Pier Paolo Pasolini at work.
Pier Paolo Pasolini at work.

For Pier Paolo Pasolini, cinema represented a sort of aggregator, gathering together his passions and insecurities alike. In his relatively short life -- he died under mysterious circumstances in 1975 at the age of 53 -- he had been a poet, filmmaker, journalist, playwright, social commentator, film theorist and novelist. While he claimed to have harbored aspirations of directing films his whole life, Pasolini only approached the seventh art in his forties. As a result, his filmography mirrors the wide range of preoccupations that preceded it. The subject of an adulatory retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art that starts today and continues through January 5, his popular status among the international film community is rather curious since Pasolini never tried to please or charm his audiences.

Compared to the dreamy tales of Fellini or cool, modernistic alienation of Antonioni's films, Pasolini's output possesses a less immediate appeal. His early films are coarse, irredeemable stories sculpted by the pain of marginal characters living on the fringes of a rapidly changing society. In both "Accattone" (1961), his debut, and "Mamma Roma" (1962), the Italian director observes the ordinary misery of social misfits but frames it with an almost religious eye.  

In the abjection of the defeated, Pasolini sees a sacred beauty and uses the symbols of Christian iconography to capture it.

In the abjection of the defeated, Pasolini sees a sacred beauty and uses the symbols of Christian iconography to capture it. Considered by the director as the victims of progress and industrialization, the "untouchables" of the Roman ghettos are his muses. But unlike the neo-realism of Rossellini, in Pasolini's films (often acted by non professionals) there is no room for benevolence or happy endings; the cruelty of life always takes its toll.

It is perhaps this unpolished vision of Italy and Italians, so removed from the glamorous and empty antics of "La Dolce Vita," that keeps attracting cinephiles the world over. Additionally, there's the controversial life of the figure behind the camera: Openly gay, an outspoken critic of both Catholic and communist vices, Pasolini remains a unique and divisive figure within Italian cinema. In one of his best films, "Comizi D’Amore" (1963-64, "Love Meetings") holidaying men and women are interviewed about sexual preferences, marriage and love. Completely devoid of journalistic objectivity, "Comizi D’Amore" shows Pasolini’s profundity and prescience at its unfiltered best.

Capturing Italians at a crucial juncture of their cultural history -- caught between a rural economy and a consumer society -- this lesser-known documentary epitomizes Pasolini’s main socio-aesthetic concerns: the changing habits, sexual and otherwise, at the hands of progress in a country stunned by the converging religions of Catholicism and Consumerism. Pasolini saw -- in the advent of consumer society -- further moral corruption parading as freedom, rather than authentic liberation.