli). His growing belief that the working class had become incorporated into consumer capitalism was followed by his controversial – and some would say simplistic – view that middle-class progressivism was dependent on superficial bourgeois decadence.

These differences became more overt and came to a head at the time of the May events in 1968. In the violent clashes that occurred at this time, Pasolini was very sceptical of the motives of the student movement, distrusting its class composition and perceived hedonism. He wrote a poem for L’Espresso which took the side of the police, whom he saw as poor southerners, sent to work for the state in order to escape the poverty of the south. He felt that the students should fight the legal and political system, not the sons of the poor. This brought him into major conflict with the left and he was physically attacked when speaking in Venice.

Also in openDemocracy on Italy’s politics in the era of Silvio Berlusconi:

Sarah Pozzoli & Mario Rossi, “The fall and rise of Silvio Berlusconi” (April 2005)

Sarah Pozzoli, “Who rules Italy” (June 2005)

Marco Niada, “Italy’s tragic democracy” (August 2005)

A political radical

Pasolini was now some way from the new left, which had put its faith in the politics of the new social movements. He opposed widespread drug use by the youth and students of this time, which he attributed to “middle-class unhappiness and refusal”. Drugs, he argued in a polemic with the leader of the Radical Party, Giacinto (Marco) Pannella, were merely a response to a loss of values and an attempt to fill a void leading young people into unhappiness, criminality or extremism. Rather than seeing it as a form of dissent, Pasolini saw drug-taking as a “surrogate for a specific elitist class culture”.

Moreover he maintained that drug-taking was indicative of a wider cultural malaise, which became one of the main themes dominating his final work. He condemned the “‘new economic power” which had led to the degradation of Italian cultural life. He saw through the paradoxes of the 1960s and 1970s, apparently offering new freedoms and sexual liberation yet containing in reality a “false” tolerance producing only cynicism and conformism.

These paradoxes were reflected in his own Trilogia della Vita (Trilogy of Life), a series of three films made in the early 1970s which captured the innocence of sexuality, but which he later renounced as no longer indicative of the world that now existed. Nor was he inspired by the growing medium of television. If drugs had elicited unhappiness, he found much TV “vulgar” and “degrading”.

He challenged the “false progressivism” and “false tolerance” advocated by mainstream political parties, including the Italian Communist Party, to which he continued to give qualified support. On the contrary, Italy was a “second-rate” power going nowhere. “In reality Italy is a horrible place”, he wrote in July 1975. “All one has to do is go abroad for a day and then return. The Italy of today has been destroyed exactly as was the Italy of 1945. Indeed the destruction is more serious, because we do not find ourselves among the ruins, however distressing, of houses and monuments, but among the ruins of values, humanistic values and what is more important popular values.”

For Pasolini the main blame lay with Italy’s degenerate political class. The Christian Democrats (DC), which had ruled Italy virtually uninterrupted since the defeat of fascism, now assimilated the values of the capitalist revolution, despite the fact that its “hedonistic ideology” was some way from Catholic values. Yet as the remnants of the “clerico-fascism” of the post-war years adjusted to meet the demands of the “new economic power”, it only intensified the contradictions at the heart of the Italian state.

For Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italy in the 1970s was not a normal country, but one run by a parliamentary regime, corrupt to the core, complicit in Mafia dealings, and above all conspiratorial in sustaining its own grip on power. It was “a ridiculous and sinister country”. The spate of neo-fascist bombings which had gone unpunished and the so-called “strategy of tension”, in which fear of a communist takeover was triggered by violent terrorism, continued to prevent any kind of political and social change.

This was despite the considerable efforts of the communist party. A surge in the PCI’s support in the mid-1970s had been followed by a controversial “historic compromise” with the DC as a way of asserting greater influence. Pasolini, like many others on the left, was unconvinced by this strategy, though he also rejected the drift to violence of some of the left groups. He thought the communists were in danger of being submerged into the trappings of power, notably through their pragmatic negotiations with the DC and faith in the state as a repressive instrument.

In an extraordinary series of articles in Corriere della Sera and Il Mondo in August-September 1975, Pasolini argued for the Christian Democrat leaders (including Giulio Andreotti and others) to be put on trial. The only way to remove these leaders from their centres of power (what Pasolini called the “palace”), was a full criminal trial. The DC was guilty of a series of crimes, he argued – including complicity with the Mafia in government decision-making; covering up the neo-fascist bombings in Milan, Brescia and Bologna between 1969-1974; misuse of public funds; collaboration with the CIA; and conspiring with the military and CIA to halt the rise of the left.

“Over the whole of Italy’s democratic life”, he wrote, “there looms the suspicion of Mafia-like complicity on the one hand and ignorance on the other; from this is born almost of its own accord a natural pact with power – a tacit diplomacy of silence.”

His warnings were accompanied by an appeal to citizens, intellectuals and movements to demand the truth from Italy’s rulers: “Until they know all these things…the political consciousness of the Italians will be incapable of producing a new awareness. That is to say Italy will be ungovernable.”

“Why the Trial?” appeared in Corriere della Sera on 28 September 1975. Just over a month later Pasolini was murdered. A lot of people had motives: leading Christian Democrats who, three years later, sat by and watched ex-prime minister Aldo Moro die at the hands of the Red Brigades, after he too denounced them as people who “lived for and by power”; Mafia bosses with direct access to the centre of power in Rome; the neo-fascists of the MSI, the heir to Mussolini’s Fascist party. Pasolini had repeatedly denounced the perceived cover-ups that followed fascist bombing campaigns, and his last film Salo had satirised Mussolini’s fascist regime.

More evidence may shed light on these and other events. However, many of Pasolini’s friends fear that the real truth will never come out, reminding us that at the time of the original trial Italians wanted a quick judgment. The implicit assumption of much of the media was that the life of a homosexual and troublesome intellectual was bound to end in such circumstances.

In October 2005, there was another blow for campaigners with the death of Sergio Citti, whose new evidence had helped to reopen the case. Citti had been discovered in the borgate by Pasolini; saved, he himself admitted, from a life of delinquency. By some irony, on the very day Citti died, magistrates decided that his and Pelosi’s statements were insufficient to bring a new inquest into Pasolini’s murder.

An unsettled death

Thirty years after his mutilated body was found in Ostia, we know more about those who benefited from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s death, while his pessimistic prognosis of Italy’s decay has proved to be extraordinarily prophetic. The early 1990s confirmed Pasolini’s arguments about corruption at the heart of the Christian Democrat state, as the party collapsed in the face of the Tangentopoli (“bribesville”) scandal between 1992-1994. It was the magistrates in their mani pulite (“clean hands”) investigations who had belatedly answered Pasolini’s call in bringing Italy’s rulers to justice.

It is clearer than ever that the Mafia exercised controlling influences at the heart of the Italian state throughout the 1970s. In 1993, Giulio Andreotti, several times Italian prime minister, faced charges of Mafia association and conspiracy to murder for which he was initially sentenced to twenty-four years in prison. In 2004 the charges were dropped on appeal due to “insufficient evidence”; the court conveniently found that Andreotti had Mafia associations prior to 1982, the point at which this became illegal, but that evidence could not be produced that they extended further.

The response of Italy’s political class to the Andreotti decision confirmed the relevance of much of Pasolini’s analysis of power and the failure to take responsibility for the past. Variously lauded as a “great statesman” or “wise leader”, Andreotti remains a life senator and appears regularly as a pundit on the Italian media.

Also on Italy’s modern history and politics, see:

Tobias Jones, The Dark Heart of Italy (Faber, 2003)

Paul Ginsborg, Italy and its Discontents: Family, Civil Society, State 1980-2001 (Penguin, 2003)

Paul Ginsborg, Silvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony (Verso, 2004)

We also know more of the conspiracy at the heart of the Italian state, first described by Pasolini in Corriere della Sera. We know that Propaganda Due (P2) was a clandestine organisation made up of a cross-section of Italy’s power-elite, including newspaper editors, forty-four MPs, leading army officers and bankers. Its purpose was to provide funding and infiltrate positions of power in public institutions in order to halt the rise of the left. It was almost certainly complicit in other deaths, such as that of the head of Banco Ambrosiana, Roberto Calvi, whose body was found beneath London’s Blackfriars Bridge in 1982 in an incident now proved beyond reasonable doubt to have been murder.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Pasolini’s death was P2 member 1816 – Italy’s current prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, who was a member of the organisation from 1978. Berlusconi’s populism represents everything Pasolini warned against in his later articles. His control of 90% of Italian TV, (much of it “degrading” and “vulgar” in Pasolini’s earlier description), helped him consolidate power and eradicate dissent. His “culture of illegality” has given new hope to the Mafia, while ensuring that Italy’s body politic remains the most degenerate in western Europe.

Berlusconi’s government has also seen the return of the fascists, in the form of the National Alliance, the successor to the MSI, whose leader Gianfranco Fini is well-placed to succeed Berlusconi as leader of the right and may yet become Italy’s prime minister. It is unlikely that Fini’s attempts to enter the mainstream of the European right, based on shrewd politicking, would have fooled Pasolini the way it has other commentators. The brutality of the Italian state has been in evidence once again, notably in dealing with the clandestini, the illegal immigrants arriving in their hundreds on the shores of Italy, with whose cause Pasolini would surely have identified.

Pasolini would have continued to despair at the fate of Italy’s left, such as the ineptitude of former communist Massimo D’Alema’s attempts when in government to broker a deal with Berlusconi, thereby allowing the latter’s “conflicts of interest” to go unchallenged. He would have sympathised with film director Nanni Moretti for denouncing party leaders and starting a broad citizens’ movement to challenge Berlusconi’s grip on power.

Pier Paolo Pasolini was an intellectual of many paradoxes. Free of most dogmas, his search for truth in his work and his politics shaped much of his life. He once said that it is not until someone dies that you really know who they are. Pasolini’s words in The Ashes of Gramsci are his own fitting epitaph:

“Between hope
and my old distrust I approach you,
chancing upon this thinned-out greenhouse, before

your tomb, before your spirit, still alive
down here among the free (or it’s
something else, perhaps more ecstatic, even

humbler: an intoxicated, adolescent
symbiosis of sex and death….)
And in this land where your passion never

rested, I feel how wrong
– here, among the quiet of these graves
and yet how right – in our unquiet
fate – you were, as you drafted your final
pages in the days of your murder.”


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