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PIER PAOLO PASOLINI--THE ATHEIST WHO WAS OBSESSED WITH GOD

By GUY FLATLEY

My New York Times interview with Pier Paolo Pasolini took place in 1969, six years before his murder by a male prostitute. --G.F.

 

In Pier Paolo Pasolini’s new film, "Teorema," Terence Stamp plays God. Or he plays the devil. Or he plays Christ. Or he plays a hustler with a heart of gold.

Whom does Terence Stamp play? That’s the question a lot of baffled movie buffs are asking. From the Venice Film Festival, where "Teorema" won a special award from the International Catholic Film Office (only to have it withdrawn later because the film does not "respect the sensibility of Christian people"), to Rome, where Pasolini stands a chance of going to prison if his movie is designated obscene in an upcoming court battle, to the smoky corners of Manhattan’s screening rooms, the guessing game has been in full swing. Tomorrow "Teorema" opens at the Coronet Theater, and then all New Yorkers who are curious can have a go at Pasolini’s puzzle.

One thing is clear to those who have seen the film: Stamp plays a mighty mysterious stranger. Handsome, husky and gentle, soft-spoken and all-knowing, he comes drifting from out of nowhere to pass some time with the family of a wealthy Milanese factory owner. In swift succession, he engages in sexual affairs with all members of the household: the fanatically religious maid, the sensitive son, the emotionally repressed mother, the timid daughter and, finally, the tormented father. The stranger gives unsparingly of himself, asking nothing in return; then one day he leaves, as suddenly and mysteriously as he came. Unable to endure the void in their lives, the mother becomes a nymphomaniac, the son a demented painter, the daughter a catatonic and the father a sexual prowler. The servant, on the other hand, takes to working miracles.

What does it all mean? Perhaps this can best be answered by God or the Devil or Pasolini. And since the Italian director was in New York recently, it seemed a good idea to drop by his hotel and see what he had to say about the controversy over his movie and its protagonist. Not since 1964 had Pasolini created such a stir, and even then it was not the content of his "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" that stunned people. It was the discovery that a director who was both a communist and an atheist could bring such fervor and insight to a religious subject.

"It’s not important to understand ‘Teorema’," Pasolini says in a soft voice. He is dark and somewhat frail, a handsome man with hollow cheeks and black circles beneath his eyes.

"I leave it to the spectator…is the visitor God or is he the Devil? He is not Christ. The important thing is that he is sacred, a supernatural being. He is something from beyond."

Are the members of the family in some way improved by their encounter with the visitor? "Only in the sense that a man in a crisis is always better than a man who does not have a problem with his conscience. However, the conclusion of the story is negative because the characters live the experience but are not capable of understanding and resolving it. This is the ‘lesson’ of the movie -- the bourgeoisie have lost the sense of the sacred, and so they cannot solve their own lives in a religious way. But the servant is a peasant, really a person from another era, a pre-industrial era. That is why she is the only one who recognizes the visitor as God, why she alone does not rebuke him when he must leave.

"When I say God," Pasolini quickly adds, "I do not mean a Catholic God. He could belong to any religion, a peasant religion. All religions are really peasant religions. That is why religion is in crisis today. We are passing from a peasant world to an industrial world. But a world does not die, so the peasant civilization lives within us, buried within us. It is buried, along with the sense of the sacred, within the factory owner and his family in ‘Teorema.’ "

The charges of obscenity by the Italian state magistrates come as something of a shock, especially since the love scenes in "Teorema" end where most today would begin. "A moviemaker should have the right to use nudity as a painter uses it," Pasolini says, fingering a handsome hardback copy of "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" which lies on the coffee table.

"But as for sexual intercourse, well, I haven’t had the occasion to use that yet. The sexual theme in ‘Teorema’ is only metaphorical. That’s why the sex scenes between the visitor and the members of the family are not explicit. The love that is offered is spiritual. The mother and father have the illusion that it is physical and that they can replace it by having sexual relationships with pick-ups, boys who resemble the visitor physically. These relations are shown realistically because there is nothing else to show. Nothing mystical takes place with them. The mother and father, because of their middle-class, industrial values, have not been able to learn from a truly religious experience. The father almost does. He takes off his clothes and, like Saint Francis, leaves all material things behind. When he reaches the desert, which represents the ascetic life he has been trying to gain, he is not capable of living a mystical experience, as Saint Francis was, because he is historically made in another manner. He arrives almost to the limit of being saved, but he doesn’t make it. It’s very important that the middle-class sees its own errors and suffers for them."

There are times when Pasolini sounds remarkably religious for a self-acknowledged atheist. "I suffer from the nostalgia of a peasant-type religion, and that is why I am on the side of the servant," he says. "But I do not believe in a metaphysical god. I am religious because I have a natural identification between reality and God. Reality is divine. That is why my films are never naturalistic. The motivation that unites all of my films is to give back to reality its original sacred significance."

His determination to capture reality on film may explain why the 46-year old director frequently prefers working with real people, as opposed to professional actors. His own mother, for example, gave a splendid performance as Mary, the mother of Christ, in "The Gospel According to Saint Matthew." "She was extraordinary because when she saw Christ go on the cross, she felt the same pain that she felt when my brother, a partisan, was killed during the war," Pasolini says with emotion. "In general, I choose actors because of what they are as human beings, not because of what they can do. Terence Stamp was offended by this because I never asked him to demonstrate his acting ability. It was like stealing from him, using his reality. I had a similar experience with Anna Magnani on ‘Mama Roma.’ She also felt I was stealing from her."

Pasolini doesn’t seem to anticipate any problems, temperamental or otherwise, when he travels to Turkey in May to film "Medea" with Maria Callas, a performer not particularly noted for standing still while her reality is being swiped from her. Nor were there any confrontations with Julian Beck, of the Living Theater, when Beck acted Tiresias in Pasolini’s still unreleased "Oedipus Rex." "Julian Beck is a saint!" he says, clasping his hands together.

"When he arrived on location, he had a serious eye condition, but he didn’t tell me about it. They put contact lenses in his eyes to make him appear blind. I found out later that to keep them in for longer than a half hour was dangerous and extremely painful, and yet he wore them for six or seven hours at a time in terrible pain without saying a word. Julian Beck is a saint! Last night I went to see the Living Theater’s ‘Frankenstein.’ Marvelous!"

Much of what Pasolini had been seeing on his visit to New York was marvelous, though not too marvelous for words. "I’m in love with New York," he said, his soulful dark eyes brightening. "I have a passion beyond words for it. Like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ -- love at first sight. It is the most beautiful city in the world. I love the huge mingling of enormous amounts of people, races. The mixture of cruelty and innocence. New York is a piece of mythical reality, as beautiful as the Sahara Desert."

Click here to read Guy's interviews with other major directors, including Michelangelo Antonioni, Martin Scorsese, Billy Wilder, Jean-Luc Godard, Woody Allen, Frank Capra, Dorothy Arzner, Bernardo Bertolucci, Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut, Lars Von Trier, Vittorio De Sica, Dennis Hopper, Luchino Visconti, Joseph Losey, Clint Eastwood, Ken Russell, Clarence Brown, Fred Zinnemann and Raoul Walsh.