ABOVE: FILM STILL FROM PASOLINI’S THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW.
“Every generation should have a Pasolini retrospective,” declares the Museum of Modern Art’s film department curator Jytte Jensen. “He is that essential.” Last week, the second major New York retrospective of Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini opened at the MoMA and MoMA PS1. The retrospective came together with transatlantic efforts: Fondo Pier Paolo Pasolini/Cineteca di Bologna’s restoration initiative spurred the idea, and Luce Cinecittà, an Italian film production company, oversaw the reproduction of all the films. Jensen assisted with first show in 1990, and the works stuck with her. “I became a lifelong devotee,” she tells Interview. “It was so modern, and so ancient at the same time, that I completely fell in love.”
In fact, Pasolini’s work is rife with this kind of synthesis of contradictions: historically accurate period pieces that nonetheless reflected his contemporary Communist sensibility; a deliberate, formal visual style set against often controversial material; a thematic interest in both the sacred and the profane. His choices of narrative range from Jesus’ life, in The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Il Vangelo secondo Matteo) to near pornographic plots, as in 120 Days of Sodom (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma) and Arabian Nights (Il fiore delle mille e una note). However, Pasolini’s treatment of onscreen personages and visuals is consistent. Characters can be understood and empathized with as the camera cuts from face to face, lingering on reactionary or passive expressions and perspectives. Actors were chosen to evoke the era of a film’s setting, and most had little or no experience. As Jensen explains, “You forget that these people are not actors. Their presence is such that you immediately believe them.”
Pasolini’s background as a painter informed the composition of shots, which seem deliberate as though planned for a canvas. As Jensen describes, “The focus is right in the middle, and then everything comes out from there towards the edges.” If Pasolini’s films continue to receive such careful study, even if only for their artistic precision, future generations should be lucky indeed.
Daily screenings and events will be held at MoMA and MoMA PS1 through January 5th.