Pasolini's Semiotics of the Sacred

By Dunghe, Adelmo P. | Italica, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Pasolini's Semiotics of the Sacred


Dunghe, Adelmo P., Italica


The semiotics of Pier Paolo Pasolini are based upon a notion of human language, culture, and biology as a continuum that links the human subject, both mentally and physically, to humanity's precultural origins in nature. Unlike most of his contemporaries working in semiotics in the 1960s, Pasolini refuses to accept an antimony between culture and nature, but rather recognizes an intricately interwoven connection through which both interact. While Pasolini at first limits his use of the notion of this connection to support his claim that the cinema is a "written language," it progressively exerts an influence on Pasolini's filmmaking. This influence is especially felt in his later film adaptations of texts from ancient literature, Edipo Re and Medea.

Pasolini's semiological essays, "The Cinema of Poetry" (1965) and "The Written Language of Reality" (1966) indicate that recreating an ancient text in a particular cinematic style should allow viewers to enter into discourse with the experience of another, more archaic era-perhaps even to re-experience what once might have been seen as an encounter with the sacred. As a filmmaker, this did become Pasolini's objective: to put into practice that "Cinema of Poetry." Initially, Pasolini rooted his account of the cinema of poetry in analyses of films by Antonioni, Bertolucci, and Godard, films that were particularly concerned with late modernity and its consequences on sensitive characters representative of the bourgeoisie. Central to his thesis in the "Cinema of Poetry" essay was the use of "free indirect subjectivity," the cinematic equivalent of "free indirect discourse" in literature.

In his 1964 essay, "Comments on Free Indirect Discourse," a work which focuses predominantly on the 20th-century Italian novel, Pasolini does cite one film: Chaplin's Modern Times (1936). Pasolini takes it to be a "model-demythicization" of the "leveling" effect of "Fordist" industrial culture and technology upon the reality of the working class. This demythicization, Pasolini says, is due to Chaplin's cinematic application of free indirect discourse. Adopting the point of view of a "survivor of a pre-industrial humanity," Chaplin "madly and comically emphasize[s] the inexpressiveness of the world of technology" (99). By immersing his audience's minds in "the point of view of the worker," Chaplin has demystified "the capitalistic industrialization of the world;" so, Pasolini adds, should other works of free indirect discourse, both literary and cinematic, continue "to demystify technicization" (99). In other words, through "reanimating" the "suppressed" or "outdated" languages of "the other," Pasolini sees a way out of the homogenization of contemporary culture.

What Chaplin seems to accomplish in this regard appears to mirror Pasolini's own project as a filmmaker, from his first two features--Accatone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962)--to his adaptations of ancient texts, beginning with II Vangelo Secondo Matteo in 1964, the year in which Pasolini began to participate in the debates of the day on semiotics. Contemporary with his semiological writings, Pasolini's subsequent filmmaking, from Il Vangelo through Medea (1970), sees him formulating a cinematic style in which the theorist's semiotics find articulation in the film director's own practice of "the written language of reality." My own doctoral dissertation work has been an attempt to apply Pasolini's semiotics to his film practice, especially as it opens onto a notion of "the sacred"--which Pasolini takes to be an aspect of pre-industrial reality.

Composed in Italy at a time when Roman Catholicism was engaged in the progressive reforms of its second Vatican Council, Pasolini's early films and semiotic speculations reflect the hope that Christianity and Marxism might entangle in a dialogue that would lead them jointly to resist the rising hegemony of bourgeois materialism. Pasolini wrote in a Marxist journal at the time:

The greatest enemy of Christianity is not communist materialism, but bourgeois materialism. …

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