Pasolini's Erotic Gaze from Medea to Salo
Syrimis, Michael, Italica
Pier Paolo Pasolini's cinema exhibits a number of stylistic idiosyncrasies that in some fashion or other we may describe as the "erotic gaze." We recall, for example, his signature frontal shot that lingers on the awkward smile of an innocent looking youth, or his slow pans over rough natural landscapes. In instances such as these, which exemplify what Pasolini calls his sacralita tecnica, or technical sacrality (Per il cinema 2768), the camera seems to penetrate through the object's surface layer so as to unearth its deep primordial qualities. To be sure, the erotic dimension of such shots is not explicit, unlike that of the specific trope on which this essay will concentrate: the cases in which a character contemplates a man's body with special attention to the genital area. The pornographic aspect of this "crotch shot" (Pendleton 47) in its libidinal origin does not eclipse its ideologically conceived, meticulously crafted, and historically shifting value. My study of key instances of such erotic contemplation in Pasolini's later cinema, from 1969 to 1975, highlights the transformations that the erotic gaze undergoes with respect to the following factors: the type of audience that each film addresses, hence, Pasolini's shifting position vis-a-vis film history; Pasolini's homosexuality; and his ideological critique of 1960s and 1970s sexual liberation as a byproduct of neo-capitalism. The so-called crotch shot is itself not devoid of sacralita. Indeed, in its complementary relationship with those instances properly defined as sacral-the aforementioned, not explicitly erotic, yet enigmatic and rather lengthy shots examining faces and landscapes--it actualizes its multivalent and evolving meaning with respect to Pasolini's position in film history, sexuality, and ideological critique.
Pasolini's career as a film director, from 1961 to 1975, may be roughly divided into three phases, which correspond to crucial stylistic shifts. His first two films, Accattone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962), exemplify what we may call his revisionist-neorealist phase. Like the 1940s classics of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Luchino Visconti, they employ a combination of technical and thematic factors toward the crude portrayal of a given aspect of contemporary Italian reality. They rely, for instance, on a sparse mise-en-scene, on-location shooting, and non-professional actors, while focusing on the struggle for survival in a low socioeconomic milieu. Despite such affinities, in discussing his move from literature to film in 1961, Pasolini distinguishes his vision of reality from that of neorealism: "there is no absolute Realism that is valid for all epochs. Every epoch has its own realism. And this is because every epoch has its own ideology" ("Intellectualism ..." 17). Alluding to postwar conditions such as the victory of the Christian Democratic Party and the economic miracle, he states: "Neorealism is finished. It was a rational and humanistic movement, inspired by the feelings that Italians lived through during the immediate period after the fall of Fascism. This neorealist creative tendency was gradually abandoned as Italy, instead of maintaining the principles of the Resistance, let itself fall into reactionary clericalism" (44). According to John David Rhodes, Pasolini "adopts the trappings of neorealism in order to push past what he believed were its sentimental progressive politics and into a realm in which the ideas of social mobility and personal or collective betterment are negated" (58).(1) Sam Rohdie distinguishes the two cinemas in terms of the relationship between reality and narrative. In neorealism, "while the films left the door open to the impress of reality, once reality appeared from outside the fiction it became integrated within it." The real was "domesticated and rationalized by the narrative fiction, which provided [it] with motives in action and in character. Pasolini's real, on the other hand, is real insofar as it remains unintegrated and unarticulated fictionally. …