Accattone (Italy, 1961), Pier Paolo Pasolini's first film, opens with a close-up of a man's vulgar laughing face, its mouth missing teeth, a bouquet of flowers held next to it, crowding the image. The shot is utterly simple and yet utterly bold; its function is difficult to interpret. Rather than express anything discursive or psychological, this opening close up, in Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's words, expresses only "the enigma that is the human face" (Nowell-Smith 1977, 11);1 in other words, the face just is-and furthermore, it first appears to us dislocated from both its body and its immediate surroundings. As the camera cuts to this face's interlocutors, we see the character in his physical milieu. The first image of the film gives us no clue as to its location; the laughing face is abstracted from its surroundings by means of the close-up. Obviously, this is Italy; people are speaking Italian-or some version of it, and, what's more, there's a group of men seated outside a café-or bar in Italian. (Actually, if we were skilled in the dialects of the Italian peninsula we might pick up that the characters are speaking some form of romanesco-Roman working-class dialect.) There are buildings in the background lining a seedy street that extends back and away. It is an urban location, that much seems true-taller, newer buildings-apartment high-rises-glower over one-story shanties. It seems safe to say that we are not in the middle of some centro storico. No, we don't really know exactly where we are. This is because we are in the borgate, the squalid peripheral Roman neighborhoods where city meets field and high-rise meets hovel.
This opening shot of a laughing face interests us not so much for what the face expresses-humor, a sociological type, an enigma. Rather, the shot is remarkable for what it is not. It is not an establishing shot, the stock-in-trade of fiction films, especially fiction films that are set in cities and that, like Accattone, are principally about characters traveling to and from different locations in the city. There is no knowing where we are in that first shot; space is, as yet, an unknown integer. And once we get a bit more information in the successive shots, we are still fumbling toward some recognition of place. In contrast, let us compare this film's opening shot with those of another film that is "about" Rome: Roma, città aperta (Roberto Rossellini, Italy, 1945). In that film, our first image is of German soldiers crossing the well-trod and easily recognized Piazza di Spagna. The effect of such a shot: "This is Rome."2 The first shot of Pasolini's first film proposes the same thing, only we recognize this in retrospect. "This is Rome"; yes, but this is a Rome yet unknown to most, one of toothless grins, lowly streets, proliferating shacks and unmarked open spaces whose names we cannot guess.
The present essay seeks to interpret Accattone in light of the places in which it was set and shot and with regard to the careful attention Pasolini pays to the dimensions of urban space of the Roman periphery. Much can be understood about this film by contextualizing it inside the history of postwar Roman urban development. In fact, this adumbrating history, I hope to demonstrate, provides a key for understanding certain central aspects of the film's style, as well as Pasolini's polemical attitude toward the legacy of Italian cinematic neorealism.
In Accattone's initial scene, after the man who is the subject of that first close up has continued on his way, the men seated outside the café discuss-with an earnestness and intensity perhaps unwarranted by their subject-the danger posed by swimming too soon after eating. Among these men is the title character, Accattone (played by Franco Citti), who wagers he can eat a full meal and swim back and forth across the Tiber (really just a ploy on his part to get a free meal). A simple cut ends this scene. Pasolini finally gives us the security of knowing we are in Rome in the next shot. …