A man walking through a tall field of wheat stands and beckons. The camera follows him, pushing stalks of wheat out of the way. The scene re-enacts an excerpt from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 book, La Divina Memesis, a word play on Dante’s Divine Comedy. “I watched him walk ahead of me, up a steep path overgrown by a bad and innocent weed,” reads the film’s narrator.
And so begins Pasolini’s Last Words, Cathy Lee Crane’s hour-long biographical and experimental documentary on the death and works of Italian writer, filmmaker, activist and intellectual, Pier Paolo Pasolini. Crane, an Ithaca College cinema and photography professor, produced, filmed and edited the piece over the course of six years. Pasolini’s Last Words was screened on March 27 at Cornell Cinema and followed by a question and answer session with Crane.
Although Crane is a filmmaker, she was introduced to Pasolini’s work through his literature rather than his films. After reading his unfinished novel, Petrolio (the Italian word of “oil”), she was inspired by the book’s fragmentation, a style that she adopts in her documentary. Told in 10 chapters shuffling between his death, interviews, essays, films, and books, Crane’s documentary offers a portrait of Pasolini and how he saw the world.
The film begins with Pasolini’s death. He was murdered on November 2, 1975, at the beach of Ostia, near Rome, his body driven over with a car until it was unrecognizable. Archival Italian news broadcasts replayed his death. This archival footage is followed by a clip of Pasolini’s last recorded interview, where he says that everything is political. Before his death, Pasolini had just finished his film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, based on the book by Marquis de Sade. The controversial film — a commentary on how humans become dehumanized — focused on four wealthy fascist libertines after the end of Mussolini’s Italy in 1943.
“That’s why I made this film. Because what he had to say is still relevant,” Crane said in the Q&A session following the screening. “That and making a film about historical reference: the possibility that he was murdered because he understood this right-wing attention that was not made public or acknowledged until 20 years after his murder.”
Through Crane’s lens, we re-discover Pasolini’s prophetic wit. Minus the news footage of his deaths, all the words in her film were written or once spoken by Pasolini. “How I look at reality springs from the personal, so all my films are how I see reality and my Marxist reality,” he says.
Pasolini’s ideas are still relevant — from his views on consumerism (“The language of things have not changed, but the things themselves have changed”) to his understanding of military governments (that by governments bombing women and children, people will want even more militarized and communistic governments). The latter, which he calls the “state of treason,” foreshadows Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism, where she agrees that “shock and awe” from natural or man-made disasters have pushed through negative capitalist change.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ideas fueled Crane’s experimentation, which ranges from the fragmented narrative to double exposures and multiple split screens. In an essay reflecting on his first film, Accattone, Pasolini wrote, “If I wanted to reshoot Accattone today, I couldn’t find somebody playing himself.” Taking those words as a challenge, Crane hired Bochay Drum to attempt to re-enact the character of Accattone from the film. Drum watched hours and hours of a scene from Pasolini’s film until his body could replicate it. Crane juxtaposes and loops the clip from Accattone with the modern re-enactment in the mise-en-scène. While Drum is sitting in a chair in a room, behind him, the exact same scene in Pasolini’s film is double exposed on a square screen. The images begin to overlap as the clip loops. Both Franco Citti (the original Accattone) and Drum rise and run toward the camera. Despite how closely the motions mirror each other, Drum lacks Citti’s spirit, proving that while anyone can replicate the gestures, no one can be Accattone like Franco Citti was.
The last couple of chapters in Crane’s documentary are re-enactments from scenes in Pasolini’s book Petrolio. The unfinished novel is about Carlos 1 (Drum), a religious bourgeois man employed by an Italian oil and gas company, and his sexual and lower-class twin, Carlos 2 (Amanda Setton). Crane employs an attractive femme fatale as Carlos 2 to tempt Carlos 1. In one scene, she walks closer to him, laughing and smiling until she turns just out of reach. In another, the two dance, and the camera follows, swaying as if it were dancing with them. The scenes are lovely and poetic, but also as elusive as the unfinished novel.
While Crane defined Pasolini through his ideas, words and impact, the documentary’s by no means a complete portrait. Pasolini’s Last Words doesn’t delve into all of Pasolini’s works. The film doesn’t offer biographical information about his family or childhood. At times, the fragmented style makes the film’s messages unclear. But the excerpts Crane has chosen are as engaging as the man — standing, beckoning and waiting for us to follow him.