Mere mortals: Myth and the mundane in Pasolini’s neorealist film

Anna Khachiyan

The following piece first appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of the online journal Artwrit. It was written by Anna Khachiyan, a freelance writer and illustrator from Moscow living in New York currently doing her PhD in Soviet Architecture at NYU. She also writes about culture and its pathologies in her spare time on her excellent Disorientalist blog.

If the restoration of mythical stature to everyday life is to become a cultural agenda it demands the guidance of an equally mythical persona. On the continent, such a role was primarily filled by Pierpaolo Pasolini (1922-1975), Italy’s most prominent auteur after Fellini and Antonioni, but one who has nonetheless remained relatively obscure outside of his home country. Pasolini’s idea of myth was not, as we might imagine, deprived of the favored motifs of scat and sex and as such ought to be particularly appealing to our postmodern sensibilities, which have revised time and again what is fair game in the realm of art. This restorative theme, which has its origins in Pasolini’s poetry and prose of the forties and fifties, reaches critical mass in his early neorealist films, Mamma Roma (1962), his work for Fellini’s Le notti di Cabiria [Nights of Cabiria] (1957) and most notably, Accattone (1961). The film stars Pasolini favorite Franco Citti as the disarmingly churlish hustler Vittorio, nicknamed Accattone.

Accattone — literally “beggar” but colloquially “deadbeat” or “grifter” — is a pimp, but just barely. His operation is limited to but one prostitute, Maddalena (Silvana Corsini), and together they exist at subsistence level, made somewhat more benign by the canvassing warmth of the sun and the homely Roman ruins that seem to stand on every street corner. When Maddalena is roughed up by neighborhood rivals, Accattone’s existence is sent into a tailspin. It is the beginning of the end, and though we can see it coming, he cannot. Instead he views this most recent misfortune as another in a series of setbacks that are, in effect, the milestones of his life and scrambles to find a replacement in the good-natured and naïve Stella (Franca Pasut). One gets the impression that Accattone is a pimp not because he’s particularly good at it, but because he’s too lazy to do anything else. But then again, who needs imagination when you have Italy?

Movie poster for Accatone (1961)

Accattone and friends inhabit a de Chirican landscape of boxy project housing, empty lots, and long shadows cast across wide boulevards. It is a liminal space between nature and postindustrial, postwar urbanism. But this is not the poverty of Raskolnikov — no below-freezing temperatures, no piss-colored Neva — or of Knut Hamsun’s unnamed protagonist in Hunger, wrapped up, as it were, in the intellectual exigencies of the time. It is a leitmotif we encounter again and again in twentieth-century Italian art — in the films of Fellini, with their vignettes of drowsy provincialism, and in the literature of Alberto Moravia, where the boundaries between pastoral and metropolitan are traced out with masculine precision.

In La Romana [The Woman of Rome] (1947), Moravia’s own tale of street life, told this time from the first-person perspective of the prostitute Adriana, the crisp, unadorned imagery is straight out of de Chirico’s L’enigma di un giorno [Enigma of a Day] (1914). Adriana recounts: “Every morning I used to take the streetcar in the square not far from our house, where among a number of newly erected buildings, I noticed one long, low structure against the city walls that was used as a garage” (Alberto Moravia, The Woman of Rome, 2000). Or perhaps, Sironi’s Periferia [Periphery] (1922): “We left my neighborhood by the avenue running along the city walls, went along the wide road with warehouses and little hovels on each side, and at last reached the country. Then he began to drive like a madman down a straight track between two rows of plane trees.” Here is the idiocy of rural life transposed onto the urban environment to create a new subset of city dweller — the lumpenproletarian. The people, bored to death by their own mediocrity, live out their lives in a series of practical jokes and muted tragedies — joyriding, making love, bashing in the mailboxes of upstanding bourgeois citizens. Yet Adriana is quick to point out that she “never really noticed” the wretchedness of it all. She, like Accattone, remains relatively unfazed by her circumstances, at least initially, until she gets her first taste of the good life. And Accattone’s grumbling proves mostly rhetorical, even as his fate continues to intervene in the most unappealing of ways.

Moravia and Pasolini are sketching out the framework of a certain kind of alienation, one that has been virtually ingrained in the national character, certainly the national aesthetic, using class politics as their instrument of choice. The proletariat — a social entity that belongs neither here nor there, and the various subcultures it issues, are the unlikely idols of neorealism. Continue reading