Pasolini's THE SAVAGE FATHER(Guernica Editions
, 1999)

translated by P. Verdicchio

Pasolini's The Savage Father: Colonialism as a "Structure that Wants to be Another Structure."

by Pasquale Verdicchio Pier Paolo Pasolini, writer, film-maker and essayist, made his debut in 1948 through a small volume of poems written in the Friulian language of his mother. This act of writing in the language of a subculture was the first instance in what would be the author's life-long engagement and interest in subaltern cultures. In the late ‘40s, as a teacher and active member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) in the Friuli (then an impoverished area of Northeastern Italy), Pasolini began to suffer the animosity of normative forces of the time. His pedagogical and organizational activities among workers and peasants pressed a local priest to take action against Pasolini. He was denounced as a homosexual threat to his young male pupils, an accusation that resulted not only in Pasolini's being relieved of his teaching post, but also in his expulsion from the PCI in 1949. That series of events brought into greater focus the apparently contradictory dimensions of Pasolini's life: homosexuality, Marxism, and Catholicism, represent a crucially active set of circumstances that colored Pasolini's art and his relationship with Italian society until his assassination/murder in 1975. From 1949 to 1977, two years after his murder, Pier Paolo Pasolini was the subject of approximately 33 trials on a variety of charges: From "offensiveness toward good customs and to the common sense of morality and decency" (for Mamma Roma, 1962); to "contempt toward the state religion, under the pretext of cinematographic description, by mocking the figure and value of Christ through musical commentary, mimicry, dialogue etc." (for La Ricotta, 1963); to the representation of "scenes offensive to the public decency in the depiction of intercourse between the guest and the maid, the woman of the house, and with the male components of the household, as well as the homosexual tendencies of the head of the household, the father, which are contrary to every moral value, social and familial." (for Teorema, 1968); to calls of "blasphemous, subversive, pornographic, indecent, etc." (for The Decameron, 1971); to charges of "a film full of obscenities ... nothing more than a series of vulgar exhibitions of sexual organs, all very clearly photographed." (for Arabian Nights, 1973). While all the charges are aimed at what may be most obviously offensive to a conservative sector of the population, they hide a more insidious challenge to cultural and ideological diversity behind catch-phrases such as "common decency" and "public morality." What is achingly apparent in any of Pasolini films is that the author does not merely seek to shock but aims to present a world view that is ideologically conflictual to, and compromising for, the dominant culture. Pasolini proposes and produces art "as an exploration of the unsaid in common and official ideological discourses." The effectiveness of his art lies in his portrayal of "something that scandalizes for its being what it is. It scandalizes because of its nature: because for one reason or another it is a diverse nature." (Ferrero, 2) Diverse is my translation of "diverso", which would also literally translate to "different," and this term would become for Pasolini representative of a central concept. Used in Italian as a colloquialism in reference to homosexuality, Pasolini set himself the task of diffusing the term of its negative connotations by infusing it with a sense of cultural importance and militancy. Largely biographical at its inception, the concept acquired cultural and political dimensions by which the author sought to bridge various manifestations of the diverse (homosexuality, sub-proletarianism, Third World cultures) in a common oppositional front against officialdom. According to Pasolini, people's physicality, their bodies and sexual organs, identify them as peripheral products of specific socio-economic conditions and/or a-historic conditions. Therefore, since "the language of action or simply of offensive presence [is a] stage of pre-revolutionary contestation," official culture finds it necessary to silence or censor these bodies and render them invisible. The uninhibited display of sub-proletarian bodies one witnesses in most of Pasolini's films is offensive to societal norms because it offers a code of being that demystifies the ideal body of bourgeois representation and proposes (sub)alternatives to it. Aside from a sign of potentially revolutionary value, the "language of action" represented by those bodies is also representative of a diversity of spoken language, the dialects, which, as an infraction of accepted cultural codes, signals a non-negotiable threat contained within the potentiality of subaltern self-expression. Pasolini, himself a diverse yet bourgeois intellectual, becomes aware of his own need to give up the standardized language of Italian intellectual culture and become initiated into a revolutionary one. His is double initiation: first into the language of Marxism, and then into the language of subaltern cultures (such as Friulano). The two are integrated and then restated in the author's own social critique which, through literary and filmic production, privileges specific sites (the body of the sub-proletariat, for example) through which to initiate a discourse of subalternity, exclusion, oppression, and confrontation. Though not immune to the seduction and effects of dominant cultural canons, Pasolini's works are an attempt to dissipate the officiality of particular discourses by juxtaposing them to disparate alternative elements. Accattone (1961) marks Pier Paolo Pasolini's venture into film-making, the author/film-maker's initiation and exploration of socio-political discourses through visual vocabulary. Accattone is the first of many forays in Pasolini's methodology of subaltern cultural synthesis. In that, the first of his films, elements of the dominant cultural code, such as the verses of Dante or the music of Bach, are used as background to the actions and bodies of sub-proletarian characters. These acts of transgression are not easily forgiven by the keepers of traditional cultural codes. As a result, the bodies scripted by Pasolini in his films, and the language that emanates from them, attract the negative attention of the scrupulous defenders of the "common good." Beginning his research among the "ragazzi" of the borgate of Rome and the Neapolitan subaltern culture that had already appeared in his books, Pasolini quickly moves to consider the conditions of "Third world" populations as parallel representations of a subaltern revolutionary storehouse. Within this context, he develops an analysis of filmic language that aims to complement his other practical and theoretical explorations into written and oral languages. However painfully aware he may be of the distance that separates the various spheres of linguistic expression, Pasolini works toward devising a visual vocabulary through which these parallel realities become at times bridged. Consciously addressing a potential diversity of registers, and their value as alternative cultural space and instruments of resistance, Pasolini would seem to touch upon what we now-a-days refer to as postcolonial studies. Almost a decade before his first African film An African Orestes (1970), The Savage Father, a script located in Africa, sets the ground upon which to approach the unfolding reality of post-colonialism concurrently with the rooting of consumerism in the industrialized world. Abjuration and Confrontation While always keen to identify populations in whose hands the undoing of his own bourgeoisie culture may rest, later in his life, Pasolini would critique his own blindness vis-à-vis the overly idealistic representations of subalternity that had populated some of his films. In a series of films which Pasolini himself dubbed his "Trilogy of Life," the author's scope was indeed to represent the revolutionary power of sub-proletarian bodies, and highlight their potential through the manipulation of highly imaginative canonical narratives of tales and fables, The Decameron (1970), Canterbury Tales (1971), and Arabian Nights (1974). In his "Abjuration from The Trilogy of Life," (1975) Pasolini comes to deny these films as an error in judgment. (Pasolini 1976, 71) For those who had known Pasolini and his works, this should not have come as a surprise, but for most his abjuration further demonstrated Pasolini's erraticism. As the following verses from "A Desperate Vitality"(1964, 1996) demonstrate, Pasolini had perceived his position in Italy quite well: Death lies not in being unable to communicate but in the failure to continue being understood. (14) In his abjuration, Pasolini takes a rather cynical stance through which he claims that the bodies represented in the "Trilogy" were to have stood in opposition to the subculture of mass media and consumerism. In fact, he concluded, those bodies had been doomed long before he made the films, the perpetrator being none other than the famed "economic boom" of the 60s, a phenomenon that threw Italy into the realm of post-industrialism and neo-capitalism. It was this transition into hypernationalism that Pasolini blamed for Italy's cultural and anthropological deterioration. Not one to take "death" lightly, Pasolini developed this "failure" into feigned adaptation and conformism, as in this "Communiqué to ANSA [stylistic choice]" (1971): I have ceased to be an original poet, it costs freedom: a stylistic system is too exclusive. I have adopted accepted literary schemes to be free. For practical reasons, of course. However, criticism of his work, and accusations of a nostalgia for an irretrievable past, continued to be leveled against him. Pasolini's response to those who called for him to deal with the problems of contemporary society, to show a conscience of the present, is the rhetorical abjuration of the "Trilogy" which in turn sets the stage for his last project: Salò (1975). A loose adaptation of Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, Salò is Pasolini's strategy to revive the last days of Fascism at the close of W.W.II, as an instrument by which to suggest a matrix for contemporary fascism's homogenization and objectification of humanity. The degradation of bodies, their use and abuse, torture, sadism, the corruption of eroticism and sexual relations, are the subjects of Salò. Pasolini believed that the fascism that had found fertile ground during the early to mid part of the century had not disappeared but had merely changed form. Consumerism, the new fascism, had, in his opinion, decimated the Italian sub-proletariat and it threatened to decimate the populations of the so-called Third World. Of course, Salò was no less susceptible to censorship than his previous works. While Pasolini's early works had been threatening for their portrayal of the pre-revolutionary potential of the sub-proletariat, Salò is subversive in its out and out identification of the perverse power of fascism and its lingering effects. That fascism works its spell by insinuating itself as protector of accepted norms, order and clarity is addressed ironically by Pasolini in the previously quoted "Communiqué to ANSA." Freedom through "accepted ... schemes" is, of course, not freedom at all, and with Salò Pasolini succeeds in subverting this statement as well. This he does by giving prominence to the narrative schemes of fascism. By having each set of atrocities prefaced by the narrative voice of the fascist bourgeois captors, Pasolini unveils the inherent violence of that ideology. The scheme in Salò is much more direct than in other films and, as the fascist-initiated story-telling degenerates into the subjugation of the unspoken and unspeaking subjects, the "practical reasons" of Pasolini's rhetoric come to light. Thus, one distinction between the "Trilogy" and Salò can be made at the level of communication. The works of the "Trilogy" still preserve a hope in the dialectic potential of the eroticism of sub-proletarian bodies, as communicative of their condition. Salò, on the other hand, dismisses any chance for communication through the total objectification of sexuality. The dialectic is wholly disrupted and interjected for the sole function and benefit of the system of consumption that is fascism. Communication, or the lack thereof, defines eroticism and pornography respectively. Salò becomes Pasolini's accusatory finger by which he links fascism, censorship, and pornography. The film elicited a negative reaction even from those who had in the past been supportive of Pasolini. Italo Calvino, in "Sade is Within Us," suggests that A "moral" effect can be drawn from Sade only if the "accusation" keeps its finger pointed not at the others but at ourselves. The "place of action" can only be in our conscience (111). Complaining about how Pasolini was wholly discounting of Sade's intentions in The 120 Days of Sodom, and of how poorly that text transfers as a vehicle for the recounting of the last days of fascism in war torn Italy, Calvino suggests that the film-maker was out of touch with the world in which he lived. But Pasolini was painfully aware of his inescapable situation as a privileged bourgeois intellectual in society, and the effect that the maintenance of the status quo has on those considered expendable. Calvino's suggestions may in fact be symptomatic of the very loss of diversity in contemporary society, and the conviction that pedagogically we are restricted to the lessons of the dominant culture. Learning from Failure Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote Il padre selvaggio (The Savage Father) in 1963, during the blasphemy trial for his film La ricotta. Due to the fact that this script was never made into a film, the critical literature refers to it as an "unrealized" screenplay, which almost automatically relegates the work to a secondary status. The reasons given for this are of course the trial, and various problems associated with finding financial support for the project. Pasolini himself provides a justification for its non-actualization as a film in a short address that follows the text and precedes the poem "And Africa?" that closes the post-humously published script here translated. (Einaudi, 1975) The court case against Ricotta for blasphemy prevented me from making Il padre selvaggio. The pain it gave me - and I tried to express it in these ingenuous verses of "E l'Africa?" - still gives me pain. I dedicate the script of Padre selvaggio to the Ministry of Justice and to the judge who condemned me. Often referred to by critics as "Pasolini's most ambitious work" among his meditations on the "Third World," The Savage Father holds an integral but not as yet fully appreciated position in his oeuvre. While it remained a screenplay, The Savage Father's integrity as a work of art stands beyond the categories of film and script, and somewhere between them. Written just after his essay "La resistenza negra" (Black Resistance), the introduction to an anthology of Black writers published in 1961, The Savage Father expands on what may be Pasolini's most extended theoretical statement about the Third World. "La resistenza negra" relates Black resistance to the Italian Resistance to fascism of W.W.II, thus establishing for Pasolini an extra determinant in his turning his gaze toward the Third World. Noting that the Resistance has receded into the past and lost its impact on "our world," Pasolini identifies within the Black Resistance the instance for a permanent revolution: "it does not seem that it will finish as it has finished here for us...". Pasolini's faith in the Black Resistance is based on the belief that there has not been a "split between resistance and Resistance." In other words, the political movement for national autonomy and the struggle for social justice are one and the same. Contrary to most commentators, I would like to suggest that it is of little importance that The Savage Father was never produced, and that its relevance resides in part most effectively in that fact. As a document of ideological pertinence, The Savage Father stands in that ambiguous and contradictory space of Pasolini's relationship with the "diverso." The Savage Father signals the beginning of a research and exploration of form, structure, and language that Pasolini had begun to discuss in a series of essays on cinema, "The Cinema of Poetry" being the first, written in 1965. These meditations continued with "The Screenplay as a ‘Structure that Wants to be Another Structure,' (1965) in which the writer/director reflects precisely on the viability of a structure that is neither literary nor cinematic but that "[continuously alludes] to a developing cinematographic work." That essay and The Savage Father are representative of Pasolini's considerations of filmic language at that point in time, and of a transition/bridging of literary texts and/to visual texts.. * * * Indicative of Pasolini's concern for a pedagogical relationship with the Third World, The Savage Father juxtaposes a European figure in relationship to the inhabitants of an unnamed African country (most likely the Congo, given the historical moment in which the script was written). The story revolves around the arrival of a European teacher in a village to teach a class of young men. It indirectly addresses the presence of neo-colonialism and the cultural resistance of the Africans to both the foreign troops and the colonial educational system (though the new teacher supposedly represents a progressive European presence). In the classroom the resistance is broken down by the teacher's introduction of poetry which, while heightening the pupils' sense of their own culture, also seems to establish a cross-cultural mode of communication. Davidson, the pupil on whom the script concentrates, is enraptured by the introduction of the powerful medium of poetry. As a result, he reaches a moment of self-awareness and awareness of his environment that, while on a visit to his village, causes him to participate in a rebellion against the European forces in residence there. Poetry, it seems, has provided him with a new way to see the world. His actions, while apparently on the threshold of insanity, are a result of his increase engagement of the images of his country and peoples as enabled by the poetic process. The acquisition of a poetic rapport with one's own culture is exemplary of the Gramscian pedagogic theory that so influenced Pasolini, and which goes to illustrate, within this short text, Pasolini's own critique of pedagogical approaches in general. Poetry provides a link with the student's own experience and short-circuits the relationship with the official culture that originally presents it in the context of the classroom. As an illustration of the need to break with colonial forms and colonized expression, at the beginning of The Savage Father, the teacher assigns various compositions to the students, which they complete and return. The resulting essays are a disaster because they are still written under an oppressive force. The themes are unqualifiable: rhetorical thoughts that, having lost their usual form, are even sometimes ungrammatical. [... The teacher] yells at them, telling them that they are no longer under the authority and the rhetoric of the colonialists: "they are free, free, they are free!" (Pasolini 1999, 13). The colonial educational system, far from "educating" in the Gramscian sense, in other words initiating a pupil to his own culture, has imposed a rhetorical form that worked effectively to bury the students' personal experiences and any manner in which to express them. Nevertheless, the outsider, an educator who comes ignorant but well-meaning, cannot but become a "Savage Father" who is potentially destructive for the population he means to educate. The cultural distance that separates the teacher from his students is too great. His substitution of explicit colonial forms with new elements of European "high" culture, which he deems to be relevant to his pupils, is plainly arrogant and bound to fail, and no less colonial in its scope than what he is replacing. In accordance with the above-quoted essays on the nature of filmic language, images are given priority throughout The Savage Father. The words "IMMAGINE PER IMMAGINE" (IMAGE BY IMAGE) recur in the descriptions of memories or the workings of the imagination. The phrase "IMMAGINE PER IMMAGINE" works almost as a panning action across the landscape, and reflects for the reader a process similar to young Davidson's re-acquisition of the conscience of his land and culture. The European teacher, attempting to resolve the undoing of African cultures caused by European colonialists, provides poetry as a pedagogical tool. In the poetry that for the teacher is surely tied to a sense of aesthetics to which violence is foreign, Davidson finds an inventive potential that is truly liberatory in that it makes possible his rebellion against the Europeans. And it is also this inventive use of poetry that results in making evident the pedagogical distance between Davidson and the teacher. Blind to the truly revolutionary power of poetry and images, the teacher finds these results of its use inexplicable and repulsive: In your village, with your father, with your brothers, you betrayed yourself, the one real Davidson in Africa, in the world! Excuse my courage to jest ... But, at least ... you forgot that you were a modern man, civil ... Oh, no, it was not your fault ... You fell back through the centuries, you gave in. You drugged yourself, you participated in rites that are no longer yours, and they are therefore at guilt. (?) The conviction that Davidson and his companions have been conditioned by a culture of colonialism that has made of them "uom[ini] modern[i], civil[i]..." (modern men, civil), in all its negative connotations illustrates the teacher's blindness to his own culture's colonizing tendencies. The teacher does not afford Davidson and his companions the option of "invention," the possibility to write themselves as new subjects between worlds. While unable to fully return to a pre-colonial culture, these young men represent the more interactive reality of culture, and deny the purity of cultural direction required by the teacher. Juxtaposed to "The screenplay as a structure that want to be another structure," The Savage Father takes on an increased value in Pasolini's work. In the former, Pasolini posits a series of situations regarding the nature of the screenplay. He identifies the screenplay as "the concrete element in the relationship between film and literature," but claims that his interests lie not in exploring the transformation of the text into the "cinematographic work which it presupposes." "What interests me," he goes on to say, "is the moment in which it can be considered an autonomous technique, a work complete and finished in itself." (187) By divorcing the script from the film, Pasolini undermines the script's accepted secondary status to the "finished" product, the film, a status that is further aggravated if the script in question remains unproduced as a film. Pasolini accordingly elevates the status and function of the script by proposing its form as "a choice of narrative technique." However, even within this "choice," Pasolini stresses that, in order for the screenplay to maintain its value as a form of transition (or transformation), it must retain its "continuous allusion to a developing cinematographic work." (187) To make of the screenplay simply a form in and of itself would be to merely insert it within "traditional forms of literary writing." Of course, as Pasolini himself acknowledges, the critique of this hybrid form will require its own set of new analytical codes, ones that recognize both the screenplay's typical aspects and its autonomy. Approaching a critique of the screenplay with the tools of conventional literary criticism would in fact deny the form's occult character, "the allusion to a potential cinematographic work." Pasolini refers to this "element that is not there" but which must be assumed as part of the critical code and "ideologically presupposed" as a "desire for form." (188) That is to say, the screenplay's tendency to representation in another medium (cinematography) is an integral part of its structure/form. As such, the reader of a screenplay is given a specific role, which is to lend to a text "a visual completeness which it does not have, but at which it hints." (189) At this point in his essay Pasolini gives an account of the process of reading that he expects would result in approaching a screenplay. I will not go into the language that Pasolini developed for his filmic critique. Here it should suffice to say that the screenplay and its signs propose and follow a double path of reading and signification. On the one hand, the literary, in which the sign leads to the meaning, and the other, the cinematographic, in which the sign leads to the film, which leads to the visual sign, which leads to the meaning. This simplified summary does not do justice to Pasolini's detailed work, but here it is meant only to convey the fact that for Pasolini himself the screenplay always contains that other form, which is the visual. "The sign of the screenplay therefore not only expresses a will of the form to become another above and beyond the form; that is, it captures the form in movement [...] the word of the screenplay is thus, contemporaneously, the sign of two different structures, in-as-much as the meaning that it denotes is double: and it belongs to two languages characterized by different structures." (192-193) The paradox reveals itself when "we are confronted by an odd fact: the presence of a stylistic system where there is still no defined linguistic system and where the structure is not conscious and scientifically described." (194) Therefore, while the screenplay is a form that moves toward another form, and its structure moves from literary to cinematographic, the language of transition remains unknown, or not-yet known. Making Pasolini's theoretical writings act upon his artistic works enriches the latter while projecting the former into more of a practical functionality. In folding theory and praxis into each other, works such as The Savage Father begin to unveil their transitional value. Beyond its inherent movement from screenplay to film, The Savage Father can in fact be read as an analysis of the transition from colonialism to decolonization to a postcolonial condition, for it can certainly be said that colonialism contains a structure that "want to be another structure." The unfolding of the story within the screenplay narrates the passage from colonialism's inheritance to postcolonial condition, and the search for a language through which to express the transition. Pasolini's answers throughout the book may be less effective and adequate than the screenplay's function as a catalyst for them. Poetry and filmic images are what Pasolini proposes, which are not a problem within themselves. The problematic aspect of the teacher's remedy to colonialism is that it is not much more than a sort of neo-colonialism in the guise of progressive pedagogy. As well-intentioned as he may be, the teacher's language and attitude are blind to a sense of cultural determinism that hinders liberation and emphasizes colonial paradigms. Because The Savage Father represents the struggle for political and cultural independence, and for a reassessment of positions, it must be acknowledged as an ideologically charged structure of movement and transition, and not merely as a frustrated cinematic effort. Read in parallel to the situation of colonialism, it emphasizes that the structures it discusses require adjustments in themselves and in our perception of them as "structures that want to be other structures." Just as colonialism contains within itself its own end, decolonization and the eventual legitimization and expression of postcolonialism, the screenplay contains its own, the film. While colonialism and the screenplay may or may not become those other structures that they contain, their effectiveness does not depend on the completion of those expectations, but on the creative tension that they create and in our own acknowledgment of the eruptive power of desire. Pasquale Verdicchio San Diego Bibliography Calvino, Italo. "Sade is Within Us" in Stanford Italian Review: Pier Paolo Pasolini The Poetics of Heresy, Beverly Allen ed., II, 2, Fall 1982: 107-111. Ferrero, Adelio. Il cinema di P. P. Pasolini. Venezia: Marsilio, 1977. Pasolini, Pier Paolo. A Desperate Vitality. Translated by Pasquale Verdicchio. San Diego: Parentheses Writing Series, 1996. ____________. Heretical Empiricism. Edited by Louise K. Barnett; Translated by Ben Lawton and Louise K. Barnett. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. ____________. "Abiuria della Trilogia della vita" in Lettere Luterane. Torino: Einaudi, 1976. ____________. Il padre selvaggio. Torino: Einaudi, 1975.


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