Io Racconto: The Literature of Pier Paolo Pasolini

| June 7, 2012

After recently reviewing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Ragazzi di Vita, the poet/writer/director’s first novel, on my blog, I decided to dust off (and polish) this essay I wrote on Pasolini some time ago. In “Io Racconto,” I examine the dense Trilogy of Life— ‘The Decameron’, ‘Canterbury Tales’, and ‘Arabian Nights’— as the literary vehicles Pasolini uses for his criticism. 

Embarking on the works of Pier Paolo Pasolini is committing oneself to the study of intelligent insanity. A man who constantly threw  himself into controversy. Starting with the thunderous publication of his first novel, Ragazzi di Vita (Rent Boys, 1955), which enacted a lawsuit from the Italian government against Pasolini and his editor, to his still mysterious death in 1975 , where the famed director was run over by his own car several times. So what gives, Pasolini? Regarded as too excessive for some viewers, Pasolini’s work is one not easily understood or forgotten.

In the early 70’s, Pasolini created three films that have been aptly titled the “Trilogy of Life” (or “The Films that Came Before Salo (1975).”) In this trilogy, Pasolini adapted the medieval works of Boccaccio, Chaucer, and One Hundred and One Arabian Nights. The films that resulted in this adaptation are The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1974). Pasolini coined these films as the “most ideological works I’ve ever made”(1). Judging from Pasolini’s previous comparable works, one can be very confused. The films themselves seem anything but a typical Pasolini with their overbearing sense of slapstick comedy and improvisation.

In his earlier works such as Mamma Roma (1962) and Teorema (1968), the infamous director is anything but funny. In the former, Pasolini extends the limits of Neo-Realism and criticizes Italian society through the adolescent Ettore and his prostitute mother, “Mamma Roma”.  In the latter film, an angel visits the home of an upper class family and seduces each member, even the help!  Despite the bleakly comic Hawks and Sparrows, the films that predate the Trilogy of Life are not made with laughter in mind.

Regardless, Pasolini stays true to these early works in the most subversive ways. The liberal minded adaptions, literally and figuratively, are apparent in the first shot of The Decameron. In Boccaccio’s original work, the group of men and women escaping the Plague are located in Florence, Pasolini disregards this completely by setting the film in Naples.(2) The stories are relocated to the south of Italy-an area known for it’s  lower working class-to structure his thesis. This, of course, pleases any Pasolini watcher. The intelligent jab at the bourgeois is much like Pasolini’s authorial voice in The Hawks and the Sparrow (1966). In the earlier film, the black crow, who we glean is the director’s mouthpiece, announces “That in his city he lives on Karl Mark Avenue. Number 70 x 7.

The first half of the film is loosely tied together by the Pasolini favorite, Franco Citti, as Cippelletto. The term “loosely” is indeed very literal in the film with Cippelletto having only five minutes of actual screen time. He appears randomly, almost to remind the viewer there is somewhat of a structure in this film. Ninetto Davoli (Andreuccio of Perugia), another Pasolini favorite,  also makes an appearance as a Northerner who is swindled and thrown into a vat of feces, only to wind up rich when he steals from a deceased saint’s coffin. One needs only to view the surface level to see the director’s message. The first half of the film ends with Cippelletto, who the audience finds out is a murderer, thief, and homosexual, tricking a priest into granting him sainthood.

The second half of the film contains a more structured narrative when Giotto, played by none other than Pasolini himself, arrives at Neapolitan church to paint a fresco. Pasolini leaves no doubt in our minds that he is director/painter in this film as he traverses around a local market “framing” picturesque portrayals of the locals  as a modern day film director would.  In this half, as Giotto paints, the stories unfold. Though the structure has changed, the bawdy stories have not.

In one of the adapted stories we see Giotto’s dream, a re-creation of the actual painter’s Last Judgment. Though instead of the original Christ figure, Pasolini inserts Silvana Mangano as The Madonna- another favorite of his. Mangano presides with a lack of emotion over her divine landscape as the Damned are tortured in Hell. The film ends with Giotto painting the stories that the film has told.  The film’s critique and thesis come through with the last shot of Giollo wondering “Why realize a work of art when it’s so much sweeter to dream it.”

Pasolini theorizes that Boccaccio’s strongly anticlerical and nowhere-to-be-seen Capitalist medieval world is, in fact, much happier than people are today. By excluding such elements as the Plague and formalized story frame, Pasolini refuses to realize the true medieval world and dream a fairy tale one. Contrary to Italian critics and leading intellectuals, the film was widely popular and declared a success. This fame in turn spawned many excruciatingly bad spin-off films such as The Black Decameron (1972) and One Million and One Nights of Boccacio and Canterbury (1973). Ironically The Black Decameron would do better financially than Pasolini’s.(3)

Deciding to stay true to Chaucer’s original location, Pasolini resumes his trilogy in England with The Canterbury Tales.  The film employs The Decameron’s loose frame with the lack of clear cut introductions and endings. After a lengthy opening, Pasolini finally emerges as Chaucer. Unlike the original work, where the writer would travel with the narrators, Pasolini’s sits in his study musing over books (even flipping through The Decameron). Whenever the narrators of Chaucer’s Tales appear, they’re involved in some fabrication by Pasolini rather than Chaucer, that carries little to no  reverence to their story.

Canterbury’s tone of pervasive and slapstick humor is immediately apparent as Chaucer(-er Pasolini) is struck in his comically large nose. The eccentric Pasolini admired Chaplin, which is ever present in Canterbury.  The gags even go as far to implement vaudevillian sound effects, usually with Ninetto Davoli being the butt of the joke. These gags rule such story as The Miller’s Tale and Pasolini’s “finished” version of the previously incomplete Cook’s Tale. The latter story shows Satan farting out corrupt monks, a return to the vividly apparent thesis from Pasolini’s previous work.

While there is a good amount of critique on the Church and government in The Canterbury Tales, it seems that Pasolini makes his strongest criticism on life. Instead of the sunny fields of Naples, we’re set in England’s bleak, overcast countryside, with a lonely Pasolini inhabiting his dark library. Instead of the celebrated infidelities of The Decameron, sex is now punished. Pasolini has been quoted about the film stating that he was experiencing a great deal of unhappiness at the time, which found it’s way into the film. (4) We certainly see that statement come true in The Pardonner’s Tale when the Old Man states, “I go about the world day and night, beat the earth with my staff and ask the Mother Earth, ‘O Mother do let me in…but she will not grant me this grace.'” Can we not help but think this is one of Pasolini’s alter egos? Pasolini’s message seems to come from the heart rather than his head.  The final shot appears more appropriate as a diary than a novel as Pasolini writes, “This is the Canterbury Tales told for the sole purpose of retelling. Amen”.

Arabian Nights, the final film of the trilogy, is a synthesis of it’s predecessors. The film’s light hearted appearance is that of The Decameron, while the bleak stories are reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales. Neglecting typical story structure, as Pasolini had in the previous two films, typical  the director uses the lesser known stories of Nurd ed Din and Zummurud,  a young boy who has lost his newly purchased slave girl traverses through the desert to find her . While this story seems to have heavy implications,  it is actually the most lighthearted of the film.

The stories in The Arabian Nights unfold like that of a Chinese box, where unnamed narrators seemingly walk into the previous story. The tales unfold before our eyes, critiquing and glorifying  life all in one. Whenever the narrative becomes too serious, such as the bleak story of Azeez and Azeeza, where the former commits suicide because the latter has fallen for another woman, Pasolini returns to the light hearted story of Nurd ed Din and Zummurud.

The Arabian Nights strays away from Pasolini’s typical political satire and pertains specifically to the subject of sex. It’s even apparent in the Italian title, Il Fiore delle Mille une Notte,(The Flower of the Million and one Nights). Need we guess what il fiore is referring to?  This critique also shown best not by the stories told, but by the ones neglected. As mentioned previously, Pasolini chooses to bypass the popular “children stories” of One Hundred and One Nights and focus on the sexually charged fables. We never feel as if it were the characters final day’s as we do in The Canterbury Tales, but also never completely free like The Decameron. Pasolini’s tactic to implement traditional Eastern story telling makes this mix possible. By employing a strong female character and an emphasis on fate, the stories never truly end in tragedy or comedy.  The story’s simple existence is more important than it’s moral outcome.(5)

Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life is one that he sadly would disavow. After the commercial success and “realization” of art that he tried so hard to avoid, Pasolini denounced the the films in his last important essay,  “The beloved faces of yesterday are beginning to turn yellow. Here before me-slowly materializing without alternative-is the present.” Pasolini would elaborate this statement  in his final film, Salo.  A film that is the exact opposite of Trilogy of Life; it was the film of death. (6)

Regardless of Pasolini’s public renouncement of The Trilogy, the power of the work lives on. Pasolini’s ability to re-create a medieval world, filmed in documentary format, is astounding.  The use of slapstick humor, pervasiveness, and redemption tie together oddly, but organically at the end of each film. The apparent density of the Trilogy of Life is overlooked when you look as Pasolini embodying the authors he portrays, a man critiquing in the most entertainingly way possible.


-(For Peter Bondanella)


  1. RUMBLE, PATRICK ALLEN, Pier Paolo Pasolini: Contemporary Perspectives, 211
  2. BONDANELLA, PETER , Italian cinema, 287.
  3. “” “” ,  291
  4. MOLITERNO, GINA,  The Canterbury Tales,
  5. HEILMAN, JEREMY, Arabian Nights,
  6. BONDANELLA, PETER, Italian Cinema, 294

About the Author:

Daniel currently resides in New York City working as a freelance writer and director. He is a graduate of the Film and Video department of Columbia College, specializing in Italian Neo-realism and French & British New Wave cinema.
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