Yesterday (October 22, 2015) was the first day of my twelve-day exploration of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini's work as we approach the fortieth anniversary of his death on November 2, 1975. Starting with his directorial debut, Accattone (1961), it is clear that Pasolini entered the cinema with a fully developed understanding of what kind of people he was going to tell stories about and how he was going to approach those stories.
From the stark opening credits set to Bach's St. Matthew's Passion (a subject that Pasolini would eventually visit), it is evident that this film is a tragedy. Accattone chronicles the final days of Vittorio (Franco Citti), a man who goes by the name Accattone so that he can feel like he's different. "There are many Vittorios, but there's only one Accattone," he declares with pride. In reality, Accattone is a man who has his girlfriend do all the work while he takes the reward: he's a pimp. Every night, Accattone's girlfriend walks the streets to earn money for them and the single mother that Accattone took into their home. Though his heart is often in the right place, he lives outside of his means, and when his girlfriend is sent to jail for misidentifying the group of men who beat her and left her for dead, Accattone begins to struggle. Stubbornly, he refuses to work, choosing instead to sell his gold chains and bracelets to sustain himself. One of the members of Accattone's circle of friends is a prophetic figure who Pasolini uses to great effect to convey to the audience the direction that the film is about to take. "Hear what the prophet says," he begins. "Today you sell the ring, tomorrow the chain, in seven days the watch, and in seventy-seven days you won't have even your eyes to weep with." The screen fades to black, and life continues – as does suffering.
Accattone, above all, is a film driven by authenticity. The locations used in the film lend a level of realism that could never be created in a studio. Trash blows through the wind, dust covers everything it touches, and rubble lines the outskirts of town – the remains of a post-war society. Though Accattone knows this place as home, it has been largely neglected. Rugged landscapes with overgrown grass populate this film more naturally than the people who struggle to survive in it, and yet it's a real place.
Beyond locations, Franco Citti's performance is so raw and intense, that as he violently resists captivity by the police, or rolls around in the dirt fighting his wife's new boyfriend, or simply walks down the street with a look of defeat, it feels real. Citti brings Accattone to life, and both his joy and suffering are completely palpable. In Accattone, those who aren't struggling in life, are not making an honest living (even then, in Pasolini's world, everyone has suffered). When honest work is depicted, it's difficult and strenuous – the exact reason that Accattone doesn't want to work. Though Pasolini chooses to focus more on pimping and stealing throughout Accattone, that's merely because that is the profession of his characters and his protagonist's core desire. The use of Bach's BWV 244 elevates the plight of these characters and makes their place in a real-world tragedy more apparent while avoiding cliché with ease.
Near the end of the film, Accattone has a nightmare where he sees his own funeral and is no longer a unique individual named "Accattone", but is instead just known as "Vittorio" by all of his friends. Pasolini never shows Accattone wake up from this nightmare, but the tragic conclusion of the film that follows this nightmare is definitely not just a dream. Accattone's reality has become an actual nightmare as he struggles to stay true to himself.
Accattone masterfully depicts suffering and poverty without sentimentality – rather, the tragic elements are depicted as artful realism. Yes, Pasolini's film is a work of fiction, but it comes from an authentic place and culture that the audience knows will continue to exist even after the film ends. Pasolini gives us a rich and complex world where people know one another and emotions change on a moment-to-moment basis. Anything can happen in Accattone, and that's part of the film's beauty.
My rating: 5/5