Pasolini at MOMA: or when a movie is (literally) torture

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The Museum of Modern Art launched a complete restrospective of the film work of Pier Paolo Pasolini on Thursday that will run through Jan. 5.

Much like the icy modern European director Michael Haneke — who is more admired than beloved — Pasolini made austere, sometimes cruel movies that examined types of human behavior that some of us might choose to leave unexplored.

Pasolini worked in the giant shadows cast by fellow Italians Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni who collaborated with major stars and examined lifestyles that made their pictures part of the 1960s and ’70s global zeitgeist.

U.S. audiences loved Fellini, in particular, for his exuberant, spectacular approach to cinema which combined circus, journalism, and soap opera.

Pasolini had an early arthouse hit in this country in 1964 with “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (bottom) which was much admired for eschewing the vulgarity of such Hollywood treatments of Christ’s life as “King of Kings.”

But “Gospel” turned out to be a fluke — as far as U.S. audiences were concerned — after  Pasolini went on to make difficult, baffling films like “Teorema” (below) or explicitly sexual work such as “The Decameron” that put off early 1970s audiences who weren’t used to so much nudity and so many sexual situations in mainstream movies.

The film that cemented Pasolini’s reputation as an audience-alienating provocateur was the one he completed just before his mysterious murder in 1975, “Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom” (above). Because the film’s graphic, sexually-tinged violence seemed to anticipate the director’s own death, “Salo” was not viewed objectively for many years.

The film, based on a novel by De Sade updated to the 1940s, was intended by Pasolini as an attack on the Fascist horrors in his country, but the torture sequences are so graphic that for many they negate the “message.” Since few of the people who followed Pasolini in Europe or the U.S. needed to be reminded of the abuses of the Nazis and the Fascists, they took the film as an visceral assault rather than a lucid critique.

For the first decade or so after it came out, “Salo” was viewed as a test of an individual’s squeamishness rather than as a mere movie and many of those who didn’t walk out during the torture sequences spent much of their time looking away from the screen.

The idea of torture as a feasible subject for dramatization has come up again with the forthcoming release of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty” which reportedly opens with a 30-minute sequence in which U.S. intelligence operatives use the notorious “waterboarding” technique on terrorist suspects.

I admire many of Pasolini’s films, but I only made it through “Salo” once, and came away from it thinking that the director was attacking his audience along with the Fascists he despised (but I couldn’t figure out what he had against us).

The Criterion Collection has a two-DVD version of “Salo” worth renting for the extras which cover the history of this deeply disturbing film, along with accounts of the life and work of its creator. The same company just released a deluxe set of Pasolini’s so-called “Trilogy of Life” — the director’s high-spirited adaptations of three works of classic erotic literature, “The Decameron,” “The Canterbury Tales” and “Arabian Nights.”

Meanwhile, the MOMA festival is featuring all new 35mm prints. If you’re feeling brave, the “Salo” screenings are set for Dec. 27 and Jan. 2. For the complete schedule go to www.moma.org

Joe Meyers

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