Is it sensible to spend a whole day inside the hotel room while on vacation in Rome?
When I should be outside walking the streets, catching random glimpses of an everyday life in this eternal city, a city with lives I imagine very similar to mine. A city with people who I imagine endure it just the same even though theirs is set in an epic scape surrounded by mortar and stones where time relentlessly scrapes away the vicissitudes of success and folly in deep.
I should have been out and about getting lost in ephemeral meanderings, however I preferred instead to stay in bed in the dark and watch a film by Pasolini.
I am a tired and over stimulated tourist, overwhelmed by the futility of my fleeting life catching glimpses of events I rarely have the time to properly understand.
I feel disorientated with so much that flashes past, quickly, foreign and unknowable. So I chose instead to hibernate, to waste precious time by spending most of the morning searching on line looking for a version of Pasolini’s Decameron (1971) with synchronous English subtitles.
Never mind the sudden attack of agoraphobia I felt creeping through my body at dawn. I won’t be expanding on this little detail. I will however emphasise just how much it shits me when I find a film on YouTube I desperately want to watch but realise the subtitles are out of sync or worse still the automated translator produces a dialogue completely absurd. However, today I did persevere and in doing so found a version which kept me in bed with my laptop resting on my stomach for a few hours.
Reading the reviews and some obscure academic articles I found online after the film, I found out that strictly speaking the film was not a true adaptation of Boccaccio’s c14th medieval masterpiece. For example, the film is set in Naples and not in Florence as in Boccaccio's tale. There are many other differences too many to go into, but as I haven’t read the Decameron I do not believe it is right for me to go on about details others have raised but for which I cannot verify.
Seriously, why waste time pondering on such an issue to begin with? Think about it, can any film be a true adaptation of a book? Can any book regardless of size of the tome be a true reflection of real life? Why assume that verisimilitude in any re/production is even possible or admirable? This is an oxymoronic quandary, no thanks to Plato, who based his theories around his concept of transcendent ideal forms , or as I have understood- that everything single material form we sense is but a lesser reflection of ideal.
Pasolini adopted many of Boccaccio’s characters and scenes bringing a typical village life in the Middle Ages to screen, giving me a glimpse into what he imagined it to be like. Equally with a great fondness for history’s forgotten little people, he wove an intricate tapestry of events around ordinary life. He comically exposed the paradoxes of human behavior, the hypocrisies, the contradictions between belief and ideal on the one hand and action on the other, the impossibility of pursuing a completely virtuous life. However through the ordinary, and using the allegorical tropes of both literature and cinema, he managed to expose the collusion between church and proto-capitalists in the middle ages. The notorious Marxist director was convinced our contemporary society seeped in and oozing capitalist hegemony was another a form if not a close replica of medieval feudalism.
I did not expect it, and it came as such a great delight to see Pasolini play the part of Giotto, or his protégé, I cannot vouch for the subtitles accuracy. Considering that it was only recently that I had the opportunity of admiring Giotto, the ordinary peasant boy, the boy found and trained by Cimabue, Giotto the proto- Renaissance artist responsible for the great beauty inside Padua’s Scrovengni Chapel, Giotto whom Vasari reckoned emancipated the human form from the clutches of static Gothic and Byzantine iconography, injecting movement, expression, pain, laughter, in molding the plasticity of the ordinary human body to reflect the humanity of the human form, Pasolini as Giotto (or his protege) upon quick reflection became a meaningful coincidence that I chose to relish in this film.
Given the interests I have pursued during my travels through Italy, particularly to study more closely Renaissance art and architecture, I was thrilled to be given a visual representation of the artist, person, the method, the procession, the apprentices, the collaborative effort involved in the making of a church fresco in medieval times. Equally, I was alert and extremely pleased to see Pasolini conflate his role as actor and director, merging his subjectivity with that of the peasant boy, the one who became a great master.
(L) Video extract from Decameron (1971), Pasolini as the artist.
I admire Pasolini’s cinematic genius. I have not seen all his film, nor have I studied the few that I have seen with much rigor. I maintain however that of those films that I have seen, his films are masterpieces.
Although infamous for Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom (1975), equating Italo-fascism with the sado-masochistic sexual cruelty of the working class by the debauched and decadent rich , incidentally one of the most censored film in Australian Classification Board history; it is Accatone (1961) with Franco Pitti, the story of redemption even for a slothful amoral pimp, the lowest of the low, surviving off the earnings of a woman he berates and trades for sex which I consider my favorite film. Why? One of the reasons, is because he achieves a moral tale of redemption without the schmaltzy sentimentality, without the puritanical moralising most contemporary mainstream or indie films modeled on inflexible paradigm, narratives and film making techniques which are incapable of transgressing beyond the strict binaries of right and wrong.
According to Pasolini, the use of improvisation by ordinary people untrained actors were to be preferred. Filming on location, outside, plain air scenes and backdrops, real buildings, not sets, he made a virtue of his own in-experience behind the camera.
However, I must admit that I find Pasolini’s own sanctimonious eulogising of the peasantry, the working class, the common man and woman deeply troubling.
He was a Marxist, conscious of his role as a film maker to dismantle the cinematic illusion creating techniques by embracing and expanding upon the neo-realist ethos to expose the chicanery behind which church and state as it operated (and continues to some would argue) to protect the vested interests of a small elite.
It seems to me that his neo-realism was very much influenced by soviet social realism. The low angle shots, a standard soviet photographic/portraiture/sculptural technique, in cinema associated with Serge Eisenstein, the camera starts from a low-angle shot, then a cut, splicing into a close-up, zooming slowly in, then lingering on the face of the proletariat, psychologically transforming the subject to look noble, strong and powerful.
However, as far as I am concerned there is nothing “beautiful” or “aesthetic” or “noble” about poverty. No filmic or cinematic device, miseen scene, long low angle shots can convince me that a ragged toothless men with the dead eyes of ignorance are heroic. No matter how much he or she may laugh or smile, it is difficult for me to find admirable the ugliness inflicted by economic deprivation on the faces and bodies of the poor.
Nevertheless, I do accept however that at least attention was given to this reality, at least the little people whom history deplores and forgets were worthy subject matter for cinematic memory.
In the back on my mind, I did not forget Adorno’s retort when he disparagingly dismissed Brecht’s theatrical incongruity. Conjuring up dialogue for his working class characters with lines that could only sprout forth from the mouths of the highly educated bourgeois is shamefully in-congruent decried Adorno. At least Pasolini I reasoned, in making films about the poor and the proletariat chose from the vast pool of such underclass of non-actors. But, with Adorno racking at my brain, should the University educated Marxist film maker be playing the part of Giotto(or his protege)?
How to resolve this impossible historical dilemma ? Why even bother to dwell on it to begin with? It’s nonsense, otherwise no historical film should ever be made.
(R) Film extract, The Artist's dream in the Decameron(1971)
Returning to the Decameron, and apologies for that long winded meandering preamble above, I now turn to what I really wanted to write about.
I wanted to share the short final scene where Pasolini as Giotto’s (or his protégé) looking at his almost finished fresco remarks: “why realise a work of art when it’s so much sweeter to dream it?” I’m not sure what the answer is, or even if there are any answers. Perhaps it is because we have an urge to communicate. Ideas, thoughts, visions, fragments, there is so much swirling inside our minds. So much of it is blurs into a cacophonous chatter, and so many of our profoundest thoughts quickly disappear.
Perhaps, one of the important reasons of realising a work of art, of trying to find the forms and methods of communicating to one another, is to exorcise our most inner deeper darker complex inarticulate thoughts.
At that point when one believes a profound clarity has been reached requiring articulation, the process undertaken to communicate that which prompted the urge to be articulated, is what is truly important. Be it a fresco, a film, a blog, it is the process, unlike mine today, to withdraw inside the solitude of my own mind to concentrate on what I just saw, away from the distraction of an alien world I do not understand, to meditate, to focus on a few given themes, to merge Pasolini with Giotto, to ramble and meander and then return, to try at least to give a semblance of order to my disorientated mind, to try and find a way to synchronise complexity to reach an understanding despite reaching a less than perfect conclusion.
(L) Extract from the Decameron, final scene, the end.