Pier Paolo Pasolini 101: A Man of Myth and Folklore

Movies Lists Pier Paolo Pasolini
Pier Paolo Pasolini 101: A Man of Myth and Folklore

One hundred and one is a bit of a mythic age. Having broken the barrier of a century, one becomes a storyteller of deep time. To celebrate the 101st birthday of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, The Criterion Collection has released a box set of nine films from the late visionary. Called Pasolini 101, the set not only commemorates the birthday of this provocateur of Italian cinema but also serves as a rich introduction to the life and work of the rebellious artist.

The collection, much like Pasolini’s films, is at once reverential and hagiographic yet human, materialist and pedagogical. It lovingly treats his art with great care, making sure each film is as clear as the intention behind them, but also loaded with features that teach us more about the man and his times. The set and the cinema within it continually cycle between sacred and profane, offering glimpses of the sublime and modeling a way of seeing the world grounded in human economic realities.

Watching these movies reveals Pasolini as a man of folklore and myth. In his early films, he trains his camera on the faces and stories of everyday people, witnessing their lives in all their complex and tragic glories. This “lumpenproletariat,” as he refers to them, using his training in Classical Marxism, are those most exploited by capitalism—those who cannot (and sometimes will not) overcome the systems necessary to realize themselves as an oppressed class. In modern society, these are vagabonds, loiterers, homeless and career criminals. But in Pasolini’s world, these folks practice proud ancient ways of being that are at odds with capitalism’s regimented demands.  

“My career is Italian history,” Pasolini explains in an included interview. By the 1960s, he had to change his subject matter because Italy had changed. As modernization slowly decimated the folk, the world became “the bourgeoisie and everyone else,” as he says. Thus, Pasolini shifted his subject matter to the middle classes and industry owners. His later films are ribald and sometimes violent assaults on capitalist ideology, the hoarding of resources, and the moral hypocrisies of those in power. Rather than skewering them through the surreal, as his contemporary Luis Buñuel might, Pasolini’s critique comes via folkloric modes. He uses myths, fables, parables and allegories to critique society on a cosmic scale.

Here is our guide to the movies of Pasolini 101:


Our first film, Accattone, opens with a quote from Dante’s Purgatorio, the middle journey of The Divine Comedy from Inferno to Paradiso. Accattone is also caught between worlds. A pimp and a father, he has trouble making ends meet. A dejected member of society, Accattone has trouble motivating himself, even when he is able to land a job at a factory. Trapped in this world between death and living, Accattone’s tragic fate feels predestined. Pasolini was 39 when he made Accattone, his first film. Already a celebrated literary figure, having written several novels, short stories, plays and screenplays (notably parts of La Dolce Vita and Nights of Cabiria for countryman Frederico Fellini), Pasolini was also between artistic worlds. Watching Accattone today, it feels like a near-textbook work of Italian neorealism. It is full of close, steady, verite shots that define the cinematic mode along with classic subjects like poverty, sex work and failing social systems. Yet there’s something else working from the periphery that reveres the characters. They are filmed in light. At times it feels like we’re at their feet. What happens to them is piteous and makes them martyrs of violent gender and economic systems. For Pasolini, these tragic archetypes are worthy of sainthood.

Mamma Roma

Pasolini crystalizes this hagiographic neorealism in his next film, Mamma Roma. Starring the magnetic Anna Magnani, this story about a desperate mother’s attempts to break the family history of crime before it consumes her son is more dynamic than Accattone. There’s more style, more camera and emotional movement. While a Pasolini film in form and content, Magnani consecrates Mamma Roma. Pasolini famously preferred working with non-professional actors because they are “fragments of reality.” A professional actor “signifies that another consciousness is added to [his] own.” An actor comes with their own ideas and methods. They are always more than ‘being.’ In the case of Mamma Roma, this mix of professional and non-acting actors works exceedingly well, primarily based on the vibrancy of Magnani. Her performance is less an imposition of consciousness on the film as it is an apparition. She walks, talks and thinks differently, with the most alluring aura. Occasionally, Pasolini lifts us out of the verite style as Mamma Roma ascends to her sublime monologues against a disorienting and twinkling urban background. In these roving single tracking shots, she fulfills her namesake: She becomes a Marian figure, a sacred mother to the entire city.

Love Meetings

Love Meetings documents the myths Italians were telling themselves in the mid-1960s. Asking “point blank” questions about their sexual lives and moralities, Pasolini draws together a national dialogue from candid responses at a time when modern sexual sensibilities were starting to sprout. He captures consciousness in flux, one filled with old myths about tradition, purity and nationalism, which confronts new myths of social progress and unregulated liberty. Talking to a diverse array of people—always with a sharp eye on how poverty influences sexual mores—Pasolini’s short anthropological study is endlessly fascinating, and one of the hidden gems in this collection.

The Gospel According to Matthew

Having given Italian neorealism a mythic sensibility, Pasolini inverted this formula with The Gospel According to Matthew, in which he uses classic neorealist techniques to tell the epic story of Jesus. In true Pasolini style, the film combines painterly staged visuals amongst an unmanicured and free-roaming world. The Gospel According to Matthew is a fascinating experiment that ponders what a miracle might look like in modernist cinema. The result is a profound and refreshing retelling of the most told story in history. It is a film of double worlds, the sacred and profane. Jesus arrives against a lived-in and ancient backdrop in the context of common people. We’re there with him in medium shots, framed like someone in a newsreel. But then Pasolini cuts or pulls back, Jesus walks on water, and the mystic enters the frame. We’re left breathless, in awe. Pasolini has given us sacred feelings through secular form.

The Hawks and The Sparrows

After the religious epic, Pasolini takes up the fable as his next popular form in the second hidden gem in this collection, The Hawks and The Sparrows. Described by Pasolini as an “ideo-comical” film, it follows two travelers, Toto and Ninetto (played by Toto, and Ninetto Davoli), who happen upon a talking crow. The crow tells them a medieval tale of two monks charged with preaching to the birds. Stepping into the fable, our stars play the monks who develop the power to sing to birds and teach them about love. But when the hawks continue to eat the sparrows, the monks are taught the flaws in their ideology. Shaken loose from the moral of the fable, Toto and Ninetto continue on their way, encountering other walks of life before rebelling against the crow. The folk, as we’ve come to know them through the other films, are gone. This unique film presents Pasolini as a director with a message and ideological intent. Here, Pasolini combines classic storytelling genres, early cinema and modern ideology. The crow’s fable sees Toto and Ninetto play monks contemplating Marxist theory while sometimes moving as if they were in a silent film. Pasolini creates a form of creative didacticism that combines instruction and inspiration to entertain audiences in a way storytellers have been doing since the beginning of time.

Oedipus Rex

Pasolini steps back to ancient Greece for this retelling of the famous myth. Considered highly autobiographical, the film is a “mystified and epic style” of his life. It is the reverse of The Gospel According to Matthew. Instead of myth made real, here we have reality made mythic. Beginning in the Italy of his youth and then stepping into the past, Oedipus Rex has problematic timelessness because Pasolini’s vision of the ancient past is an appropriative assemblage of ritual images from contemporary North Africa, India and the Middle East. Despite this, Pasolini’s retelling remains interesting because it is a personal application of myth onto himself. He even appears as a member of the proletariat pleading with King Oedipus. Oedipus Rex is a unique self-mythologization that tries to fit a contemporary man, with his self-awareness and neuroses, into a known and mythic story. 


Even more so than Oedipus Rex, Teorema is a myth for the modern era. With this film, Pasolini stays firmly planted in the mythic mode. Mainly told through glances and gestures, the characters act out their roles according to their archetypes: The healing angel, lonely housewife, repressed son, anxious daughter, soulless father. Pasolini has removed motivation and objective from storytelling and instead places the mysterious stranger (played by the divinely handsome Terence Stamp) right in the middle of the middle-class home without explaining why he’s there. Yet even though the story is devoid of these things in keeping with the epic style, there’s still a substantial amount of psychology in this film. Keenly aware of anxieties, repressions and fetishes from his reading of Freud and various existentialists, Pasolini once again creates a film of double worlds. It is a world of artifice and interiors. The sacred and rapturous reality descends on the bourgeois house, shattering the façade of pretension, but unlike in previous films we’ve considered, Teorema eventually pulls out, and sends the profane world into an existential vacuum. After being sexually and emotionally released by the divine stranger, the modern psyche collapses towards destructive yet creative ends. Teorema is a parable for a sexual revolution in the face of economic depression.


With myth, epic, fable and parable within his cinematic oeuvre, Pasolini next turned to allegory. Rather than a film with a clear moral or spiritual lesson, Porcile contains layers of meaning. One half of the film is about a cannibal wandering an otherworldly desert plane. The other half concerns the son of a bourgeois German industrialist and his strange appetite for the company of pigs. Pasolini’s satirical edge is on full display in Porcile. His indictment of the upper-class Germans living off the spoils of war is ridiculous and deliciously mocking. The two desires of the young male characters are contrasted against one other. The mythic story is a perverse saint’s story in which the main character (Pierre Clémenti) attains a state of holiness after he’s consumed human flesh. In the other tale, Julian’s (Jean-Pierre Léaud) taste for pigs represents the moral failing, hypocrisy and detachment of the bourgeois psyche. Through symbolism and inversion, Porcile is a damning allegory about primordial drives and the social contexts that determine their meaning. 


Pasolini 101 concludes with the collapsing of allegory into analogy. According to Pasolini, with Medea, he wanted to show “the modern era as analogous to the past.” By the late 1960s, the role of women was changing in society, so Pasolini turned once again to ancient myth to tell a contemporary story. Medea is a classic tale about the suspicions of women’s power and the belief that it turns women into monsters. Yet, in casting opera legend Maria Callas, she takes on an unquestionable air of dignity. Callas’ unflinching eyes and curling lips are rife material for close-ups, and Pasolini combines them with wide landscape shots to tell a visual story through archetypes. Doing so produces what Pasolini calls a “poetic feeling of history,” achieving a true feeling of time and place through symbolism. All of the films in this set are built along a dialectic. Often cycling between worlds and ideologies, the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini always strive to teach us something about our experience of the world and the cinema. As a literary writer and social critic before being a film director, he could import popular story genres into a modernizing cinematic language and manipulate them into an ideological point. His films shine with a passion for those capitalism has left behind. For him, the poor, the itinerant laborers, and other social outcasts are the holy ones, for they are free from hypocrisy and moral convention. As a queer man openly at odds with the law, Pasolini’s films shine out as a call for social change, with myth and folklore as vital tools for the revolution.

B! is a writer, scholar, and Pisces from Northern Illinois. B! writes queer and critical words for Paste Magazine, Into Magazine, The Spool, and Honey Literary Journal. A champion hermit, they enjoy reading, the indoors, afternoon naps, and doing nothing at all. They are the inaugural recipient of Rotten Tomatoes & Chicago Film Critics Association’s Emerging Critics Grant for their excellence in film criticism.

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