Alfredo Jaar, Le ceneri di Pasolini (The Ashes of Pasolini), 2009, still from a color video, 36 minutes. Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Alfredo Jaar, Le ceneri di Pasolini (The Ashes of Pasolini), 2009, still from a color video, 36 minutes. Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Alfredo Jaar


Alfredo Jaar, Le ceneri di Pasolini (The Ashes of Pasolini), 2009, still from a color video, 36 minutes. Pier Paolo Pasolini.

What would Pier Paolo Pasolini say today about the Italy he denounced so passionately all his life and that now, after so many years under the thumb of Silvio Berlusconi, leaves even less space for any alternative to what he called the “stereotyped and false” construct of an “official Italy”? “That acculturation and homologation that fascism didn’t manage at all to bring about,” Pasolini said, “is now perfectly achieved by . . . the power of the consumer society . . . emptying out the diverse ways of being human.” Alfredo Jaar’s Le ceneri di Pasolini (The Ashes of Pasolini), 2009—its title plays on that of Pasolini’s most famous poem, “Le ceneri di Gramsci” (The Ashes of Gramsci, 1954), and of the 1957 book in which it was collected—is a partial portrait of this exceptional figure. Pieced together mainly from existing footage, including Pasolini’s own films such as Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964) and his astonishing short segment “La Ricotta” from the 1962 omnibus film RoGoPaG (in which Orson Welles plays a Pasolini-like film director who is making a movie about the Crucifixion) as well as interviews with and about Pasolini, news broadcasts, and footage of his funeral, it honors him above all as a poet and filmmaker whose imaginative grasp of history and society was unique and whose murder in 1975—supposedly the result of a pickup gone sour, possibly a political assassination—was a horrific but perhaps unsurprising conclusion to a prophetic and increasingly isolated life.

Jaar’s film foregrounds Pasolini’s understanding of Italian identity. For novelist Alberto Moravia, in one clip, Pasolini is a poet mourning an Italy that once was, but this is only partly true; it would be better to call him a poet in mourning for an Italy that would never come to be. Pasolini speaks of his move from novels to film—by contrast he never set aside either poetry or polemic—as “a sort of protest against Italian and my society. A kind of rejection of my Italian nationality.” For Pasolini, Italian identity had turned out to mean crushing the multitude of diverse cultures that the country had contained, as embodied, for instance, in the Friulian dialect in which his first poems were written and the Roman argot he used so often in his novels and films. Somewhat left in the background of Jaar’s film, on the other hand, are issues of sexuality: Pasolini was a man for whom the closet seemingly did not exist, which made him a thorn in the side of both the Catholic Church, which condemned him at every turn, and its main ideological opponent in postwar Italy, the Communist Party, which had expelled Pasolini in 1949. And yet when the Welles/Pasolini character in “La Ricotta” speaks of “my intimate, profound, archaic Catholicism,” his smirk doesn’t succeed in hiding the fact that this is one of those jokes by which one tells the truth. As with Pasolini’s attachment to the proletariat, his involvement with the church was sensual and not only intellectual.

Just before his death, as the film reminds us, Pasolini had launched a blistering attack on Italy’s ruling Christian Democrat party, accusing its leaders of “shamefulness, contempt for the citizens, manipulation of public funds, deals with oil companies, with industrialists, with bankers, complicity with the mafia, treason in the interests of a foreign power . . . destruction of the countryside and urban environment, responsibility for the anthropological degradation of Italians”—meaning the ruin of their culture—and “the corrupt distribution of civic positions to adulators.” If all that sounds familiar, it’s not surprising. What the Christian Democrats began, Berlusconi continued with a vengeance. But anyone who believes this is merely an Italian question is wrong. Jaar’s sensitive and moving tribute to Pasolini is a timely reminder that this indispensable poet and thinker was obsessed with issues that are alive everywhere today.

Barry Schwabsky