Pasolini’s second film is this slice of the kind of subject matter that Fellini was more used to serving up, which is to say a richly melodramatic story of the former sex worker of the film’s title and her relationship with her son Ettore. Of course, stylistically, Pasolini’s take is hardly comparable to Fellini, aside from the garrulous camera-hogging of Anna Magnani in the central role recalling Giulietta Masina. This is far more focused on the fragile ground on which Magnani’s character tries to rebuild her life, as her honest profession as a vegetable seller in the market is undercut by not just forays into vice in order to try and provide for her son’s future (a little play-acting with a pimp and a sex worker to blackmail a restaurant owner into getting him a job) but also the return of her former pimp Carmine. Fragile too is Ettore’s self-identity within his social circle — he’s a young man trying to prove himself by courting one slightly older local woman — while meanwhile given a hard time by his male friends, all of which combined with a revelation of his mother’s former career, seems to push him over the edge. Pasolini’s attention then is on wider society — including, of course, the church — and the part it plays in destroying a family. Magnani remains at the heart of the film, though, and there are some particularly striking tracking shots showing her walking around the darkened streets lit by ethereal street lights, as people hove into view out of the darkness to engage her in conversation before peeling off again. She may be trying to constantly move forward, but she never seems to be given the chance to get anywhere.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Pier Paolo Pasolini | Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli | Starring Anna Magnani, Ettore Garofalo, Franco Citti | Length 106 minutes || Seen at home, London, Monday 21 January 2019
Nobody ever said it would be easy, and after a run of what one might uncharitably term middlebrow sentimentality (or perhaps humanistic tales with a sense of moral responsibility), the Criterion Collection moves decisively towards showcasing films with a rather harder edge, of which this adaptation by Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini of the Marquis de Sade is surely the most challenging. I’d seen this many years ago, and expected to not like it — and it is of course a nasty film in which many very vile things happen or are said, which can be extremely difficult to watch — but it’s also somewhat fascinating. It’s set almost entirely at an opulent country estate, at which stories are told by elderly society ladies while acts of degradation and depravity are committed by a cadre of four aristocrats/governmental figures (backed up by armed guards) upon a group of young men and women, all while one of the women accompanies on piano in a genteel manner. There’s a lot in the film that recalls the work of Michael Haneke (who is, as I’m sure I’ll one day post about, a director I consider among cinema’s most overrated). The final and most difficult passage of the film (entitled ‘Circle of Blood’) depicts various tortures being watched at a distance by the aristocrats through opera glasses in a manner that clearly implicates the film’s own audience, and yet it feels less overtly Do-You-See as similar Haneke strategies in films like Funny Games. The corruption of power is tied strongly in the film to the declining years of Mussolini’s rule in Fascist Italy, which perhaps gives it historical distance (like that final act, viewed through glasses), but also makes it a story about the interplay between the governed and the ruling classes. It is all too easy for someone on the left to imagine quotes like “It is when I see others degraded that I rejoice knowing it is better to be me than the scum of ‘the people’. Whenever men are equal, without that difference, happiness cannot exist” at a Tory party conference, and Pasolini must surely be channelling his own indignation at government here. Whatever it may represent, it still (necessarily so, perhaps) is a punishing watch, and not one that I would particularly rush to repeat any time soon.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Pier Paolo Pasolini | Writers Pier Paolo Pasolini and Sergio Citti (based on the novel Les 120 journées de Sodome ou l’école du libertinage by the Marquis de Sade) | Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli | Starring Paolo Bonacelli, Aldo Valletti | Length 116 minutes || Seen at home (VHS), Wellington, May 2001 (and most recently at a friend’s home on DVD, London, Sunday 4 January 2015)