Never one to hold back when depicting the truth, Pier Paolo Pasolini, nearly 50 years after his death, remains a defiant and relevant artist whose films embrace human dignity, condemn authoritarianism and contain vividly depicted sexuality. Worldwide tributes marking the 100th anniversary of Pasolini’s birth include a program in San Francisco where Pasolini admirers and neophytes alike can see a few of the postwar filmmaker’s once “scandalous” works.
The all-day celebration, “Pasolini 100: An Homage to Pier Paolo Pasolini,” is set for Saturday at the Castro Theatre. Five films and a reception make up the very Italian bill.
“I’m excited about this event,” says Amelia Antonucci, founder and program director of Cinema Italia San Francisco, one of the organizations presenting “Pasolini 100.”
Antonucci, who put the program together and has worked on previous such “adventures” honoring Italian screen notables, describes Pasolini as an artist whose courage, truthfulness and interest in the welfare of the world’s have-nots have made him continually significant.
The Bologna-born Pasolini was a filmmaker, poet, novelist, playwright, journalist and Marxist. His work often featured peasants and urban young people and contained damning portraits of fascism and consumerism.
His films ranged from semi-neorealist works, featuring run-down urban settings and nonprofessional actors, to dramas inspired by mythology, literature and the Bible. (Like most true rebels, Pasolini had a strong sense of tradition.)
Scandal seemed a given for Pasolini. His depictions of realities like prostitution and extreme poverty, as well as his explicit portrayals of sexuality and his openness about his homosexuality, repeatedly got him in trouble with the law and the Catholic Church and displeased the Italian Communist Party.
“Pasolini has always been special to me and to Italy,” says Antonucci, who is also a former director of the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco and a cinephile replete with knowledge about Pasolini and Italian film.
“He spoke the truth about himself and about Italy,” says Antonucci, who lived in Italy in the post-fascist decades.
“We needed somebody to translate the realities for us, to tell us what society was about,” she says, recalling how she and fellow film lovers deeply valued Pasolini’s work.
“When he was killed, it devastated us,” she says, referring to the murder of Pasolini on an Ostia beach in 1975. The killing, attributed to everything from politics to the Mafia to extortion to a gay bashing, has remained unsolved.
He was a complicated, multifaceted man, says Antonucci.
Pasolini “knew Greek drama, his friends were intellectuals and he had a special friendship with Maria Callas,” rather like a platonic love story, she says of the filmmaker and the famed soprano. He shared a special bond with his supportive mother, as well.
“Pasolini was always on the side of poor people,” Antonucci says.
He wasn’t fond of the age of television, Antonucci adds. “He probably would have liked to live in a primeval world,” she says, with both astuteness and humor.
“The cinema is an explosion of my love for reality,””Pasolini said, and the films chosen by Antonucci for “Pasolini 100,” which come from a full retrospective that took place in Los Angeles recently, bear out his statement.
Four films directed by Pasolini and one film by Abel Ferrera will screen.
First up, at 10:30 a.m., is Ferrara’s “Pasolini” (2014), which dramatizes Pasolini’s final days, with Willem Dafoe credible and captivating as the title character. Drawing on Pasolini’s final interview and unfinished last novel, the story follows Pasolini as he prepares to shoot a bound-to-be-scandalous new movie. A trip to the beach with a male prostitute ends with Pasolini’s violent murder. Noting Ferrara’s daring and unconventional qualities, and Rome home base, Antonucci describes the U.S.-born filmmaker as an ideal director to profile Pasolini.
Next, at 12:30 p.m., comes “Mamma Roma” (1962), Pasolini’s second feature film. The poetically gritty drama centers on a former prostitute, played by a powerhouse Anna Magnani, who is trying to escape poverty for the sake of her teenage son. As often occurs in Pasolini’s stories, social circumstances ultimately can’t be overcome. Pasolini’s realistically depicted subjects led detractors to label the film immoral.
“Accattone” (1961), beginning at 3 p.m., is the director’s debut feature, loosely based on a Pasolini novel that was deemed obscene. The drama follows a small-time pimp (played by Franco Citti, a nonprofessional who would become a Pasolini regular) as he goes about his daily life. The outskirts-of-Rome setting suggests a neorealist version of a post-apocalyptic landscape, but the action is stirringly vital.
At 6 p.m., look for “Medea” (1969), based on Euripides’ play and described as a loving salute to Maria Callas. In her only film role, Callas, who doesn’t sing in the movie, formidably portrays the sorceress Medea, who, after her husband, Jason of the Argonauts, abandons her for another woman, responds with a horrific act of vengeance. In celebration of the upcoming (2023) centenaries of both Callas and the San Francisco Opera, a live musical presentation will precede the screening.
An Italian-flavored reception will follow “Medea.”
Last comes “Salo” (1976), Pasolini’s final film. Originally intended as part one of a “death trilogy,” the film, when Pasolini died, became a standalone anti-fascist horror shocker addressing how the rich prey on the poor. Resetting the Marquis de Sade’s 18th-century “The 120 Days of Sodom” in Mussolini’s Italy, and incorporating elements from Dante’s “The Divine Comedy,” the story features four upper-class men who, at a lavish estate, derive pleasure from tormenting a group of young people. Upon its release, “Salo,” which contains explicit scenes of sexual perversity and sadism, was called one of the most controversial films ever made.
While some have found it unwatchable, others, Antonucci included, praise “Salo.”
“Salo” is important, Antonucci says, because it addresses the terror of fascism and makes an impact. “It reminds us that people can be that bad.”
“The film has layers,” she adds. “The first time you watch it, you’re shocked. The next time, you look at the symbols in it and at how it captures reality.”
The issues it reflects, which include authoritarianism, corruption, economic inequality and sexual violence, are major concerns today, she adds.
“It’s a must-see.”
San Francisco is a good fit for a tribute to Pasolini, who was interested in politics, sex, and social justice — subjects that interest people here, she says.
San Francisco, she adds, has a history of supporting international arts, world cinema and boundary-pushing artists, as does the treasured Castro Theatre.
Coincidentally, the theater, like Pasolini, has been the subject of centenary tributes this year.
“We must hold on to the Castro Theatre,” says Antonucci, referring to the challenges it is facing regarding its future as a movie house. We need arthouses like the Castro, as they are venues for international cinema, she says.
“Pasolini 100” is presented by Cinecitta, the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco, Cinema Italia San Francisco and the Artistic Soul Association.
Additional local events inspired by the Pasolini centenary include an upcoming film series at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. For details, visit iicsanfrancisco.esteri.it or bampfa.org.