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 out 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 RottenTomatoes.com.
➢ Excellent articles, in Italian, on Pasolini and Bach.