Who killed Pasolini?

A new film about the murder of one of Italy's most potent cultural icons has re-opened old wounds. By Andrew Gumbel
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An old ghost is haunting Italy. Nearly 20 years after his untimely death, Pier Paolo Pasolini is once again the talk of the literati and on the front pages of newspapers, provoking a sense of distaste and unease reminiscent of the many scandals he caused during his fertile career as a poet, novelist and film-maker.

The issue this time is not his work, which has passed, albeit reluctantly, into the accepted canon of modern Italian classics. No, it is his life, or rather his shocking, sordid death at the hands of a rent boy on a lonely piece of wasteland on the outskirts of Rome on the night of 2 November 1975, that has once again captured the limelight.

The cultural establishment has never comfortably accepted Pasolini's murder as the result of a mere homosexual misadventure, as the judicial system concluded at the time. Now a film has come out to give vent to their mixed emotions, raising questions about the investigation into his death and exploring the possibility of a wider plot to rid Italy of a troublingly unorthodox and independently minded intellectual.

Was Pasolini killed by one scrawny kid acting alone, or were others involved? Was he the victim of his own perverse sexuality and over-curious fascination with Roman lowlife, or were politicians and secret service men out to get him? Such questions are at the heart of Marco Tullio Giordana's film Pasolini: an Italian Crime which premiered at the Venice Film Festival earlier this month. They are also uppermost in the mind of Nino Marazzita, a lawyer who is now pressing the judiciary to reopen the case and listen to two new witnesses apparently prepared to shed new light.

The affair has all the ingredients of a classic Italian conspiracy theory: a botched police investigation, an apparent conflict within the judicial system, hostile noises from political parties, and above all a background of high social tension and terrorist outrages alternately blamed on the extreme right and the extreme left.

The official version of events is relatively straightforward. On the night of his death, Pasolini picked up a 17-year-old rent boy called Pino Pelosi, known as "The Frog" to his friends, outside Rome's main railway station and offered him 20,000 lire in exchange for sex. They stopped off at a cheap restaurant near the basilica of St Paul outside the Walls, then headed on to the seaside satellite of Ostia. They parked the car on a rough piece of terrain next to a football pitch.

Pasolini, according to Pelosi, then became violent and threatened to shove a wooden stick up his rectum. Pelosi responded by hitting him over the head with a wooden sign and kicking him in the testicles. He then jumped into Pasolini's metallic-grey Alfa Romeo GT and drove off, bumping over the body as he sped away.

The police caught Pelosi speeding a few minutes later, while the body was discovered by a labourer and his wife heading to work early the following morning. The corpse was severely mutilated, the thorax was crushed and the liver lacerated. Half an ear had been ripped away from the head. Pelosi soon confessed, insisting that he had acted alone. The police never seriously questioned his version of events, and in due course he was sentenced to nine and a half years in jail.

The investigation was far from satisfactory to the Pasolini family lawyers, however. Was it really credible that a fit athlete like Pasolini would be overcome by one rather skinny boy? Could Pelosi really have inflicted such serious lesions with no more than his fists and a wet piece of wood? How come Pelosi had only a couple of small stains on his clothes, when all indications pointed to a furious struggle in a muddy field?

There were other anomalies. A bloodstain was found on the roof of the car, but on the passenger's side, suggesting either that Pelosi had a passenger or that someone else was driving. Furthermore, a green sweater belonging neither to Pasolini nor to Pelosi was found on the back seat. Pasolini's cousin said it had not been there when she had cleaned the car the day before.

The police did not check out these leads, as they did not distinguish themselves in the affair generally. They failed to take a fingerprint check of the area around the body. They left Pasolini's car out in the rain, eradicating all evidence from the bodywork, then crashed it against a post on the way to taking it to the investigating magistrate who had asked to see it. As a result, the forensic evidence in the case was almost worthless.

Some of Pasolini's friends became convinced that others had been involved. A number of journalists heard through their underworld sources that a motorbike had followed Pasolini's car, and that the stop-off at the restaurant was Pelosi's way of making sure they had caught up. But why did Pelosi insist he had acted alone? Was he taking the fall for his friends (being a minor he could expect more lenient treatment), or was he covering up for a wider conspiracy? Were the police merely incompetent, or under orders to take only the most cursory interest in the case?

A chance to probe these issues further came when the juvenile court ruled that Pelosi was guilty of murder, "in collusion with unknown others". Normally speaking, this would have obliged the authorities to reopen the investigation. But a higher court almost immediately amended the ruling, striking out the reference to "unknown others".

To this day, nobody knows why the higher court insisted that Pelosi had acted alone. Marco Tullio Giordana's film offers several hypotheses, without any shred of proof. Pasolini, it suggests, could have been killed by fascists hostile to his homosexuality. Or, more seriously, he could have been murdered by elements inside the ruling Christian Democrat party which he had bitterly attacked in a newspaper article. Certainly, the political establishment did not seem overly upset by his death.

The lawyer Nino Marazzita hopes such hypotheses will resurface now that he has found two new witnesses. The identity of one of them is secret for the moment, while the other is a retired carabiniere willing to confirm the story about the motorcycle killers following Pasolini's car.

It seems doubtful, however, if any conspiracy theory can hold water, especially after all this time. Even Pasolini's friends have stopped believing the murder was anything other than a sordid sexual adventure gone wrong. But the fascination with the crime remains. Italy has never seen a non- conformist like Pasolini before or since - a Catholic Marxist, a middle- class intellectual strangely attracted to the underbelly of life, a homosexual who only slept with straight young men - and even today his personality is both compelling and disturbing.

Biographer Enzo Siciliano believes the conspiracy theory is a way of projecting Pasolini's life into the realm of myth. "I am convinced that the murder of Pasolini was not in itself a political crime," he has written; "it was rather the catalyst for a feeling of collective revulsion, for a strange, almost continuous examination of the national conscience, or at least for a re-evaluation of Pasolini as a national figure."

Pasolini himself could surely have wished for nothing more.