Dangerous liaisons

Roger Clarke on the latest in a spate of cinematic tributes to the murdered Pier Paolo Pasolini
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The Independent Culture
The gruesome end of film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, murdered in 1975, has long haunted the Italian cinema and psyche, and has currently been exciting renewed, if slightly necrophiliac, interest over here with the British publication of his unfinished novel Petrolio and a recent London showing of the latest screen dramatisation of his death. The third cinematic treatment of the murder in under 10 years, Nerolio recounts, yet again, the events of that fateful November night. After work, as usual, Pasolini got into his Alfa Romeo and drove out through the suburbs of Rome into the deserted wastelands around Ostia. That particular night, for no reason that has ever been discovered, his sexual pick-ups beat him up, left him unconscious, and then reversed his own car over his head.

Was he really, as rumoured, the victim of a political assassination made to look like an assignation gone wrong? True, he had upset many powerful people with his last film, Salo, a stomach-churning but brilliant re-creation of Sade's 120 Days of Sodom with a political spin. And the police were noticeably sluggish in their investigations, the crime scene was corrupted by them, and little effort was made to track down the perpetrators. As the years have gone by, the events of that night have assumed mythic proportions for the Italian intelligentsia. Pasolini's fate was that of Socrates, Sharon Tate and Oscar Wilde all rolled into one. He was a corrupter of youth despised by the state, a totemic sacrifice to the underbelly of society and a man whose snuffed-out genius had traumatised a nation.

Rather foolishly the Italian producers of Nerolio think Pasolini is a gay icon, and have targeted the film accordingly. But the gay community's relationship with Pasolini is one that can be described as uneasy at best. A recent book calling itself The Ultimate Guide to Gay and Lesbian Film and Video, by the American Jenni Olson, ignored Pasolini's films altogether, yet included Ostia, a 26-minute experimental film by British director Julian Cole (released in 1987) that was the first in the spate of Pasolini obitu-dramas. Ostia, though, was a mere palimpsest compared to the lavish Franco-Italian co-production that was Pasolini: An Italian Crime. A major prize-winner at the 1995 Venice Film Festival (though dismissed by one gay critic as "flat... a JFK-like epic"), Marco Tullio Giordana's film takes the assassination theory line.

I ask Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, editor of the Oxford History of World Cinema, why the director should be so disliked in the gay community. "Pasolini rejected all overtures by gay organisations in his lifetime," he says. "He didn't want to be ghettoised." Despite the explicit homoeroticism of films like Teorema and Arabian Nights, he remains too much of an unreconstructed figure to be included in the cosy PC world of American-influenced gay culture. In 1968, Nowell-Smith reminds me, Pasolini disgusted his adoring students by opposing the legalisation of abortion.

If An Italian Crime was an attempt to rehabilitate Pasolini, it was a doomed attempt. In Nerolio, director Aurelio Grimaldi suggests that the director was very much responsible for provoking his own death. Pasolini comes across as savagely and verbally egotistical, a man driven to push situations to dangerous extremes. ("He needed to live dangerously in every sense," Paul Bailey has written.) In Nerolio he antagonises and teases his pick-ups. They respond by beating him up and then killing him - almost by accident.

Why would Pasolini, a seasoned veteran of anonymous sexual liaisons, endanger his life in this way? The unfinished Petrolio, a sprawling satire of corrupt big business that is like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde crossed with Machiavelli's The Prince, may give us a few clues.

Pasolini was an accomplished novelist, but he was finding the main character in Petrolio increasingly difficult to write about. "This novel is not very useful in my life any more," he grumbled in a letter to Alberto Moravia, "but is the preamble to a testament." He was bogged down in familiar territory, he complained. Nowell-Smith notes that, in stylistic terms, Petrolio is "in many ways a better ending to his life than Salo."

The unfinished novel tells the story of a petroleum company executive, Carlo, with an evil double: the good and bad lives become entwined and there are surreal episodes of group sex, and even a slow, magical-realist transformation of Carlo into a woman. The book's Marxist preocuppations recall his earlier film Porcile, in which an industrialist's son starts having sexual encounters with pigs. It also evokes the imploding bourgeois world of Teorema and the strutting fascist poppinjays of Salo, who turn Italy in the last days of the war into their own private porn set.

In the endless replays of his death, it is almost as if Italy hopes that, by re-enacting the event often enough (like the rituals of sacrificial death in Pasolini's own Medea and The Gospel of St Matthew), it can change the past, and Pasolini will survive the fatal encounter. The most moving tribute to the director so far, though, is not to be found in any re-creation of a trick gone wrong, but in Nanni Moretti's Dear Diary (1995), in which the usually humorous Moretti, here in sombre mood after a cancer diagnosis, takes a long scooter ride out from Rome through the suburbs to Ostia. There on a wind-swept wasteland lies a rusted, neglected memorial to Pasolini that burns a patch in the retina of all who see it. The emptiness of the landscape, with a few tufts of dune grass and the odd shack, together with the few words of the director, say more about the sadness and waste in the death of Pier Paolo Pasolini than any number of lurid reconstructions.

Pasolini screenings at the ICA, The Mall, SW1: `Mamma Roma' 13-26 June, 5/7/9pm; `Oedipus Rex' 16-19 June 6.30pm; `Teorema' 16-19 June 8.30pm (0171-930 3647)