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.
Pier Paolo Pasolinis 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? Thats
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the International Catholic Film Office (only to have it withdrawn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 Manhattans 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 Pasolinis 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.
"Its 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 havent had the
occasion to use that yet. The sexual theme in Teorema
is only metaphorical. Thats 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 doesnt make it. Its 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
Pasolini doesnt 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 Pasolinis 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 didnt 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 Theaters Frankenstein.
Much of what Pasolini had been seeing on his visit to New York was
marvelous, though not too marvelous for words. "Im 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."
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.