• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Passion of Pasolini

P.P.P.: Pier Paolo Pasolini and Death

edited by Bernhart Schwenk and Michael Semff, with the collaboration of Giuseppe Zigaina
Catalog of an exhibition at the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 208 pp. (2005)

Pasolini: A Biography

by Enzo Siciliano, translated from the Italian by John Shepley
Bloomsbury, 436 pp. (1982)


The murder of Pier Paolo Pasolini, like much of his life’s work, seems to have been designed expressly to provoke shock, moral outrage, and public debate. His mutilated corpse was found on a field in Ostia, just outside of Rome, on November 2, 1975. He had been repeatedly bludgeoned and then, while still alive, run over by his own car. The next day, the Roman police received a confession from a seventeen-year-old street hustler named Giuseppe Pelosi, nicknamed “Pino la Rana” (“Joey the Frog”). Pelosi claimed that Pasolini had tried to rape him, and that he had killed the famous filmmaker and writer in self-defense. But the physical evidence showed that most of Pelosi’s story had been fabricated—including, most significantly, his assertion that he and Pasolini had been alone.1

If at first Pelosi’s story did not seem far-fetched, it was only because the openly homosexual Pasolini had a well-publicized, if largely exaggerated, reputation as a sexual predator. On three occasions he had been charged with sexually assaulting underage boys—and on one of these occasions charged with armed robbery as well—but he had never been convicted. He was not secretive about his predilection for cruising, and had often been seen at the train station in Tiburtino, a well-known gay pickup site outside Rome where he had met Pelosi. Pasolini had devoted much of his life’s work—his films, novels, poems, and journalism—to Rome’s violent underworld, which he researched firsthand, so it seemed to many that after flirting with danger for so long, he had finally gone too far and been killed. If Pelosi wasn’t telling the truth about being alone with Pasolini, then perhaps his accomplices were other street hustlers and local delinquents.

But perhaps not. In view of Pasolini’s bitter public feuds with the Christian Democratic government, the fascists, the Communists, the Church, and the Mafia, many Italians suspected that Pelosi was simply a pawn in a much larger conspiracy. The theories that soon emerged were passionate and wildly divergent. Many friends of Pasolini, including Oriana Fallaci, Italo Calvino, Bernardo Bertolucci, and the actress Laura Betti, believed that he had been murdered by members of the neofascist party, which had a long history of violently assaulting him. The official neofascist newspaper, meanwhile, wrote that Pasolini had been “killed by the Marxists” for increasingly “becoming a reactionary writer.” After all, despite identifying himself as a Communist, Pasolini had battled against many of the progressive reforms of the late 1960s, speaking out against the student rebellions of 1968, feminism, sexual permissiveness, and the legalization of abortion and divorce.

A third theory implicated the Sicilian Mafia, whom Pasolini had been investigating for a documentary film about prostitution, and whom he claimed had infiltrated the upper ranks of the Christian Democratic Party. Finally, some suspected the government’s own secret service. A week before his death, Pasolini had demanded in the Corriere della Sera, Italy’s most prominent newspaper, where he had a regular column, that the leaders of the Christian Democratic government be prosecuted for misuse of public funds, for covering up neofascist bombings in Milan, Brescia, and Bologna, and for conspiring with the military, the CIA, and the Italian secret service to menace leftist organizations.2

More than thirty years after Pasolini’s murder, these theories continue to receive attention. So much so that the mystery of his murder has often overshadowed discussions of Pasolini’s prodigious body of work.3 In 2005, the most far-fetched theory to date—that he was not murdered at all, but wanted to be killed—provided the basis for “P.P.P.: Pier Paolo Pasolini and Death,” a major retrospective exhibition at Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne. The theory’s author is Giuseppe Zigaina, a painter and a lifelong friend of Pasolini’s, who argues that “Pasolini himself was the ‘organizer’ of his own death, which, conceived as a form of expression, was intended to give meaning to his entire oeuvre.” Zigaina means, quite literally, that Pasolini staged his own death, had been planning it for many years, and had planted secret codes in his work that revealed when and how it would occur.4

Zigaina is not the first writer to examine Pasolini’s work for clues to his death. Just after it happened, Alberto Moravia, who had been Pasolini’s close friend for more than thirty years and who wrote a book about his murder in 1977, said that he recognized the murder scene in Ostia from Pasolini’s descriptions of similar landscapes in his two novels, Ragazzi di vita (The Ragazzi) and Una vita violenta (A Violent Life), and in an image from his first film, Accattone. (Pasolini had actually shot footage of the site a year earlier, for use in his film Il fiore delle mille e una notte [A Thousand and One Nights].) But Zigaina is the first to interpret these connections as anything more than poetic irony.

These conspiracy theories reflect, in part, the tug-of-war over Pasolini’s legacy that began as soon as he was confirmed dead. The Italian Communist Party, the PCI, organized his lying-in-state, which was held within sight of Party headquarters, and its leaders posed for photographs with his casket. The founder of the Italian Radicals, a libertarian offshoot of the Italian Liberal Party, described Pasolini as a “lay saint” who died in order to “save his assassins.” The Italian right even tried to claim him as one of their own for his attacks on the Communists. When one looks beyond the controversy over Pasolini’s mysterious death, it becomes clear that a larger question is being debated: Who was the real Pasolini, and what did he stand for?


There are two English-language biographies of Pasolini, and it is a sad reflection on the state of his legacy in the United States that both are out of print. The first was written just three years after his death by a friend, the literary critic Enzo Siciliano. Though marred by overly speculative, and often psychoanalytic, interpretations of Pasolini’s motivations, Siciliano’s book creates a harrowing portrait of the man’s ferocious passions, hatreds, and frustrations. The second, Barth David Schwartz’s Pasolini Requiem (1992), is the work of an author obsessed by his subject, a labor of love that is meticulous—sometimes to a numbing degree—in its research, which was conducted over a period of fifteen years. One hundred pages are devoted to Pasolini’s death; six of these pages alone describe the neighborhood and the restaurant in which Pasolini had his last meal—and that’s before he even walks in the door. (He ordered a beefsteak and fried potatoes, no pasta.) But the passion of Schwartz’s writing overcomes these excesses and, to a greater degree than Siciliano’s book, Pasolini Requiem is admirable for the careful way it examines Pasolini’s work within the evolving social and political situation in which he lived.

In Pasolini’s youth, that meant fascism. He was born in 1922, the year Mussolini came to power, to Carlo Alberto, an army artillery lieutenant, and Susanna Colussi, a peasant girl from the small farming town of Casarsa in the Friuli region of northern Italy. Pier Paolo was named after his uncle, Carlo Alberto’s brother, an aspiring poet who had drowned at sea at the age of twenty. (Pasolini’s younger brother, Guido, also died at twenty, killed by Communist partisans near the end of World War II.) Siciliano describes Carlo as living “in a dream of military ideals, even after his discharge. He was the ‘officer’ in the family.” Repelled by his father’s authoritarianism, Pasolini grew particularly close to his mother, and spent his summers with her family in Casarsa.

Neither parent was particularly religious. Carlo Alberto attended church out of a sense of social duty, while Susanna rejected the Catholic Church as devoid of spirituality, but Pier Paolo showed an early fascination with the image of Christ. In a 1946 diary entry, he described a recurrent fantasy to

imitate Christ in his sacrifice for other men and to be condemned and killed despite being innocent. I saw myself hanging on the cross, nailed up. My thighs were scantily wrapped by that light strip, and an immense crowd was watching me. My public martyrdom ended as a voluptuous image and slowly it emerged that I was nailed up completely naked.

As an adolescent, he suppressed the sexual and violent desires exhibited in this fantasy, but his identification with the suffering of Christ permeates his early poetry.

His first published work was Poesie a Casarsa (1942), a collection of poems written in a variant of Friulian, a regional dialect closer to Latin than the standard Tuscan Italian. The Friulian spoken in Casarsa was so obscure that it had never before been written down. Pasolini printed each poem in the dialect, accompanied by an Italian translation. The poems are wistful, romantic, and unspectacular—odes to nature, to youth, to young love that were derived in no small part from the pastoral verse of Giovanni Pascoli, the turn-of-the-century poet who was the subject of Pasolini’s Ph.D. thesis. The poems also bear the influence of the early-nineteenth-century writer and critic Ugo Foscolo—whom Pasolini called, in a letter written in 1941, “my author, my master and guide.” Whereas Foscolo promoted the struggle for Italian independence, Pasolini supported the (unsuccessful) movement for Friulian regional independence, by distinguishing the unique qualities of the local culture and language.

One doesn’t need to speak Italian to see the effects of his rendition of Friulian. Take, for instance, the first stanza of his poem “Ploja tai cunfìns” (“Pioggia sui confini” in Italian, or “Rain on the Borders” in English):

Fantassút, al plòuf il Sèil
tai spolèrs dal to paìs,
tal to vis di rosa e mèil
pluvisìn al nas il mèis.
Giovinetto, piove il Cielo
sui focolari del tuo paese,
sul tuo viso di rosa e miele,
nuvoloso nasce il mese.
Giovenetto, the sky rains
on the hearths of your country,
on your rosy and honeyed face,
the month is born cloudy.

Pasolini’s Friulian is purposefully blunt, truncated, and cacophonous. His use of this rough language—an unlikely vessel for such tender sentiment—was not a matter of convenience. Despite growing up in the region, Pasolini was raised speaking standard Italian according to middle-class convention. He had to pick up the dialect from conversations with local children and by using techniques in linguistic textbooks he borrowed from the library.

A prominent critic, Gianfranco Contini, wrote an enthusiastic review of the collection and its use of Friulian, but failed to find a newspaper willing to publish it—editors were afraid that an endorsement of a regional language might be seen as antifascist. Pasolini heard about this, and was naturally insulted: “Fascism—to my great surprise—did not admit that in Italy there were local particularisms, and dialects of stubborn unwarlike people.” But the experience was not entirely negative. Pasolini had discovered, in his expression of sacred and romantic themes through a crude vernacular, a successful formula for provocation.

  1. 1

    Although Pasolini had suffered numerous mortal wounds and large blood loss, Pelosi had no serious bruises, and his clothes showed no sign of struggle. Two items of clothing found in Pasolini’s car did not belong to either man, nor did numerous footprints found at the crime scene.

  2. 2

    See “Perché il processo,” reprinted in Pasolini: Saggi sulla politica e sulla società, edited by Walter Siti (Milan: Mondadori, 1999), pp. 668–673. Some of Pasolini’s suspicions of high-level conspiracy were vindicated by later revelations of the existence, in the 1960s and 1970s, of a clandestine Freemasonic lodge called Propaganda Due (P2). P2’s membership included several powerful newspaper editors, forty-four members of Parliament, bankers, and military brass, who plotted to repress the rise of the left. The recent Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi joined P2 in 1978.

  3. 3

    Mondadori has published, in its beautiful Meridiani series, an impressive, definitive collection of Pasolini’s writings—with volumes devoted to his poetry, his essays and journalism, his fiction, and his writing for screen and stage. The complete set runs to ten volumes and over fifteen thousand pages.

  4. 4

    Zigaina’s essay in the exhibition catalog is adapted from his book-length monograph on the subject: Pasolini e la morte: Un giallo puramente intellettuale (Pasolini and Death: A Purely Intellectual Thriller) (Venice: Marsilio, 2005). Zigaina published an earlier version of his theory in the Stanford Italian Review, in 1984, under the title “Total Contamination in Pasolini.”

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print