This week, the Gene Siskel Film Center’s 12-film retrospective of Pier Paolo Pasolini concludes with a screening of his notorious final film, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Similar to David Lynch and Jacques Tati, Pasolini didn’t initially set out to be a director. Before he made his first film in 1961, he was an accomplished journalist, novelist, poet, and political commentator, and he drew heavily from his experiences in these fields when he started working in cinema. Subsequently, his work tends to feel like it was made by someone whose interests lie outside the form itself, which isn’t to say Pasolini was somehow indifferent toward cinema, only that his conceptions of film image, sound, and story stemmed from outside sources. Many of his compositions, for instance, were modeled after famous paintings, and many of his narratives have a lyrical, allegoric quality—others, like the one in The Gospel According to St. Matthew, are deliberately objective. His filmography, despite its relative brevity, is varied and intriguingly incongruous, fueled by his discordant interests and professions. No two films are exactly alike, but each is deeply personal.
5. Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) Not just Pasolini’s most infamous film—one of the most infamous films, period. Much has been written about Salo‘s extreme content, but not enough has been written about its richly allegoric story, intricate characterizations, and didactic yet logical moral implications. Full disclosure: I’ve only seen it once; I’m not sure I can stomach a second viewing.
4. The Canterbury Tales (1972) The second in his Trilogy of Life, which are largely considered his least “political” films, although his insights into sex, love, and the human body are as trenchant and incisive as his more ideological work. The lavish production design is a far cry from his postneorealist phase, but the heightened details lend themselves to Pasolini’s latent romantic tendencies.
3. The Hawks and the Sparrows (1966) The closest Pasolini got to making a comedy (not to mention the complete antithesis of Salo). It’s a pastiche of sorts—elements of Bertolt Brecht, Charlie Chaplin, Luis Bunuel, and British-style farce are found throughout the film, though the director’s own ideological concerns shine just as brightly, illustrated in a talking crow whose cynical ramblings indicate Pasolini’s lost faith in a Marxist revolution in Italy.
2. Oedipus Rex (1967) His most poetic film, and perhaps his most personal. The film is entirely removed from the Greek milieu of Sophocles’s text, but similar to Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew, the material is treated with stark objectivity, creating a semiotic tension befitting of the director’s structuralist tendencies. The masterful prologue, set in 1922, relates the Oedipus story to both modern times and Pasolini himself, who had a complicated relationship with his father; he called the film a “metaphoric autobiography.”
1. Mamma Roma (1962) A great postneorealist film, his dedication to Roberto Rossellini. Pasolini often modeled his compositions after religious paintings—one of the most striking of his career appears at the end of Mamma Roma when he evokes Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ. The comparison he makes between the death of Christ and the plight of the working class, however heavy-handed, is the film’s key image and an eloquent summation of his career as a whole.