Pier Paolo Pasolini was among the most controversial and provocative filmmakers ever to impact the international cinema community. Emerging during the 1960s, Pasolini broke from his New Wave-inspired peers, drawing influence for his work not from other cinematic sources but from art, literature, folklore, and music. He was also among the few directors of his era to focus less on the process of filmmaking than on his subject matter, bringing to the screen the gritty desperation of life on the fringes.
Pasolini was born in Bologna, Italy, on March 5, 1922. The son of an army officer, he grew up at various points throughout the country, and began writing poetry at the age of seven. While studying art at the University of Bologna, he published his first book of poetry, Poesie a Casarsa, in 1942. A year later, he was drafted to serve in the armed forces during the waning months of World War II, and after Italy's surrender his regiment was captured by the Germans. Pasolini soon escaped and fled to the small town of Casarsa, where he remained for several years. He joined the communist party in 1946 but was expelled three years later in the wake of an arrest for "moral indignity." Regardless, he remained under the sway of Marxist doctrine, finding particular inspiration in the writings of Antonio Gramsci and his belief in the revolutionary power of the Italian peasantry.
In the late '40s, Pasolini resumed his university studies, and in 1950 he relocated to Rome, living in the city's slums while working as a teacher. A homosexual, he fell in with the local underworld of prostitutes, hustlers, pimps, and thieves. Pasolini himself was often arrested in their company -- he once attempted to rob a filling station and later helped a wanted criminal flee the police -- and in 1955 these experiences converged in his first novel, the scandalous Ragazzi di vita. The book's publication prompted the Italian courts to prosecute Pasolini on obscenity charges, the first of many such run-ins with the authorities. Regardless, Roman criminal culture remained at the forefront of his later work, and his second book, 1959's Una Vita Violenta, also detailed the life of a slum child. At much the same time, Pasolini was also earning notice as a poet, and his 1957 collection Le Ceneri di Gramsci earned the Viareggio Prize. From 1955 to 1958, he also edited the avant-garde magazine Officina, which was later forced to cease publication following a Pasolini poem attacking Pope Pius XII on his deathbed.
Pasolini's involvement in the cinema began rather quietly, with the 1954 screenplay for Mario Soldati's La Donna del Fiume. Over the next several years, he also collaborated on scenarios for projects by Federico Fellini, Mauro Bolognini, and Luis Trenker, but in light of his other, more scandalous work his film material earned little notoriety. By the early '60s, however, the cinema became Pasolini's central focus. After scrapping the completed screenplay for a project titled La Commare Secca (which he then passed along to Bernardo Bertolucci), he wrote another script, Accatone, which he directed in the slums with a non-professional cast in 1961. As with his literary debut, his film debut became the subject of much controversy, with moralists holding up the picture as proof of the need for stricter censorship guidelines. Abroad, the feature garnered honors at the Montreal and Karlovy Vary film festivals, and with his sophomore feature, 1962's Mamma Roma, he won both the International Critics' Prize at the Venice Film Festival in addition to Italy's Silver Ribbon.
Pasolini next joined forced with Roberto Rossellini, Jean-Luc Godard, and Ugo Gregoretti for the 1962 anthology RoGoPaG. His segment, "La ricotta," starred Orson Welles as a filmmaker directing a movie on the life of Christ. While intended as an attack against the vulgarization of spirituality, the piece was prosecuted for "publicly maligning the religion of the state" and banned, with Pasolini receiving a four-month suspended prison sentence. He next completed 1963's La rabbia, a compilation of newsreel footage compiled at the behest of Opus Films' Gastone Ferrante. Comizi d'amore, a series of interviews investigating sexual mores in Italian society, followed a year later. Though an avowed atheist, Pasolini next began work on Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo, another retelling of the Christ story shot in the arid foothills of southern Italy. As the international film community braced for controversy, the film's premiere revealed perhaps the director's most shocking artistic statement yet: a solemn, sincere illustration of the Gospel which many touted as among the greatest Biblical adaptations ever created. The worldwide critical response was highly favorable, and in addition to a pair of awards at Venice it also won the grand prize from the International Catholic Film Office.
The 1966 comic fable Uccellacci e Uccellini followed, featuring the comic actor Toto. Le Streghe and Capriccio all'italiana, a pair of comedic shorts also starring Toto, followed; originally intended for a feature-length picture, they were recut by Pasolini following his star's sudden death. Edipo Re, a deeply personal adaptation of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, was Pasolini's next major work, and premiered in 1967. After filming "La Sequenza del Fiore di Carta," an episode in the anthology Amore e Rabbia, he began work on 1968's Teorema, the most talked-about of all of his films. Originally intended as a verse tragedy for the theater, the sexually provocative tale of a mysterious stranger (Terence Stamp) whose influence leaves a bourgeois family forever altered was originally honored by the International Catholic Film Office, but their award was rescinded after the picture was denounced by the Vatican. Secular authorities also charged the film with obscenity and attempted to block its distribution, but upon Pasolini's acquittal its release was allowed. Although many critics hailed Teorema as a masterpiece, harsher judgments came from more unlikely quarters: Many Marxists, for example, denounced the film for showing "a certain compassion" toward bourgeois society.
Upon completing 1969's Porcile, Pasolini mounted the next year's Medea, a straightforward retelling of the fable which led into 1970's Il Decamerone, a richly textured medieval tale which won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Two more medieval-flavored works, 1972's Racconti di Canterbury and 1974's Fiore delle Mille e una Notte -- the winner of a special Cannes jury prize -- followed, and suggested that Pasolini had begun to move away from the mordant outrage of much of his previous work. However, his next film, 1975's Salo, o le Centoventi Giornate di Sodoma, was in many respects the most disturbing of all of his films. An adaptation of the de Sade novel set at the tail end of World War II, it depicted the atrocities suffered by a group of kidnapped boys and girls at the hands of their Nazi captors. Deemed one of the most disquieting motion pictures ever filmed, Salo was Pasolini's final work. On November 2, 1975, he was brutally murdered. After bludgeoning the director to death, his killer then repeatedly drove over the corpse in Pasolini's own Alfa Romeo. While the murderer was later speculated to be a male prostitute -- one of the many street dwellers whose kind Pasolini brought to the screen with so much conviction -- speculation on the mysteries of his demise continue to run rampant, and it has been noted that his death served as a tragically appropriate coda to his art.