Described by the New York Times’ Vincent Canby upon its 1971 American release as “very free, very barbaric”, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea may surprise some viewers -- especially those used to the sanitized, kid-friendly versions of Greek mythology -- with its raw, organic feel. This earthy and sun-scorched film retells once again Euripides’ oft-reinterpreted tragedy, following the hero Jason as he seeks to reclaim his kingdom by acquiring the Golden Fleece from the far-flung land of Colchis. In seeking the treasured symbol of power, however, he also wins the heart of the willful Medea (played by the striking Opera soprano Maria Callas in her only film role), beginning a relationship destined to end in disaster for all involved. As with so much of Greek mythology, the film is full of out-sized drama, religious fervor and copious bloodshed ( Clash of the Titans it is most certainly not), but Pasolini’s steady camera brings the epic exploits of these divinely descended characters down to an almost painfully human level.
But the mythological world from which the story springs, with all of its power struggles, love affairs and betrayals, seems almost tame compared the tumultuous, accomplished life, and brutal untimely death, of Pasolini himself. Born in Bologna in 1922, the worlds of politics and art were impressed upon him from the very beginning. His father, a military man who sympathized with the then ascendant Italian fascists, was often transferred from post to post, forcing his young son into a nomadic life style that took the family to a succession of small northern Italian towns. Perhaps in reaction to his father’s hardline beliefs, the sensitive Pasolini turned to his mother, a schoolteacher, as a continual source of consolation and inspiration. She was the one who imparted an early love of poetry and of learning, which he pursued at Bologna University before following in her footsteps and becoming an educator himself.
Teaching in Casarsa, near the Austrian border, Pasolini was active in local cultural and literary circles, as well as with the regional branch of the Italian Communist Party. But not everything in Pasolini’s life was so productive and above-board; in fact, it was during this time that he encountered the first of many controversies that would mark the rest of his life. Accused of homosexual misconduct with his students, his teaching position and party membership were immediately revoked, leaving him dejected and unsure what to do with himself. He eventually drifted to the dangerous borgates, or shanty-towns, on the outskirts of Rome, where he began chronicling the lives of the prostitutes and petty criminals that called the makeshift settlements home. His observations resulted in his first novel, Ragazzi di vita, which landed him in court on indecency charges, again starting a persistent pattern -- one that would see his work’s morality, or lack thereof, almost continually debated in the courts.
As his edgy writings gained him both cultural notoriety and scandalous infamy, Pasolini began receiving job offers from respected Italian filmmakers like Mauro Bolognini and Federico Fellini, who sought to incorporate his sensibilities into their films by hiring him as scriptwriter. This set the stage for his transition to the director’s chair with his 1961 feature debut Accattone, which, with its non-professional cast and compassionate view of those living in ghetto despair, bore many of the themes and tropes he’d explore throughout his film career. His reputation only grew with each successive release, but the cinema was not his sole creative focus. A true Renaissance man, Pasolini communicated his deeply held Marxist beliefs and artistic vision across a variety of media, making a name for himself as a journalist, columnist, playwright, translator, philosopher, actor and painter, all the while continuing his work as a novelist, poet and director.
His heavy workload was indicative of his restless, voracious intellect, which seemed to embrace not just politics and art, but every facet of human life. He detested consumerism and conservatism, but was never a slave to dogma, often criticizing the international counterculture that arose in the late 1960s as inherently bourgeois and unrealistic. Refusing to conform to anyone’s opinions but his own, Pasolini had no shortage of enemies, so it was perhaps to be expected, especially given the violence that continually marred Italian political life at the time, that conspiracy theories swirled when, in 1975, he was found dead on a beach near a chic Roman suburb.
The official story goes like this: Pasolini was availing himself of the services of a young, gay hustler, Pino Pelosi, when the two became embroiled in some sort of altercation, during which Pelosi bludgeoned Pasolini to death before running him over several times in the director’s own Alfa Romeo. Pelosi confessed and was charged and convicted, though due to his youth, he only spent just under a decade in prison. This version of events remained in place for years, until Pelosi recanted his admission of guilt in 2005, claiming he was intimidated by threats against his family. The truth, as he now described it, was that he acted merely as bait, creating enough of an opening for three unknown assailants, with unknown motivations, to step in, beat him to death and dump him in the surf. The police reopened the case, and speculation as to what exactly happened that night reignited the suspicion that Pasolini’s killing was not a crime of passion, but a political assassination. “Pelosi had to play the game played by these people, the ‘respectable’ people who ordered the murder,” said the director’s close friend and colleague, Sergio Citti, adding, “His death was convenient to many, to all those who were afraid of his mind and free spirit.”
Jason may be an archetypal hero and Medea may be an archetypal woman scorned, but Pier Paolo Pasolini was the epitome of a bold iconoclast running afoul of the powers that be and paying the ultimate price for it. Even if you don’t buy into the idea that he was murdered by a shadowy cabal, his life still lends itself to narrative; whether it’s an ironic one in which a relentless crusader against poverty and disenfranchisement is killed by a young man born of those very circumstances or a cautionary tale of an ambitious, passionate artist who falls prey to his own desires, just take your pick. Wherever the truth actually lies is relatively unimportant now, what stands the test of time is not the man, but the myth.