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Beyond objectivity: the utopian in Pasolini's documentaries

Fabio Vighi Online Publication Date: 01 December 2002 To cite this Article: Vighi, Fabio (2002) 'Beyond objectivity: the utopian in Pasolini's documentaries', Textual Practice, 16:3, 491 - 510 To link to this article: DOI: 10.1080/09502360210163444 URL:

Textual Practice 16(3), 2002, 491510

Fabio Vighi Beyond objectivity: the utopian in Pasolinis documentaries


Pier Paolo Pasolini is better known for his ction lms than for his documentaries, and perhaps the very definition of documentary should be questioned when approaching his non- ctional productions. Phillip Lopate, referring to Pasolinis Appunti per un Orestiade africana (1970), writes of a very personal subgenre de ned by its own transitional status, that is, a sort of celluloid notebook into which the lmmaker puts his preliminary ideas about casting, music, or global politics about a project that never came to pass.1 The notion of an intermediary project conceived as a mediation between literary language and cinematic language is a particularly relevant and stimulating one for Pasolini, as his 1965 essay La sceneggiatura come struttura che vuol essere altra struttura [The script as a structure that wants to be another structure] clearly testi es.2 Here, Pasolini de nes as volont rivoluzionaria (revolutionary will) the dynamic tension at work in the script, for it forces the reader to think by images, thus causing the contradiction and subversion of an entire stylistic system (that of literature). It is also true, though, that the celluloid notebook is only one among several different non- ctional formats recognizable in Pasolinis lmography. One should not underestimate the scope and breadth of such a diverse documentary production: during the whole length of his controversial career as a director of ction lms, which lasted approximately fteen years (1961 to 1975), Pasolini constantly engaged in the shooting of non- ctional lms. In this alternating mode, Pasolini is certainly closer to such lm-makers as Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog than, say, Krzysztof Kies lowski, who abandoned documentary for feature lm; that alone is a clear indication of his belief in the genre. His documentaries are, in chronological order, La rabbia [The Rage] (1963), a collection of newsreel and photographic materials commenting on contemporary world history; Comizi damore [Talking About Love] (1964),
Textual Practice ISSN 0950-236X print/ISSN 1470-1308 online 2002 Taylor & Francis Ltd DOI: 10.1080/0950236021016344 4

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an extended journalistic survey on the themes of love and sexuality; Sopraluoghi in Palestina (1964), a record of Pasolinis travels through the Holy Land in search of locations for Il vangelo secondo Matteo [The Gospel According to Mathew] (1964), his well-known lm on the life of Christ; Appunti per un lm sullIndia [Notes for a lm on India] (1968), a record of Pasolinis travels through India, researching for a ction lm that was never shot; Appunti per unOrestiade africana [Notes for an African Orestes] (1970), another set of notes with commentary about a lm in Africa that was never shot; 12 dicembre [12 December] (1972), a militant documentary intended to unmask government misconduct; Le mura di Sanaa [The walls of Sanaa] (1974), a fourteen-minute documentary commenting on the defacement of the Yemenite town. The aim of this article is to investigate the theoretical implications of Pasolinis conspicuous engagement with the documentary form. Such an investigation nds a natural operative framework in Pasolinis own 1960s writings on cinematic language. However non-systematic, such semiological writings provide an essential starting point for any serious attempt to shed some light on Pasolinis unconventional notions of realism and representation. This is not to say that they should be regarded in an uncritical fashion. Rather, issues of objectivity and referentiality, as well as historical documentation and preservation, always at the heart of any plausible analysis of the non- ctional form, will be addressed both from within and outside Pasolinis own predicaments. It would be preposterous as well as disingenuous to consider such speci c cultural products without testing the epistemological terrain of the documentary as an autonomous medium of expression. The history of non- ction lms is both an abundant and a composite one, having negotiated distinctive theories and practices all the way through the twentieth century. Academic interest around the cultural status of the documentary film has recently rekindled, as a number of scholars have enthusiastically engaged in compiling bibliographies and lmographies with a view to understanding the various textual functions at stake. It seems, therefore, that the traditional marginalization of the non- ctional lm, still subscribed to by Christian Metz in his pioneering studies on cinematic language,3 is coming to an end. More precisely, what has emerged in recent critical literature is the view that fictional and non-fictional categories function according to the same discursive patterns and share the same aesthetic as well as ideological concerns. Such a viewpoint tends to efface the traditional claims made for the documentary to see, know and inform the public on specific sociopolitical or, more generally, historical issues. In the attempt to establish a theoretical contextualization of Pasolinis own non- ctional work, my analysis draws mainly on two collections of critical essays, both published in the USA in the course of the 1990s: Theorizing Documentary 4 and Beyond Document: Essays on Non ction Films ; as well as


Fabio Vighi Pasolinis documentaries

on Brian Winstons (1995) compelling study Claiming the Real: The Documentary Film Revisited .5 These particularly significant studies not only offer a comprehensive historical contextualization of the non- ction lm, but more to the point strive to legitimize its cultural value by challenging its all too frequently taken for granted factuality and functionality, sceptical as they are of a realism which, as John Tagg puts it, offers a xity in which the signi er is treated as if it were identical with a pre-existent signi ed.6 Arguing against the traditional superimposition of truth and referential realism, many contemporary commentators reject the Griersonian faith in the didactic powers of the documentary to promote a more problematic understanding of its role and identity.7 The general ideological perspective adopted is that the duplications of given realities, however historically pertinent and objective, are always if not ctional, at least ctive, by virtue of their tropic character (their recourse to tropes or rhetorical gures).8 These introductory considerations alone should legitimize an investigation of a philosophical nature. Clearly, at the heart of recent approaches to the documentary lies an old question, one that has concerned the whole course of Western rationality from Aristotle to Derrida: that of the representation of reality. Equally evident is that recent critical perspectives tend to privilege a postmodern/poststructural approach, in that they emphasize the functions of mediation and signi cation so as to destabilize the presumed cognitive wholeness of the mediated, consequently exposing the bad conscience, or simply the untenability, of any cinematic truth claim. In actual fact, the demolition of the concept of cinematic realism as a whole started in the 1960s, when Metzs structural deconstruction was echoed rather programmatically by influential film journals such as Cahiers du Cinema and Screen , which exposed from a leftist point of view the dangers of equating representation with reality. From then on, the term realism, in cinema, has mainly been accused of complicity with illusionism, and has therefore lost the progressive connotation it possessed when it was used by Andr Bazin and the Italian neorealist tradition. While acknowledging the cultural signi cance of todays general antirealist mood in lm criticism, my discussion of Pasolinis use of documentary materials argues for an alternative response to poststructural theory. As I will endeavour to show, Pasolinis use of the non- ctional camera seems to be underpinned by the ideological attempt to preserve a speci cally chosen dimension of the historical real; and, what is more signi cant, to record a dimension of the real that by its own nature de es discursive appropriation. Despite his formal experimentalism, I would argue that in both his ction and non- ction lms of the 1960s and 1970s, Pasolini worked at rescuing the word realism from its epochal disgrace. As he himself put it: I believe there is a reality to evoke indeed, we are guilty if we fail to evoke it.9


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What should be verified is the philosophical impact of Pasolinis notion of reality. Although partially subscribing to semiotics proclamation of the evils of old-style representational realism, it seems to me that the director concurrently strove to assert the pertinence of his own ideas on what is real (rather than stressing what is not real), and consequently elaborated what I believe is a theoretically original and deeply signi cant notion of mimetic realism. My analysis will concentrate on three speci c lms: La rabbia, Appunti per unOrestiade africana and 12 dicembre. Each of them, in line with the authors will to experiment, is representative of a different stylistic approach to non- ctional cinema. Nevertheless, I would argue that all of them, in spite of their formal differences, keep faith with the fundamental principle of mimetic realism. To come to terms with the concept of cinematic mimesis, we need rst of all to understand the historical and philosophical implications of Pasolinis recourse to indexicality. Far from guaranteeing or even facilitating the construction of a naively informational taxonomy, Pasolinis insistence on the authenticity of the referent (which undoubtedly echoes some passages from Bazins classic The ontology of the photographic image),10 paradoxically points towards mimesis as a fantasmatic, utopian substance reverberating from the sudden revelation of the subjective dimension which sustains the symbolic order of outer reality. It is the same fantasmatic substance that Slavoj Z N iz Nek, in his Lacanian reading of film theory, calls the objet petit of the filmic image: the subjective element constitutive of objective-external reality, that very traumatic Real which forever blurs our picture of reality.11 Before discussing the signi cance of this notion of mimesis in Pasolinis documentaries, I would like to focus on the speci cally utopian bent of the directors own writings on cinema, since I believe that it is exactly by clarifying their scope that we can gain a deeper understanding of how he conceived the relationship between reality and lm.
Realism and the camera

Pasolini expounded his theory of cinema in a series of semiological essays written between 1965 and 1971, and collected in the third section of the volume Empirismo eretico, first published in 1972. Despite the sceptical critical reception generally reserved for these essays,12 I believe few other Pasolinian writings would enable one to grasp the essential philosophical force that underpins his notion of realism. Challenging a rigorously scienti c approach, Pasolini insisted that the language of cinema is the language of reality, arguing that the smallest units of cinematic language coincide with the real objects of real life, the very physical matter that inescapably de nes


Fabio Vighi Pasolinis documentaries

our living experience.13 Despite the ambiguity of such a claim, the whole edi ce of Pasolinis semiological theory stands on a very simple, axiomatic belief: that among all other artistic languages, from painting to literature, cinema is the most likely medium to evoke absence of mediation; that is, in Pasolinis typically cryptical expression, reality itself: When I make a lm . . . there is no symbolic or conventional lter between me and reality, as there is in literature.14 Pasolini was not as naive as we would perhaps assume from these preliminary observations. After all, he was very aware of Christian Metzs contribution to the semiological study of cinema, and expressly of his original sintagmatic model exposed in 1966 at the second edition of the Pesaro Film Festival.15 Adopting a linguistic approach, Metz had claimed that the smallest cinematic unit, a single shot, still retained much more complexity, in terms of meaning, than the smallest verbal unit. Thus, a shot could not be made to correspond to a word, as the latter was deemed unable to explain the magmatic complexity of the former. From these considerations, Metz went on to conceive of a structural grammar of cinema that not only provided a modern and instrumental model of textual analysis, but also ignited a series of extremely fertile theoretical debates. Pasolini, who in those years also exposed his theories at the Pesaro Film Festival, was one of the rst to evaluate and reply to Metzs ideas. In his writings, he acknowledged repeatedly that reality is a coded system of signs, and that as such it is determined through cultural mediation; yet at the same time he maintained that the only way to validate intellectual mediation is by conceding that the object itself, that is, reality in its physical presence, ultimately defies mediation. Free indirect discourse is, in Pasolinis writings, the linguistic operation through which an author can indicate absence of mediation.16 This, in Pasolinis theory and practice, is achieved when the narrator/director abdicates from their vantage point of control over the narrative to adopt whole-heartedly the psychological and linguistic point of view of one of their characters in order to see the world through its eyes. What is at stake here is that going beyond the subjective and the objective pointed out by Gilles Deleuze,17 or else holding fast to that promise of reconciliation with nature/matter (promesse du bonheur)18 that, according to Theodor W. Adorno, is the truth content of authentic works of art. What Pasolinis theory desperately tries to salvage is the indefinable dimension of the object, and it does so by positing and catching, through the cinematic image, the fleeting moment of identity between subjective consciousness and the world-ambient. As he himself explains, the Ur-code of reality, the code acting at the deepest level in the system of signs that constitutes culture, depends on sensorial perception rather than rationality. Semiology, as Pasolini objects to Umberto Eco, has so far acted as a typically bourgeois science, because it has failed to realize that beyond the net of


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rationally describable interrelationships determining culture there lies, as he puts it, un burrone, a precipice, in other words a phenomenological and essentially non-rational component.19 By way of mimetic forms of representation, cinema, and artworks in general, can resist, however momentarily, being defined by reason, and therefore restore the legitimacy of what is without concept. The advantage that the language of cinema enjoys over the other forms of artistic expression consists in its being based on visual communication, which is essentially mimetic: whilst instrumental communication, which is at the heart of poetic and philosophical communication, is an extremely articulated and historically complex system visual communication, which is at the heart of cinematic language, is, on the contrary, extremely raw and immediate, almost animalistic. Both mimetic, raw reality and the dreamy mechanisms of memory, are almost pre-human facts, certainly pre-grammatical and pre-morphological ones. . . . The linguistic instrument on which cinema is based is therefore irrationalistic, which also accounts for the profoundly oneiric quality of cinema, as well as its absolutely objective concreteness.20 According to Pasolini, therefore, referential realism in cinema is essentially mimetic and non-conceptual. The aesthetic experience triggered by this type of realism serves as a warning against the inherent irrationality of any hyper-rational systematization of the real. If the sacred, unde nable, oneiric, essentially non-rational dimension of reality were to be obliterated from the collective memory of the subject (and, to the author, this is precisely the danger faced by modern civilization), instrumental reason would posit itself as second nature, turning absolute and totalitarian. Rationality, in other words, can acquire legitimacy only by acknowledging and introjecting its own constitutive limitation, determined by the non-conceptual quality of material reality. Cinemas essential contribution to culture, Pasolini seems to imply, depends on a notion of subjectivity which is fundamentally Hegelian: the cinematic image is conceived of as having the potential to push thought beyond self-consciousness, towards an encounter with the subject matter through which thought first loses, then consciously transforms itself. As stated in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, the freedom of thought depends on its ability to absorb itself in the material stuff 21 of the content, before emerging enriched from it. For Pasolini, it seems, knowledge emerges precisely from this dialectical movement between subject and object that cinema has the potential to exploit. Crucial to the working of such dialectics is mimesis, or else what Adorno calls, drawing on psychology, cathexis, that is, thoughts affective investment in the object, which is not extrinsic to thought, not merely psychological, but rather the condition of its [thoughts]


Fabio Vighi Pasolinis documentaries

truth.22 Elsewhere, referring to works of art, Adorno calls this investment the ephemeral appearance of reconciliation, that is, the nonconceptual af nity of a subjective creation with its objective and unposited other.23 Ultimately, I believe it is this notion of reconciliation, to be read as a utopian marker, that typi es Pasolinis approach to documentaries. Pasolinis most recurrent writing of the utopian involves the use of the term sacro, the sacred. Challenging mainstream semiology, he constructs his own linguistic model on the evidence of the sacred dimension of reality. In his brief but revealing piece entitled Il non verbale come altra verbalit (The non-verbal as other verbality), for instance, he argues that Man has always dissociated the written-spoken language from Reality. In the long history of cults, every object of reality has been sacralized and yet, this has never happened to language. Language has never appeared as manifestation of the sacred. . . . As far as I know, the whole of scienti c linguistics, structuralism included . . . , when it comes to de ning the relationship between sign and meaning, has always ignored the magical moment of the origins.24 From this perspective, the cultural contribution of cinematic language depends on its unique ability to uncover, though surreptitiously, the sacred dimension of reality; that very dimension which bourgeois culture and bourgeois history have, in a quest for civilization driven by domination over nature, learned to deny. By assigning to the filmic image the potentially revolutionary ability of restoring the link between the non-rational real and culture, Pasolini, echoing Adorno and the Frankfurt School, intended to take a radical Marxist position against the absolutization of instrumental reason that he regarded as the fundamental weakness of modernity. Such an unlocking of secularized reason was only pursuable, for Pasolini, if inscribed in a class-related analysis of reality. Yet, defying the orthodox Marxist approach, not a politicized proletariat, but an unpoliticized subproletariat was to be regarded as the revolutionary social subject. For it was the sub-proletariat, partially or even totally spared by bourgeois ideology, that he saw as endowed with the anthropological and behavioural qualities exploitable by the lmic image; in other words, the mimetic element that could act as a reminder of the underlying sacredness of the real would emerge only through the representation of the ones who live on the margin of, and outside, Western civilization. In the light of these considerations, I believe that the key to understanding Pasolinis lm theory, with particular reference to his documentaries, lies in our ability to assess the cultural role played by the mimetic/utopian element that systematically emerges in each of his works. Because of what seems to be the common epistemological terrain of Pasolinis cinema,


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differentiating between ction and non- ction is problematic and, for the purpose of my discussion, irrelevant. On the one hand, critics have often stressed the documentary flavour of many Pasolinian fiction films, with particular reference to the so-called national-popular period of the early 1960s. 25 On the other hand, later lms like Uccellacci e uccellini (1966) and Teorema (1968) display stylistic contaminations between fiction and documentary. All in all, it seems to me that the question of the representation of the real is central to all of Pasolinis lms, and that this question can be discussed most productively by looking at his documentaries.
Editing newsreel footage: La rabbia

La rabbia (1963) consists of a series of newsreel clips and archive photographs accompanied by Pasolinis prose commentaries and poems read respectively by writer Giorgio Bassani and painter Renato Guttuso. The project had been nanced by producer Gastone Ferranti, who had asked both Pasolini and Giovanni Guareschi (the author of the popular Don Camillo series and a champion of Italian conservatism) to compile some newsreel footage in response to the question Why is our life dominated by discontent, by anguish, by the fear of war, by war? Pasolini and Guareschi, in the eyes of Ferranti, were bound to provide two documentaries fuelled by diametrically opposed ideologies; this antagonism, in turn, would have helped the commercial success of the film. On the contrary, La rabbia encountered many distributional problems and never became accessible to a vast audience. Despite its failure at the box-of ce and its status as a minor lm, Maurizio Viano regards it as one of Pasolinis highest achievements26 on the grounds that the author succeeded in creating an original cinematographic form by combining a choice of documentary footage he did not shoot personally27 with his own ideological and poetic commentaries. The documentary unquestionably retains a strong historico-political focus, as it comments on world events between 1956 and 1963. Pasolini claimed he was attempting a Marxist critique of society, and, as the images quickly document scenes of civil war and devastation in Hungary, the Congo, Egypt, Cuba and Algeria, this claim seems con rmed by the ideological bent of the commentary. Yet, apart from the self-evident political underpinnings, the most poignant aspect of the lm lies in its stylistic con guration. Beyond Pasolinis raw political anger, what strikes us here is his effort to construct an experimentally sophisticated piece of film-making. From a stylistic viewpoint, voice-over, sound-track, choice and assemblance of shots and photographs combine to promote an extremely subjective and articulated montage lm, one whose narrative tension exceeds the relatively easily accessible political


Fabio Vighi Pasolinis documentaries

message. On rst impression, this tension appears to be played, in typically Pasolinian terms, upon the counter-position of the horrors produced by capitalist and communist imperialisms alike, and the new hopes generated by an international sub-proletariat which has emerged suddenly from historys depths to capture everybodys mediatic attention. Thus, images portraying humble folk from Cuba and Algeria attain an obvious ideological status as they are starkly pasted to either images of middle-class indifference or military power. However, it seems to me that to understand La rabbia we need to consider the very specific way in which poetic subjectivity informs the indexicality of the documents. The result of the poetic, formal manipulation of the documents is not naturalism, but rather the suggestion that a utopian dimension is at work beneath the visual representation of a given referent (the sub-proletariat). What I would like to argue, though, to partially rectify Deleuzes de nition of Pasolinis cinematic image as a pure Form which sets itself up as an autonomous vision of the content,28 is that the process of aesthetization of the referential does not liquidate the concept of referentiality itself, but rather potentiates it by legitimizing its underlying non-rational, auratic dimension.29 Pasolinis camera here hangs on to a realism which is validated by its sensuous and therefore material status, the more so, with the advent of the modern age, the authenticity of experience withers into global virtuality. In truth, Pasolini anticipated many poststructuralist thinkers in acknowledging the growing dif culty of maintaining the old economy of truth and representation30 in a world dominated by the all-pervasive, alienating power of capitalist ideology. However, no other Italian intellectual resisted, as vehemently as he did, the process of de-realization brought about by modernity. Pasolini never subscribed to the ideological agnosticism which was to become so fashionable with poststructuralist discourse analysis, and which was in many ways pre gured by structuralism. On the contrary, he rst located realism on to the Roman sub-proletariat, which he had known since his move to the capital in 1950. Then, as he realized that by the early 1960s the sub-proletariat was being co-opted by the consumer values of Italian neo-capitalism, he looked to the Third World to nd and promote anthropological authenticity, which to him was qualified by its existing outside the reach of capitalist ideology. With La rabbia we are precisely at this stage, in the sense that Pasolini links political resistance and social rebellion to a speci c representation of the body as unspoken, non-verbal knowledge. The Algerian revolution, as well as the upheavals in the Congo, are referred to not only through the politically meaningful representation of the revolutionaries and their armed enemies, but also through the seemingly unaware, unpoliticized, naturally joyous bodies of African children. The anti-capitalist approach is therefore preserved


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because of its utopian swing: the body stands firm against the reach of capitalism and, more generally, of the Western logocentric tradition, as a vector of a historical truth that exceeds verbal and rational discourse. One episode of La rabbia that we can take as an ideal channel for Pasolinis poetics of the body is the lyrical meditation on Marilyn Monroes death. This episode, signi cantly, is inserted between two images of nuclear explosion, and a number of other newsreel documents chosen to suggest violence and torment (boxers exchanging punches in a ring, a self- agellating Christ in a religious procession). Painter Renato Guttuso reads a poetic text written by Pasolini where Marilyn Monroe is described as a symbol of lost beauty, a beauty that belonged to the past and which the modern world has destroyed.31 As the verses are read, a series of photographs and lmed documents narrating Marilyn Monroes life appears. The combination of montage and poetic commentary turns Monroes suicide into a haunting symbol of refusal and resistance against the co-opting machine of the culture industry. Through this juxtaposition of images and poetry, Pasolini is able to reformulate his most recurrent theoretical claim: that of a utopian plenitude associated to the themes of the past, the body and death. The ineffable beauty of Marilyn Monroes body is associated with the anonymity of her past before Hollywood, as well as being encapsulated in the nondiscursivity of death. Moreover, the photographic visualization, together with the elegiac Adagio by Albinoni played in the background, secures a sense of sacred gravity to the whole sequence. Photography, here, seems particularly functional to Pasolinis intent if we acknowledge, with Roland Barthes, that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead.32 As the poetic meditation on Marilyn Monroe shows, in La rabbia Pasolini aimed at pushing certain signs beyond their most obvious, immediate signi cation, challenging subjectivity to engage with an otherness that de es de nition. His apocalyptic rage, therefore, seems directed at a modern idea of culture and progress that, by suppressing the very notion of an absolutely external otherness, turns all reality into the dark nightmare of the ever-same, foreshadowed by the often-repeated, eerie images of the atomic mushroom. This is reality is Guttusos simple remark over the lines and shapes of the atomic cloud, suggesting a future not only dominated by destruction, but, more incisively, by abstract logic.
The notebook documentary: Appunti per unOrestiade africana

From a formal point of view, Appunti per unOrestiade africana and the similarly constructed documentaries Sopraluoghi in Palestina and Appunti per un lm sullIndia may be regarded as experimental exercises born out of


Fabio Vighi Pasolinis documentaries

the authors passionate concern for specific issues. All three projects, in fact, are conceived as preparatory works for autonomous narrative films. Appunti per un lm sullIndia introduces the draft of a story about a maharaja who decides to sacrifice his body to starving tiger cubs; Appunti per unOrestiade africana is conceived of as a rehearsal for Pasolinis intention to adapt Aeschylus Orestes into a contemporary setting; Sopraluoghi takes us to Palestina where Pasolini was carrying out on-location research with a view to his ction- lm Il vangelo secondo Matteo (which was eventually shot in Italy). In each lm, the experimental and even tentative character of Pasolinis shooting comes to the fore, as the author-narrator regularly reminds us of its future trasposition into a more accomplished ctional narrative. Technically, Appunti per unOrestiade africana is a combination of three different sets of filmic materials. First, we are introduced to some footage shot by Pasolini in Tanzania, which is matched by the authors voiceover explaining his idea to adapt Aeschylus tragedy into an African setting; this is followed by Pasolinis interview with a group of African students at the University of Rome, who are asked to evaluate critically the significance of the parallel between Aeschylus myth about democracy and the newly acquired independence of many African countries; nally, the documentary ends on a twelve-minute free jazz session composed and performed by Gato Barbieri (sax) with Donald Moye (drums), Marcello Melio (bass), and singers Yvonne Murray and Archie Savage. The musical composition is supposed to represent Cassandras presaging dream from the Orestes. It seems to me that the documentary follows intentionally a threemovement narrative, which is reminiscent of Hegels founding philosophical scheme of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. In the rst part Pasolini lays out his thesis by summarizing the Orestes and developing from it his central idea that the modernization of black Africa should not trigger the cultural colonialism of the West but, on the contrary, inject into the old and weakened Western rationalism the vigour and authenticity of African subcultures. This rst movement is followed by a counter-argument (antithesis) that could be interpreted as Pasolinis self-criticism. The African students in Rome are reluctant to agree with the directors connection between Greek myth and the historical development of the African continent; in fact, on more than one occasion they dissent openly with him, observing that Africa is not just one nation but an enormous continent with differing cultures and histories. The interviews, on the whole, represent what seems to be an almost embarrassing rejection of Pasolinis initial thesis by highlighting its naively generalizing teleology; indeed, I would suggest that the director was consciously, almost masochistically trying to account for the gulf that separates a Western intellectual from the African world. The most intriguing aspect of the operation lies in discovering how Pasolini follows the antithetical opposition of the two movements through to their synthesis. In other words, how are


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we to interpret the diegetic session of free jazz that ends the documentary? If we bear in mind its enigmatic resonance as a musical rendition of Cassandras dream, it would appear that with the third movement the Western intellectual does not offer any synthetic explanation, but, rather, stages his rational frustration in the name of the true essence of the (African) Real. Pasolini himself in an early 1970s interview confirmed: Thesis? Antithesis? Synthesis? I think it is too easy. My dialectics is no longer ternary, it is binary. There are only unreconcilable oppositions.33 In the light of these considerations, the director seems to promote an idea of subjectivity informed by the persistence of what is without concept. Not accidentally, the lm answers its questions only through visual estrangement, constructed both through montage and recourse to mimetic realism. The concatenation of the sequences suggests that the lm is a hybrid, in that it consciously refuses to take an autonomous configuration and, rather, oscillates between documentary and fiction (as a script stands between literature and cinema), producing in the spectator both a sense of deluded expectation and a desire for meaning. Spectators are thrown into an ideologically very dense, progressive narrative, and are asked indirectly to visualize the outcome. But the desire for a palingenetic meaning raised by the sheer intensity of the narration, as we understand in the final movement of the lm, constantly eludes the viewer. The emphasis remains on the unsaid, on the story to come. Mimetic realism is equally effective in producing estrangement, as especially the rst part of the lm attests. Here, the shock-wave combination of fragmented documentary footage shot on location with a handheld camera (this is the main difference from La rabbia) and highly subjective, poetic voice-overs reminds one of Pasolinis love for the disappearing peasant subcultures with their barbaric and prehistoric traditions. More precisely, he empathizes with what these cultures represent. When we see an African woman running away from the camera and stubbornly refusing to be lmed, or the prolonged shots of wild African trees shaken by the wind and compared by Pasolini to the irrational force of the Erinyes in Aeschylus work,34 we understand what the camera is suggesting: the Real is what resists becoming a meaningful image in a rationally constructed narrative, and yet it is an image that demands our utmost attention, because it is a sign that faithfully mirrors the non-rational quality of its referent and invites thought to emphathize with it, to invest in its elusiveness. As is often the case with Pasolinis cinema, the spectator is required for a moment to abandon his or her hegemonic control over the narrative, and enter into a relationship of almost mystical correspondence with the objects of his or her gaze. Here, the insistent gaze of the camera on the silent, smiling African face advocates the elimination of the spectators privileged perspective, as it is a gaze that asks for the aesthetic sublimation of desire rather than cognitive annexation.


Fabio Vighi Pasolinis documentaries

Pasolinis camera therefore keeps faith with an idea of mimesis understood as the momentary and precarious identity between the nonconceptual dimension of what exists outside subjectivity, and the rationality at work in art; as Adorno maintains, true art, by means of sudden and ephemeral mimetic impulses, manages to incorporate otherness within its formal structure and consequently resist absolute rationalization. What is uniquely poignant about Pasolinis work is its consistent use of mimesis for a historically based critique of Western rationality. With a documentary such as Appunti per unOrestiade africana, Pasolini demonstrates that in the late 1960s he still believed in a critique of Western civilization from outside, when by outside we understand that otherness of ancestral African blackness intertextually linked to mythology and rescued by arts ickering mimetism. Hence his scandalous identi cation of mimesis with truth. The mimetic dimension in a documentary such as Appunti per unOrestiade africana is ideological precisely because it opposes the unproblematised acceptance of cinematic mimesis;35 that is, the acceptance of a rationally constructed attempt to show reality as it is. Because Pasolinis mimesis is both ephemeral and non-conceptual, it creates a healthy distance between the viewers rational approach and the object of their gaze. By refusing to crush the object under the weight of logical reductionism, the mimetic mode safeguards the indeterminate dimension of the real, triggers our imagination and makes it an indispensable component of the operation of understanding. Only insofar as reason combines with imagination in acknowledging the Real as an ever-elusive other, Pasolinis documentary seems to suggest, can we speak of objectivity. The status of objectivity in the documentary lm is therefore legitimized not only by its acknowledging the failure of any ontological gaze over the Real, but also by its ability to overcome that failure by hinting at mimetic reconciliation as utopia.
Mimesis and reportage: 12 dicembre

Seeking full legitimization in the power of referential realism, 12 dicembre seems to be an orthodox example of documentary reportage. This lm was only partially shot by Pasolini, between 1970 and 1972, in association with Giovanni Bonfanti and other members of the extra-parliamentary left-wing organization Lotta Continua. It has been edited and released posthumously by the Fondo Pier Paolo Pasolini in Rome, where the full extent of the shooting is currently stored. Despite claims that at least half of it was shot by Pasolini, it is dif cult to identify the actual sequences. On the cover of the videotape we read, above the title, From an idea of Pierpaolo Pasolini, which would seem to impress the auteurial trademark on the project.


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The documentary investigates various contemporary sociopolitical events, starting from the death of the anarchist Giuseppe Pinelli, who was arrested in relation to the Piazza Fontana bombing of 12 December 1969,36 and was then reported to have mysteriously fallen from a window during a police interrogation (many interpreted this incident as a police cover-up, as did Dario Fo in his famous play Accidental Death of an Anarchist). The lm shows interviews with Licia Pinelli and Rosa Malacarne, respectively wife and mother of the anarchist, as well as other people involved in the incident. The lm then proceeds with anti-state accusations from members of Lotta Continua and disgruntled allegations from ex-partigiani in Sarzana (Liguria), ex- ghters in the Resistance who conclude that their expectations for a democratic country, after Italys liberation from fascism, have come to nothing. The grim journey through early 1970s Italy continues at Carrara, Tuscany, where a group of marble miners denounce their physical and economic exploitation. We then move to the steel plants of Bagnoli, near Naples, with Pasolini interviewing a group of unemployed who blame the government for lack of support. Moving further South, we nd ourselves in the middle of the Reggio Calabria civil war of 1970,37 and then back up to the Pirelli (Milan) and Fiat (Turin) plants, as internal migrants from the South denounce their struggling conditions. Overall, the lm may be safely regarded as an intensely militant account of some tangible dysfunctions of Italian society during a particularly turbulent historical period. Formally, what strikes the viewer is the sombre objectivity of the narration, which is rendered through interviews and without the support of external commentaries or explanations. The technique is therefore largely that of direct-cinema (or cinema-vrit), one that Pasolini had already employed in his reportage Comizi damore (1964) and in the opening scene of his feature lm Teorema (1968). Shooting with a handheld camera, avoiding stylistic ourish as well as external interpretative suggestions, the authors of 12 dicembre clearly aimed at providing a maximum of authenticity and credibility so as to stir the moral and political awareness of the viewers. A pre-existing reality speaks for itself, to echo the old neo-realist adagio, and the authors seem content that meaning will follow. What is there to say about Pasolinis contribution? First of all, the only reliable evidence we have for his participation in the lms direction is the feeling of his physical presence behind the camera, as at one point we brie y hear his voice posing a question to the Neapolitan unemployed at the Bagnoli steel plants.38 The setting is meaningful. Naples was the town Pasolini had elected as the last receptacle, within the national con nes, of those values of anthropological authenticity he believed modernity was cynically destroying.39 Here, in a deprived district, he talks to a group of


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unemployed Neapolitans, prime examples of the sub-proletarian type he had always portrayed in his literature and ction lms. They are blaming the government and the trade unions for lack of support. The interview opens with a shot of an unemployed man displaying a strong speech impediment. This is perhaps the only instance in the film where we feel the hand of the author, as some kind of artistic elaboration should be allowed for in a scene where we hear shrill vocal noises well before the image of the stuttering man appears, at the end of a panning shot on the sky. The effect is somehow disturbing and estranging, not so much for what the man says, which remains incomprehensible, but for the decontextualization of his oddly lamenting voice, which recalls that of a wounded animal. When the camera focuses on him desperately trying to articulate coherent sentences, the feeling of estrangement stays with us, for we still fail to locate meaning, even more so as we discover that the source of those noises is a human being. Despite his wild gesticulations, the man cannot make himself understood and continues to howl. The only knowledge we are allowed to grasp concerns the anger of his tone and behaviour. Although one cannot doubt the spontaneity of the man, there is enough evidence here to discuss Pasolinis highly articulated notions of objectivity and realism as previously exposed. How does the author want us to read the obscure utterances of the disabled man? If it is clear from his very rst syllables that no logical meaning will ensue from his speech, why does the camera linger on what gradually grows into a painfully disturbing spectacle for the viewer to behold? Perhaps the mans disability could be read, in fairly orthodox sociopolitical terms, as symbolic of the impotence of the underprivileged; or, along the same ideological lines, as an intimation of the lack of communication between the unemployed and the ruling class. However, possibly more signi cant is what follows the brief bewildering prelude, when we discover that, as a matter of fact, the fellow-unemployed who surround him can actually decipher his noises, and subsequently translate them into suf ciently clear Italian for the bene t of the audience. It is difficult, despite the brevity of the sequence, not to see the mark of Pasolinis typical elaboration of the sub-proletariat as the locus of anthropological otherness. The disabled man speaks a different, private language that only he and his fellow-unemployed can understand. The otherness of their status is impressed in the non-verbal, pre-grammatical character of the mans speech, a linguistic signifier that can be read and interpreted exclusively by those who share with him the same social condition. Paradoxically, and yet consistently with Pasolinis theories, resistance to rationalization legitimizes the physical, anthropological truthfulness of the sub-proletariat as portrayed by the camera. Because the disabled man cannot release meaning, we are allowed to penetrate the deeper, hidden truth about him: not a rational truth, but a spiritual and empathetic one.


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The Gramscian solicitation on to the intellectual to move towards the most indigent people in order to understand their world and empathize with their needs, as a precondition for class struggle, seems here to have a strong impact on Pasolinis camera. However, Pasolini alters Gramscis equation by including and indeed highlighting the non-verbal addendum through an incisive metonymic reference to the language of the poor. What the enlightened intellectual discovers via contact with the underprivileged is that they do not participate, linguistically and therefore ideologically, in Western civilizations disenchanted logic of domination and detachment from the world-ambient, but rather remain in touch with the Real and its non-rational dimension. Unlike the civilized and the integrated, culturally reassured by their secular faith in scienti c empiricism, these poor have preserved the mimetic function, which signals their closeness to the mysterium of life. The mumbling and gesticulating of the unemployed Neapolitan, as a matter of fact, must have seemed to Pasolini a perfect opportunity to reassert his theory of the non-verbal as another form of verbality. Seizing the opportunity, he alludes to a form of mimetism, captured in the exaggerated body language and the incomprehensible utterances of the Neapolitan, which, according to his linguistic theories, should become communicative by remaining what it is, mimetic. The fact that we perceive it as disturbing or absurd, therefore, may well speak for our cultural inhibition, if not scorn, towards images that associate ourselves with nature. Precisely because, in line with Adorno and Horkheimers Dialectic of Enlightenment,40 the power of Western rationality resides in dominating nature and neutralizing the threat of its unanswerable question, the image of what is powerless within ourselves becomes alien to us, itself a threat. Pasolini, it seems, uses cinematic mimesis as a form of passive protest against the overpowering, alienating force of modern rationality: the disability of the Neapolitan speaks only for the disability of our ratio. More evidence for this comes from further analysis of the same sequence. After the opening shot, Pasolinis camera repeatedly cuts from another group of Neapolitan unemployed to children running in the streets while happily singing revolutionary anthems. Again, the stark juxtaposition of sub-proletarian political discontent and a vividly realistic representation of southern youth as a repository of natural vitality is reminiscent of Pasolinis conviction that revolutions are authentic only insofar as they incorporate the utopian urge we nd in mimetic behaviour. Political ideology is again reformulated in accordance with the authors latent theoretical claim.


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The three documentaries I have discussed above seem united by the same theoretical underpinnings, although they adopt different stylistic approaches to the genre. For their ideological signi cance and degree of experimental dynamism, these documentaries are certainly worthy of critical attention, to the point that, I would argue, they can hardly be deemed minor works in Pasolinis lmography. Both the Appunti series and La rabbia , which, unlike 12 dicembre, Pasolini had full auteurial control over, are hauntingly inspired lms, displaying an intensity of commitment towards the lmed reality that is undoubtedly compatible with, and comparable to, that of the directors better known fictional production. On the evidence of Pasolinis notion of cinema as the written language of reality, it is difficult objectively to distinguish between the philosophical claims of his ction and non- ction lms. If anything, by its own nature the documentary form permits us to approach more con dently the intricate question of the authors cinematic realism. As my reading of his uninterrupted engagement with documentaries suggests, Pasolini was reluctant to abandon mimetic realism, even more so when, from the mid-1960s, lm theorists started exposing the inconsistencies of referentiality. Under the severe inspection of semiotics, the concept of reality was rapidly losing its ontological status, and any representational practice that rested on a fixed and commonly shared understanding of a pre-existent real was unsympathetically dispensed with. The structuralist conception of representation held that a text, of whatever nature, could not re ect faithfully a pre-given, external reality but rather it produced both its own concept of objectivity and, inextricably linked to it, the point of view from which the object was perceived. As lm theory was turning its back on the classic realist text and increasingly concentrating on questions of selfre exivity, with the intention of debunking the reactionary nature of any hypostatized representation of outer reality, Pasolini, defending his own poetics, refused to liquidate cinemas potential to imitate what exists outside, beyond textual conventions. On the contrary, in a manner reminiscent of late Lacan, he strove to recuperate to semiotic analysis the non-symbolic and constitutionally non-conceptual xity of the Reals hidden dimension. Hence his provocatory use of the term reality in formulations such as reality only speaks to itself , and one cannot escape reality, because it speaks to itself, and we are in its circle.41 Precisely because of its non-conceptual con guration, therefore, Pasolinis recourse to mimetic realism did not aim at imposing an ontologically rigid view of reality, but rather wanted to undermine any claim of rational hypostatization of the real through the unveiling of what, in empirical reality itself, defies reason. His hopes to revive realism were ideologically consistent as they were founded on cinemas power to evoke,


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through mimesis, what eluded and hence resisted the pervasive logic of Western rationality and, more to the point, of capitalism. The ultimate object of his heretical semiotics was, I believe, the establishment of a dialectic between rationality and reality that would eventually expose the false coherence of the logic of capital. In this respect, it would be hard to deny that Pasolinis cinema is, as a whole, an ideological statement. Inextricably de ned by its will to convey, momentarily and unrhetorically, the ineffable authenticity of bodies that persist, with their existential truth, outside the in uence of the exchange law, his use of mimetic realism, far from being a self-suf cient practice, seems aimed ultimately at guaranteeing a progressive, open-ended commitment of reason to the understanding of reality, including its sociopolitical sphere.
Notes 1 P. Lopate, In search of the centaur: the essay- lm, in C. Warren (ed.), Beyond Document: Essays on Non ction Film (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), pp. 24370 (p. 257). 2 See P. P. Pasolini, Empirismo eretico (Milano: Garzanti, 1995), pp. 18897, esp. p. 195. All translations from Empirismo eretico are mine. 3 See esp. C. Metz, Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, trans. Michael Taylor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 94. 4 M. Renov (ed.), Theorizing Documentary (New York and London: Routledge, 1993). 5 B. Winston, Claiming The Real: the Documentary Film Revisited (London: BFI, 1995). 6 J. Tagg, The Burden of Representation (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988), p. 99. 7 John Grierson is regarded by many as the father of non- ctional productions. Active in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s with lms such as Drifters (1929), Listen to Britain (1943), Fires Were Started (1944) and A Diary for Timothy (1945), he is said to have introduced the word documentary in its common usage. Grierson always insisted on the sociopolitical function of the documentary as a means of mass education. His ideal was that of combining the artists imagination and creativity with commitment to social realism. 8 M. Renov, Introduction: The truth about non- ction, in Theorizing Documentary , p. 7. 9 Pasolini, Empirismo eretico, p. 140. 10 A. Bazin, The ontology of the photographic image, in What is Cinema?, trans. H. Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), pp. 916. 11 S. Z Niz Nek, The Fright of Real Tears (London: BFI, 2001), pp. 55 and 656. 12 See U. Eco, La struttura assente (Milano: Bompiani, 1968), pp. 15060; E. Garroni, Semiotica ed estetica (Bari: Laterza, 1968), pp. 1417, 434; S. Heath, Film/cinetext/text, Screen, 14 (12) (springsummer 1973), pp. 10227. These scholars criticize Pasolinis essays as semiologically naive, arguing that Pasolinis persuasion that elemental cinematographic signs that coincide with the real objects reproduced on the screen contradicts the basic


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13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25

26 27 28 29

30 31 32 33 34

aim of semiology, which is that of reducing the facts of nature to facts of culture, and not vice versa (see esp. Eco, La struttura assente, p. 151). Pasolini replied speci cally to Ecos critique with his essay Il codice dei codici (Empirismo eretico, pp. 27784), insisting on the fundamental cultural importance of the non-rational component of reality. See Pasolini, Empirismo eretico, p. 202. Oswald Stack, Pasolini on Pasolini (London: Thames and Hudson in association with the British Film Institute, 1969), p. 29. Metzs text was published three years later in Italian in AA.VV., Lanalisi del racconto. Le strutture della narrativit nella prospettiva semiologica che riprende le classiche ricerche di Propp (Milano: Bompiani, 1969), pp. 20525. See Pasolini, Il cinema di poesia, in Empirismo eretico, pp. 16787, where the linguistic notion of free indirect discourse is translated for the cinema as free indirect subjective. G. Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (London: The Athlone Press, 1986), p. 74. See T.W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), p. 430. See Pasolini, Empirismo eretico, p. 279. Ibid., p. 169. G.W.F. Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A.V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 35. T.W. Adorno, Opinion delusion society, in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 109. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, p. 80. Pasolini, Empirismo eretico, pp. 2634. I am referring here to Accattone (1961), Mamma Roma (1962), La ricotta (1963) and Il vangelo secondo Matteo (1964), lms that Pasolini always claimed to have shot in the name of the Gramscian notion of a national-popular culture. M. Viano, A Certain Realism. Making Use of Pasolinis Film Theory and Practice (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 1993), p. 114. The newsreel footage was taken from the archives of Gastone Ferrantis cinegiornale Mondo libero. Deleuze, Cinema 1: the Movement-Image, p. 74. The word refers to Walter Benjamins conception of the aura as a state of opaque, enigmatic correspondence between the gaze of the subject and the object: To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return, in Illuminations , trans. Harry Zohn (London: Collins/Fontana, 1973), p. 190. C. Norris, Whats Wrong with Postmodernism: Critical Theory and the Ends of Philosophy (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), p. 166. For an almost identical version of the poem see Pasolini, Bestemmia. Tutte le poesie, pp. 177072. R. Barthes, Camera Lucida, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p. 9. P. P. Pasolini, in Antologia di interviste (Roma: Bulzoni, 1977), p. 99. The Erinyes are infernal deities who torment Orestes after he kills his mother Clytemnestra, who in turn had murdered his father Agamemnon after his


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35 36


38 39 40 41

return from the Troyan war. Orestes is saved thanks to the intercession of Athena, the Goddess of Reason, who decides that he should be judged in a regular trial. Orestes is acquitted, but the Erinyes, who have lost the case, do not disappear. Instead, Athena transforms them into the Eumenides, who represent the survival of irrationality and instincts in the new world of reason. The myth was particularly fascinating for Pasolini, as it incorporates his favourite dualism between rationality and irrationality. Indeed, he pointed out that in the sixties, the years of the Thirld World, the years of negritude, the burning problem and question is the transformation of the Erinyes into Eumenides. Aeschylus genius foreshadowed all this. All advanced people today agree that archaic civilisations super cially referred to in terms of folklore must not be forgotten, despised or betrayed (translated from P.P. Pasolini, Note per lambientazione dellOrestiade in Africa, La citt futura, 23 (7 June 1978), p. 9). Winston, Claiming the Real, p. 6. The bomb exploded in the Banca Nazionale dellAgricoltura in Milans Piazza Fontana; sixteen people died, eighty-eight were wounded. The anarchists were immediately held responsible for the massacre, by both the police and the Ministry of the Interior. Giuseppe Pinelli was arrested on the rather feeble evidence given by a taxi driver. His death on 15 December was reported of cially by Marcello Guida, the Milanese police chief, as suicide: Pinelli had apparently jumped from the fourth- oor window of the police of ce after his alibi had proved false. Six years later, however, the court cleared Pinelli of all charges, and the truth about his death, as well as the Piazza Fontana massacre, is still an open issue. In the meantime, new evidence was beginning to emerge with regard to what was later termed the strategy of tension. The Italian Secret Services (SID) were linked to neo-fascist groups based in the Veneto region. Most of Italian public opinion became persuaded that the bomb explosions were aimed at creating panic and hysteria in the country, so as to produce the need for the intervention of the army and the establishment of an authoritarian regime. Among the numerous revolts that erupted in the South between 1969 and 1973, the Reggio Calabria incidents were the most serious. When, in the summer of 1970, the central government decided that the town of Catanzaro would become the new regional capital instead of Reggio, demonstrators erected barricades and took control of the railway station as a sign of protest. Behind its direct political causes, the protest was meant to highlight the conditions of extreme poverty and marginalization of the inhabitants of Reggio. Despite the violence of the incidents, which continued for over a year, the government decided to ratify Catanzaro as the capital of Calabria, but to allow the regional assembly to meet at Reggio. In addition, the man framed from the back while interviewing a southern family in Turin, in the closing shot of the lm, seems to be Pasolini, although this is not certain. See esp. P.P. Pasolini, Lettere luterane (Torino: Einaudi, 1976). T. W. Adorno and M. Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (London and New York: Verso, 1997). Pasolini, Empirismo eretico, pp. 238 and 246.