Australian Arts

Archangel of Italian film

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

Like yesterday, there’s the memory of William Weaver, the great translator from the Italian of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller talking about the Rome he couldn’t bring himself to leave after he found himself as a GI in Italy in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

‘It was at one of Visconti’s parties’, he said, ‘that I first met Pasolini sitting on the stairs with his mother eating a bowl of spaghetti. And I can tell you that with the possible exception of Pope Pius XII you could meet anyone at one of Visconti’s parties.’

Visconti, the Milanese nobleman and man of the Left, who made The Leopard and Death in Venice, Rocco and his Brothers and The Damned, a great theatre and opera director – the director of Maria Callas – who was also a supreme artist of the drama of the cinema.

And Pier Paolo Pasolini, another of the archangels of Italian film whose centenary it is. This is being celebrated in a long retrospective exhibition of his films at Melbourne’s art deco cinema the Astor in a way that does everything to contextualise them. The organisers have seen fit to show the Pasolini masterpieces – ‘Pasolini only makes masterpieces, damn him’ as Bob Ellis once said – along with films that might shed light on what he’s doing by way of influence or context. So we get Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris – hard to know precisely why but reason not the need: a Brando masterpiece, a Bertolucci masterpiece– on a big screen. It’s probably got something to do with transgression and what is actually depictable given the debate about the famous butter scene.

The most confronting of all Pasolini’s films – banned for many years in Australia and still abhorred by so broad-minded a lover of films as David Stratton – is Salò. This is technically one of Pasolini’s adaptations like The Decameron or The Canterbury Tales except that the model – a very recessed model in this case – is de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom and the upshot is a staggering and staggeringly disturbing film which you can acknowledge as a masterpiece and still have no desire ever to see again as long as you live. A film that tests the limits of what can be looked at.

The Pasolini festival which runs until 25 May is very much a placing of the great Italian filmmaker in the history of cinema. Not only Buñuel but two great films, one silent and one a talkie, by the great Norwegian director Carl Dreyer. There is The Passion of Joan of Arc which not only includes one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema, Falconetti’s Joan of Arc, but an extraordinary cameo of Artaud looking like an angel as the sympathetic Dean of Rouen, Jean Massieu. And then there’s Dreyer’s Crucible film – witches are given human faces and human speech and human hearts – Day of Wrath.

Pasolini seems to have been as formidable a poet as he was a filmmaker and the history of his reception is remarkable. When his Salò was finally released some 30-odd years ago my successors at the literary magazine Scripsi Andrew Rutherford and Owen Richardson were invited to a special screening of the film which was attended by that imperturbable football voice, Sam Newman, and by the head of the Liberal branch of Melbourne Jewry Rabbi John Levi together with a Jesuit – all organised by some bright young editor at the Melbourne Herald Sun. Well, the Jesuit and the literary editors thought they were in the presence of a masterpiece,  the former Geelong ruckman thought the film was crap and the Jewish man of God in an arguably unfortunate formulation said it was ‘a slander of fascism’.

But Pasolini was a wonder. It doesn’t matter that his Gospel According to Saint Matthew – the greatest by a longshot of all Christ films – has wobbling cameras and breaks every technical rule. It also comes across (mirabile dictu) like a great documentary in neo-realist mode about the life of the Man himself.

Pasolini’s Medea with Maria Callas at the height of her powers mingles and fuses Euripides and Seneca and whatever wisps of legend cling to the director’s mind but you know you are in the presence of that rarest thing, a supreme literary intelligence which is also the mind of a great filmmaker.

This is written all over the overtly literary films like The Decameron but it’s in every nook and cranny of Pasolini. You can prefer Mamma Roma with Anna Magnani or Accattone the street boys film to a sedulously composed movie like Teorema, his angel of death film with Terence Stamp as the guy who destroys everybody by the fire he stirs in their loins. But every inch of Pasolini shows the hand of the master.

It will be fascinating to see his Notes for an African Orestes alongside his Oedipus Rex and the prospect of looking at his work in the context of an anthology of the greatest twentieth century cinema boggles the mind.

There are moments, of course, when great cinema is not what we feel like. In the wake of one of the dullest batches of Oscar films in living memory it was fun the other night to watch the new Ken Branagh Agatha Christie film Death on the Nile.

It seems clear that Poirot should be played by a comic or character actor as he was on screen by Peter Ustinov and on TV compendiously by David Suchet. But Ken Branagh seems to have seized on the precedent of Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express which had Albert Finney as a searingly intense and intelligent Poirot as his protagonist.

Branagh is a heroic and hammy Poirot and if Death on the Nile is not as successful as his minor key Orient Express with Judi Dench it has a sort of hectic, melodramatic glamour that soothes the mind like comfort food and although the denouement swings every which way it quietens the soul and you can see why Ridley Scott produced and Annette Bening contributed a very classy performance. If film can’t give us truth a bit of madcap entertainment doesn’t go astray.

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