Why Pasolini is like Caravaggio (but I still prefer Caravaggio)

Attending a screening of Pasolini’s ‘I racconti di Canterbury‘ (based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura was an eye-opening experience. Not only was it the first movie by Pasolini I managed to watch from beginning to end, but also it made me think about visual art and film in ways I hadn’t thought of before.

Pier Paolo Pasolini was an interesting figure. Openly homosexual, Marxist and Catholic, he was driven by a disgust for consumerism and a romantic nostalgia for the past. Among his works are films such as ‘Accattone’, ‘The Gospel According to Matthew’, ‘The Decameron’ and ‘Arabian Nights’, but also the novels ‘Ragazzi di vita’ and ‘Una vita violenta’.

His version of the Canterbury Tales is a selection of 8 short stories, out of the 24 of the original. Pasolini himself plays Chaucer and the cast features both English and Italian actors. Set in the beautiful English country-side and with a lovely score by Ennio Morricone, the gracefulness of the movie is counter-balanced by Pasolini’s blunt realism, which involves the crudest dubbing and the ugliest actors you can possibly imagine.

Pasolini - Chaucer.png

Pier Paolo Pasolini playing Geoffrey Chaucer, I racconti di Canterbury (1972)

During the post-screening discussion I attended, one member of the audience compared such realism to the art of Caravaggio, saying that, much like Caravaggio, Pasolini’s work was highly praiseworthy, as it portrays life just as it is, with no half-measures or sugar-coating. This is what Pasolini and Caravaggio have in common, he claimed: they both deal with the every day, the overseen, the un-addressable.

Except to me Pasolini is not quite like Caravaggio, at least not with such an obvious correspondance. Yes, they do focus on aspects of reality that art usually shies away from, but Pasolini’s work strikes me for its slow, rigid, and incohesive quality. While watching the film, I got the impression it was realistic for the sake of being so, with overt emphasis and self-satisfaction. I was being presented with something embarrassingly and shockingly close to life, but seemingly for no real purpose.

In many ways Caravaggio has a similar approach. In paintings such as ‘Judith Beheading Holophernes’, he gives a brutally realistic account of the scene. Judith is focused, frowning, and firmly grasping Holophernes’ head as she cuts it off. Holophernes is screaming, his eyes rolling, his left hand desperately clasping his sheets, while vermilion blood is gushing from his throat. On the right, Judith’s maid is wrinkly, ugly, grumpy even, with dirty hands and filthy clothes. There’s nothing glamorous or cool about the scene – it’s quite like how might imagine it might have happened.

Judith Beheading Holofernes by Caravaggio.jpg

Caravaggio, ‘Judith Beheading Holophernes’ (1598–1599)

And yet the crucial difference with Pasolini is that Caravaggio adds his sublime handling of light and textures. Holophernes’ foreshortened arm, Judith’s voluminous sleeves and the red drape above them are astonishing and sumptuous. There’s something enthralling about them, something that grabs our attention in ways that are hard to explain. By inserting crudely realistic details, but painting them with unparalleled mastery, Caravaggio truly is a champion of realism and at the same time a great artist. He offers the real and aesthetic experience all at once. This, to me, is what Pasolini’s realism fails to achieve, or achieves only in part. By looking at a Caravaggio, I feel the rapture of a masterpiece, in spite of, or precisely because of, his proficient rendering of actual life.

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