Theorem: Pasolini’s Family Affair

By James Norton

theorem-pier-paolo-pasolini.jpgTheorem, 1968

By 1968 the seminal Italian writer and film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini was a radical star, but instead of issuing manifestoes and manning the barricades, he embraced a lucid mysticism and surprised and enraged the left with a polemic that thrust against the current.

In Theorem Terence Stamp plays a young man who seduces each member of a wealthy Milanese family: Emilia, the forbidding and devout maid; the artistic son, tenderised with Francis Bacon paintings; the daughter, Anne Wiazemsky, then Godard’s wife, and their parents – Lucia, Silvana Mangano as an iconic geisha – and the mythically ailing industrialist Paolo, healed in a scene lifted from Tolstoy, its resonance of proletarian vitality overcoming bourgeois decadence infused with homoeroticism by Pasolini.

Having exposed a void in each, the visitor leaves “and everyone, waiting, and remembering, like the apostle of a Christ not crucified but lost, has his own destiny. It is a theorem: and every destiny is a corollary.” Each reacts with forms of mortification hollowed out of their desires: the son daubing the house with expressionist graffiti; the daughter falling into catatonia; Lucia picking up students for casual and blasphemous sex. Emilia retreats to hermetic isolation, eating nettles, miraculously curing a sick child and levitating above a barn. Finally, an old woman, played in this Oedipal drama by Pasolini’s mother, buries her alive on one of the construction sites that have torn up Italy. Water flows from her grave, a Virgin Spring for the industrial age. Pasolini explained: “The persistence of the great myths in the context of modern life has always struck me, but even more so the continual interference of the sacred in our daily life. I defend the sacred because it is the part of man that offers the least resistance to the profanation of power.”

Theorem begins with a reportage on dissatisfied workers given control of their factory. Pasolini identified Paolo with St. Paul, revolting against his class and the power of Rome, and in May 1968 wrote a scenario about the saint. Theorem concludes with Paolo, having handed over his factory to his workers, running naked and howling across volcanic slopes, the setting of the outrageous Pigsty, involving ecstatic cannibals marauding across the desert, old Nazis and a fatal attraction to pigs.

theorem-pier-paolo-pasolini-2.jpgTheorem, 1968

In the spring of 1968 students occupied the Valle Giulia faculty in Rome, supported by leftist intellectuals and culminating in bloody riots. But Pasolini, with bitter clarity, condemned their actions as a toxic combination of opportunism and self-loathing, inimical to the class struggle. His poem ‘The Communist Party to the Young’ snarled: “Now the journalists of all the world lick your arse. But I do not, friends. You look like daddy’s boys. Good breeding doesn’t lie... When yesterday in the Valle Giulia you came to blows with the police, I sympathised with the police! Because the police are sons of the poor…They are twenty years old, your age, dear boys and girls, we are obviously in agreement against the institution of the police. But take it out on the magistrature, then you’ll see!…The young policemen that you have beaten belong to the other social class. At Valle Giulia yesterday, we had thus a fragment of the class struggle: and you, friends (although on the right side) were the rich while the police (who were on the wrong side) were the poor. A nice victory, then, yours! In these cases flowers should be given to the police.”

In the book of Theorem he railed against chic radicals and students “who, in perfectly good faith, confuse dynamite with their own sperm (going about with big guitars through streets as false as stage-sets in mangy packs); naughty little boys from the universities who go and occupy the Senate House demanding power instead of renouncing it once and for all… What do the young people of 1968 talk of – with their barbaric hair and Edwardian clothes, vaguely militaristic in style, which cover members as unhappy as my own – if not literature and painting? And what does this mean if not to invoke from the darkest recess of the petty bourgeoisie the exterminating God to strike them once more?” 1968 was a bourgeois internecine conflict, a “false revolution”, and it now appears that the characters in Theorem are neither destroyed nor liberated by their experiences, but worse than either represent the atomisation of society into isolated consumers.

The promise of 1968 was buried alive in Italy and Pasolini’s stern provocations proved apt. Throughout the following year there were workers’ disputes against poor industrial conditions and vestigial fascism in government. Right-wing extremists reacted in December 1969 with a bomb in Piazza Fontana in Milan, unleashing the ‘strategy of tension’ which sought to usher in authoritarian rule. Some believe they were even behind Pasolini’s murder in 1975.

Pasolini’s legacy is as potent as ever. Derek Jarman carried his flame with courage and inspiration but few in Italy have followed his example. Last year Gomorrah, by the young journalist Roberto Saviano, was a publishing sensation in Italy, a compelling exposé of the pervasive savagery of the Naples mafia. Saviano quotes Pasolini’s 1974 tract “I know. I know the names of those responsible for the bombing in Milan.” Pasolini praises the interventions of intellectuals, and the Communist Party: “a clean country within a dirty country, an intelligent country within an idiotic country, a humanist country within a consumerist country”. Saviano is less idealistic but more defiant. He goes further than Pasolini and does name names, and as a consequence of death threats now lives in hiding under police guard. The struggle continues.

Theorem is available on dvd from BFI publishing and will be shown on 8th June at London’s Renoir Cinema.

James Norton produces and directs in the television arts arena.