Friday, September 14, 2007

Accattone and J.S. Bach

The key to reading Pier Paolo Pasolini’s first feature film, Accattone (1961), is C minor.

Okay, C minor may be exaggeratedly specific, but there is no denying that one of the most beautiful and perplexing elements of the film is the recurrent sound of the final chorus of J.S. Bach’s
St. Matthew Passion (in Baroque C minor) that accompanies desolate images of the impoverished Roman suburbs.

The rich liturgical soundtrack initially stands o
ut because it doesn’t make sense. Thematically, the choice of a conspicuously religious soundtrack for a social and physical landscape that could easily be described as “godless” seems strange, at the very least. Bach’s liturgical celebration of the passion of the Christ serves as an acoustic backdrop for the story of a pimp (Accattone, played by Franco Citti) whose sole source of income, Maddalena (Silvana Corsini), gets locked up. In order to scrape by, Accattone gradually pawns his gold, hustles his friends, and steals from his young son. This final ignoble act is a means to raise revenue to outfit the young Stella, who is to be the next to sell herself on the streets. Practically the entire cast of the filmic universe—from Accattone’s abandoned wife to the police officers who arrest him to the petty thieves at the local bar—exists in a morally ambiguous space in which few seem innocent, but fewer still are condemned for their shiftless, profiteering lifestyles. In fact many other elements of the film also root it in a Christological context: a citation from Dante Alighieri’s Purgatorio follows the opening titles, and immediately after, a long shot of twelve seated men sitting around tables at the local bar invokes representations of the Last Supper. Frequent backlit close-ups of Accattone and his friends, their faces framed in empty, bright skies, recall frescoes by Giotto. References to Dante are also recurrent, and sometimes the poet is even cited in Roman dialect. As critics have often noted, religious iconography helps elevate the story of the ill-fated pimp to mythic proportions. Accattone’s story thus transcends the individual calamity of a neorealist protagonist and becomes a symbol of the collective tragedy of existence of the 1960s subproletariat.

In the midst of all of these references, however, Bach stands out as exceptionally peculiar
, aesthetically speaking. The sumptuous Baroque sounds signify order, harmony, deliberateness, and in Pasolini’s film must square off against social disorder, dissonance, chaos. And yet one particular chorus from the St. Matthew Passion recurs, recurs, recurs: it swells in the background when Accattone rolls in a dusty street fight; it is present when thugs from Naples beat Maddalena and abandon her on a hillside; it rises in the final moments of the film, when Accattone, attempting to escape the police, wrecks a motorcycle and lies helpless in the street. The music is part of Pasolini’s artistic strategy of contradictions, echoed visually in the contrast between the darkness of the deserted street corner on which the women prostitute themselves and the almost blinding light of the streets on which Accattone and his friends while away their days.

The final chorus of the St. Matthew Passion does not simply play, however; it loops. On several occasions, the soundtrack cuts from the center of “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder” (“We Lay Ourselves with Weeping”) back to the beginning, returning to the grave opening chords (played by a double orchestra for a double choir) only to begin again. It thus forms a musical ritual in the film, a ritual that in its very circularity resists the concept of resolution. Returning to the beginning of the final chorus of Christ’s passion, however, is only returning to the beginning of an ending, an ending which, in a world that seems to be forsaken, is inevitably tragic.

And in Pasolini’s world, in fact, there is no resolution, no consolation, no middle ground. There is only repetition: the repetition of injustice. The soundtrack reminds us that Accattone’s
personal tragedy is also destined to loop, to continue on its catastrophic ritual course and to encompass countless other “scroungers” like himself.

That Pasolini can render so bleak a message so beautiful makes his film our cross to bear.

Further reading on the Web:

➢ An article on
Accattone in Senses of Cinema.
Reviews of
Accattone on
➢ Excellent articles, in Italian, on Pasolini and Bach.


Eric said...

It's amazing that, being this was Pasolini's first movie, he was able to create such a rich film full of religious imagery. It's quite impressive and it also seemed that the film was more of a series of vignettes detailing the daily activities of the characters. This is a good thing because it made the film much more realistic.

Anonymous said...

Following on this idea of circularity, it is interesting to note, as said in Rumble's and Sitney's articles, that a motorcycle accident opens and ends the movie. Moreover, the position of Accattone at the end of the movie reminds us the imitation of Saint Barbarone at the beginning of the film, especially thinking of what the imitating friend says: "Who carried off Barbarone, Christ or the Devil?".

SherrySantos said...

When I watched the fight in the street, I could not figure out why I found the juxtaposition of the music and the fight particularly jarring. Then I realized that I am accustomed to seeing a fight in sync with the music. I expected to see close-ups of the two people and slow movements to go along with the operatic nature of the music emphasizing the heroism of one fighter and the downfall of the other fighter. Instead the fight was in full shots and had a mix of quick movements and stillness. After seeing the fight a second time, I saw that the full shots made the fight look not heroic even though Accatone was defending himself and that the music served as an ironic reminder that Accatone felt the need to defend himself even though he was defending his choice to be a pimp.

Emilio said...

Some men are given as "finiti" finished. They are in a world of nothingness. We hear many times Vittorio "Accatone" say yhe word, but he can not seem to believe it.
The era in which the film is set is the one of those years when Italy was experiencing an economic boom but which left many including Accatone and his friends out of the main streem of middle class and movement to upper class life.
It is this sub-proletariat with which Pier Paolo Pasolini struggled with his operas all of his life. He believed that the Italian left had sold out to the center or to the Christian Democrats. What is interesting is that Pasolini mixes politics with religion. This Roman slum sub-proletariat is configured through the many scenes of the movie as being the life of Christ and His followers. Pasolini's belief that Salvation is a gift that Christ gave by dying on the Cross and that no good or bad deeds can change is ambivalent in the movie. Accatone who perceives his own funeral and is denied entrance into the cemitery from the front gate but gains admittance by climbing a wall is a commentary to Christian teaching for various reasons. However if entering by the back door while the front one is closed and thereby sinning it does not change the fact that Christ died for our sins and that He saved all of Humanity.
Pasolini's usage of Dante's first Canto and Purgatory Canto 5 shows a changing Accatone who asks Stella for the right road.
Even though Accatone's life had been one of bad deeds in the end "he feels OK in dying" He crossed to another life and knew that he would be in the light from the time that he asked the grave digger to dig his grave a little over from where he was digging to be in the light. The Lord always rewards the poor and the poor in spirit.
This duality presented in the film Accattone is Pasolini obsession with a world that will never change. That there will be always the marginalized and a Church that imposes it's will on leaders and politicians to move ahead and always leaves the less fortunate , the disinherited,and those who do not have the means to climb the social latter behind, creating an underclass. Emilio Di Concilio

DMeador said...

In response to “There is only repetition: the repetition of injustice”, there seems to be a repetition of children playing in the scenes just before something bad happens. There are many instances of children playing throughout the movie, but they are always around when these instances occur. There are kids playing by the river just before Accattone finds out Maddalena has hurt her leg and cannot work. A child enters the frame and writes something with chalk just before Accattone gets taken to the police station and Maddalena is put in jail. Accattone’s son and another boy are playing before Accattone gets into a rumble. There seems to be a connection to the youth playing and the adults getting into trouble.
As the movie goes on the 2nd halve, the tone seems to be darker than the first. There are less children throughout, and it is almost as if Accattone has to “man up”. He tries with a real job and keep Stella off the streets, but he cannot. He has to go back to his childish ways of making a living. At the end when they try to steal from a van, it becomes his final job. When it all went sour he raced off with a crowd of youthful people chasing after him. It is mostly a youthful group shown just before he crashes the motorcycle. So once again there is the presence of children, or youth, just before something bad happens and it seems to have a presence in the story and the tone of the film.

IanRaymond said...

I enjoyed the way Pasolini captured a society in a state of constant change. Accattone's life is changing from one scene to the next, beginning with what was mentioned in class. He begins well dressed adorned with gold and jewelry and as the film progresses he has to change. Just like one of Accattone's "friends" outs it: First its the necklace, then its the watch then its the car . . . and so forth. The other characters are also changing. The prostitute who is named Amore constantly talks about the way things used to be, or how she felt, but things no longer are the way they used to be for her. It makes the film rather gripping because you have no idea what is going to change next - Just as Accattone has scamed his way into a bigger meal he decides to take a ride with Stella. The story is constatly changing.
Which is also why it is interesting Pasolini chose Bach. Bach's movements are constantly changing in tempo and even style. For Pasolini to chose an artist that was so influential in the Baroque period and insert the songs into a neo-realism it was a gamble. But the juxtapostion of this great, ornate music and this realistic film turns out to be great, partly in because Accattone's desires are so grand in during this time period in Italy

judith said...

I really adore Pasolini's Accatone for the ideas that the film expresses, for the really-close-to-reality-neorealism, for not idealizing, for showing the lower classes in all their inconsistency (and sometimes you cannot even see inconsistency any more, sometimes there is nothing left than "badness")
But still: I am not at all sure, if I like the way the film is made and if I should rather agree with Fellini who withdrew his support and "exclaimed, 'this is not cinema', and dismissed Pasolini for his incompetence."
And I really mean it, when I say I am not sure, I keep struggling with myself and on the one hand I see all the things you pointed out (religious allusions, tricky repetitions, the idea of circularity, the role of music) and on the other hand: I was not really enthusiastic, I was not really getting into it - and even if not letting the audience identify with the protagonists is probably one of his principles and ideas, for me there remains the sneaking suspicion, that maybe, maybe he did not really care about the audience...
(and again: even here I am not sure, if I think, that's a good or a bad thing)...

sficano said...

“Accattone” is a fascinating, yet confusing film from the onset. Being thrown into the middle of a conversation with no background definitely jars the viewer (and does make you question why you are watching and if, as Judith mentioned, if he had any consideration for his audience at all). However, deeper into the film the relevance of the confusion as it relates to the social changes in Italy becomes more apparent and obvious. Knowledge of the historical context is definitely useful and almost necessary to gain true meaning from Pasolini’s first film. While many films can simply be enjoyed without this information I found that I was much more interested after the film’s dissection in class then with my initial impression. On a technical note (with my very limited technical film knowledge) I noticed Pasolini did an excellent job of creating camera cuts that were very conducive to the characters mood, feelings, etc. For example, in the scene where they are questioning Accattone it appeared the angrier he became, the closer the camera gets to his face. There also seems to be a lot of “loose camera” shots during fights to capture the chaos of the fight itself, following the fight as it moved rather than cutting from angle to angle.

H Jennings said...

I did not understand Pasolini's point with Accatone. I could appreciate the symbols representing religious motifs and political/personal dissatisfaction. However the film left me feeling confused as to his overlying theme. What were his intentions? The character of Accatone never seemed to convey overt levels of desire. Did he desire Stella? Occasionally. Did he wish to renounce his thuggish ways? Maybe. The main character seemed so indiffernt in his interests that as a result my interest in the film came and went as well.

JamieF said...

As Judith mentioned I too have a tortured relationship with Pasolini's Accattone! As the blog and most of the comments have mentioned, the film is an enchanting and lyrical piece rife with images, both religious and secular, of a terrible and fractured beauty. Bach's score leaves the viewer haunted with the images he experienced long after they are gone.

That being said I was completely unable to connect with the character of Accattone. A snide, pathetic man, he leaves little opportunity for the viewer to connect to him on any significant level. This was demonstrated most notably to me in the scene where he first meets Stella. The contrast between Stella's labourous job and his one day of honest work struck me as perfectly illustrative of how pathetic Accattone is in comparison to the seemingly weaker females surrounding him.

I wanted to like this film and while I found many elements beautiful, I simply cannot feel the necessary empathy for the main character. I do understand this may have been intentional on Pasolini's part, but connection to the main character ultimately seals a film's fate for me.

AlonsoDelarte said...

I think the connection between musical keys and a film's soundtrack merits deeper investigation, and I am glad Prof. Elena Past has hinted at this connection.

From a purely notational viewpoint, there is no significant difference between C minor as it was written in the Baroque period (with two flats) and how it was written in the Classical period and afterwards (with three flats). But notation aside, there are significant differences in the ways composers used keys and theorists thought about them. The theorist Francesco Galeazzi, for example, said that B minor is not for "la musica di buon gusto" (I don't know if he ever heard Bach's Mass in B minor or Schubert's Unfinished Symphony). In Beethoven's case, we know that he studied a lot of the music of Bach even though Bach was actually obscure in Beethoven's time. Beethoven might have known Bach's Sankt Matthauspassion, which as Prof. Past mentioned, is in C minor (at least the sections Pasolini chose to use in Accattone). But for Beethoven, C minor is a "stormy, heroic tonality" (Wyatt, 2003) in which "he seems to be most impatient of any compromise" (Rosen, 2002) In my opinion, Bruckner's conception of D minor was most influenced by Bach, but for C minor it was Beethoven's usage that most shaped Bruckner's (and indeed most of the composers after Beethoven and even some of his contemporaries) use of the key.

Clearly, Accattone would be a different film if Pasolini had chosen C minor music by someone after Bach.