In ancient Islam an ascetic young savage retires from the world to wander on the dunes of the Nubian Desert. To survive he kills and eats the few plants and animals he can find until one day, coming upon a lost traveler, he resorts to cannibalism. The townspeople at the edge of the desert chase the young cannibal, capture him and put him to death.
In modern-day Russia two established members of the Party who head a major industry decide to crown their friendship by arranging the marriage of their son and daughter. However, the groom-to-be has a regrettable penchant for farm animals. Drowning their sorrows in vodka and boat songs of the Volga, reminiscing on the good old days of Stalin, the two fathers finally come to an agreement and persuade the young man to give up his animals for a wife. But as the young sodomist gives his farewell to the barn, the sty and the farmyard, he is attacked and eaten by the beasts.
With Beast, a two-part tragedy in verse released this fall in France and Italy and whose plot I have just outlined, Pallazzini has come out once again with a film that will raise more than a few eyebrows. Overcharging his films with symbolism and sumptuous imagery, indiscriminately mixing politics and metaphysics, obsessed with the sacred and the profane, purity and sin, Pallazzini has relentlessly pursued the poetry of anguish in his films. Fusing the two fundamental ideologies of Italy, Christianity and Marxism, with Freudian and Jungian overtones, he has produced a highly personal cinema that challenges society, religion, capitalism and our conventional humanism.
Already an important poet, novelist, philologist and leftist intellectual with a weekly column in the Tempo Nuova, Umberto Pallazzini, a soft-spoken Roman of 53, launched himself in the filmmaking business in 1962 with Mama Leone, a full-length feature depicting the life of the brothels in the Milanese slums. Instantly a critical and financial success, Mama Leone has become accepted as one of the finest examples of surrealism in Italian Cinema. Since then, Pallazzini, who had never handled a camera much less directed before in his life, has made one short and 7 features, the latest being Beast.
Originally from Parma, he settled in Rome in 1950 after having wandered all over Italy after the war. There he observed the people of the streets, lived in the slums and taught. It was at this time that he wrote his now famous novel, Papparazzi. Focusing on the working class, their children and the small-time tabloid journalists who purvey cheap dreams to them, more precisely gutter Italian, in an attempt to not only reflect, the people and to form a popular culture, but also to reach and enlighten them on their own plight. Out of film Mama Leone, the dialogue of which is also gutter Italian making it difficult for the cultivated Italian upper class to understand it. It was a scandalous innovation for its time.
Though he has written three other novels, including the highly acclaimed Vita Vetusta (The Old Life) and Prologomena, which he made into a film in 1970, Pallazzini considers himself primarily as a poet. With five books of poetry, several anthologies, six plays in verse and two well-known essays expounding his views on the function of poetry in society (“Passion and Dialectics” and “Popular Italian Street Poetry”), Pallazzini is in the vanguard of the postwar poets. For him filmmaking is like a drug, fiction a cultural necessity and poetry a vocation.
In 1959 he was awarded the coveted Capriccioso prize for a slim volume of poems entitled Una Morte Violenta (A Violent Death) dedicated to the founder of the Trotskyite party in Italy in the twenties who urged the formation of a new culture, one that would reflect the aspirations of the people. Pallazzini’s poetry, much of which is experimental using dialect and new forms, marks a break with traditional elitist poetry as demanded by his political sympathies. Far from ideological, however, Pallazzini’s poetry is simply permeated with a socio-political awareness until then virtually inexistent in Italian poetry. His interest in films was prompted by his desire to reach a greater audience. A book of poems, though considered a bestseller, would sell at most 600 copies while a movie could attract several thousand.
Like a great many writers and artists of the postwar period, Pallazzini was deeply influenced by Marxism. Belonging to the Italian intelligentsia that includes such figures as Peoni, Moroni, Pisario and Bucca, his socialism grew, as theirs did, out of the leftist movement of the Resistance, the anti-fascist movement that created postwar Italy. Yet, as the war became more distant, Pallazzini, following the direction taken by Bardolini, noted for the film Viva Revoluzione (Up with Revolution), grew disenchanted with the Communist Party and aimed at a more integral complete revolution that approached anarchy with such films as Ucello (Bird), Prologomena, and Beast. But what distinguishes Pallazzini from Bardolini is his predilection for religious symbolism. Before being a Marxist or a revolutionary Pallazzini is above all an artist whose sympathies are directed by his Marxism.
Blending both the old tradition of Roman Catholicism, especially the emotional and mythical Italian variety with its mystery, lyricism and profuse imagery, and a relatively recent social realism and progmatism, Pallazzini is best described as a hybrid between Bunuel and Godard. In Mama Leone, he portrays the poor, the pimps, the prostitutes, the madams as pawns of a capitalist society that forces criminality to endorse its own virtues, those of private property. Yet, when Sergio, pimp and beggar, fights with his brother, a submissive worker, the struggle assumes biblical proportions. Sergio is Cain, the damned, who rejects the slavery imposed upon him by God, that is, the industrial monopolies supported by Church and State. It is his redemption and death. When he falls in love with a madonna-like blonde virgin, he abandons his pandering but must resort to stealing. Finally he is run over by the local factory bus escaping the police and dies to the music of Handel’s Messiah, which Pallazzini calls the “true music of the absolute. “
In Jesus made in 1965, a film on the life of Christ which, incidentally, won him the annual film award of the International Christian Film Critics, Pazzollini’s religious sense and concern became explicit. Of Jesus, Pallazzini said, “It dawned upon me that the roots of Marxism were religious, irrational, mystical.” It was an attempt to evoke a pre-Christian spiritualitythat was social and political in nature and implicitly Marxist. Having seen the gospel as a divinely inspired document of social revolution, Pallazzini portrayed Christ as an “angry young man,” leader of the proletariat against the mercantile, imperialist Romans. He dedicated the film to the Papacy which he saw as the leader of a politically and socially involved Christian community. This dedication, however, brought him the enmity of the leftists who had gathered around him following his first poems and films. He was taxed as a “reactionary,” a “turncoat,” a “dreamer.”
His 1970 film, Prologomena, on the other hand, was seized at the Cannes film festival on obscenity charges. It also received the ICFC film award for that year only to have the Pope and several bishops protest the choice. Here Pallazzini proposes sensuality as a means of
liberation and purification. A young man visiting the wealthy family of a Turin industrialist literally seduces mother, son, daughter and maid and cures the father of an unknown illness. He leaves them after having transformed their lives. The virgin daughter falls in a catatonic trance, the son escapes to the city and becomes an artist who creates sculpture out of human dung, the mother pursues the ragazzi in the streets, the maid returns to her home village and becomes a saint, and the industrialist, handing over his factory to his perplexed workers, runs off in the nude in a metaphorical desert, actually, it was later discovered, a particular spot of the Nubian desert which Pallazzini is especially fond of.
Prologomena is an indictment of the materialism of a bourgeois society that has no hope for redemption. The maid alone, probably because of her inferior economic status, her humility and her ties to the soil, elevates herself to saintliness, while the others, infused with the erotic mysticism left by the strange demoniacal or angelical visitor destroy themselves. The film stands as a plea for a greater spirituality and sacredness in a profane and material world. Yet, at the same time, it may be considered the twisted projection of wishful thinking, a version of utopia gone awry. Though Pallazzini describes himself as an atheist, he admits, “I have a deep nostalgia for belief,” like the industrialist’s wife who returns to a small chapel where she had previously satisfied two gigolos.
In Beast the images spill on the silver screen in a veritable nightmare of symbols and signs that challenges the imagination and the intellect. Pallazzini mixes landscapes a la Hieronymus Bosch with violent scenes of bestiality and death, his usual baggage of Catholic themes, grace, sin, redemption and damnation with social comment and fermenting sexuality. The main theme is that of eating as a metaphor and a ritual.
Pallazzini further explained himself in a short interview he granted to several foreign journalists at his lovely 18th century villa overlooking the Bay of Naples on the Isle of Capri. Though known for his exuberance and even explosiveness on the set, he is unusually reticent in public. After evading several questions, in an outburst of frankness, he said, “Eating has a much deeper significance than just destruction. There is a Jungian meaning. I don’t want to shock you, but there is such a thing as assimilation. To swallow a wafer at Mass or chew the remnants of a warrior in the Amazon is to gather up the strength they have or represent for yourself.”
He continued by remarking that in Beast, when the young ascetic, a kind of hippie Zarathustra, commits cannibalism, he loses his purity. By assimilating man he assimilates society and its evils, abandons his solitude and, ironically, is put to death. In other words, eating here is a social act that debases and ultimately destroys. In the second part of Beast, when the groom-to-be agrees to marry, he forsakes his distinctiveness and independence and the farm animals, in eating him, assume the role of a vengeful nature. When society assimilates its members they die. As in the many Broadway productions which have bestiality as their theme, the sodomist’s love is pure and innocent.
Pallazzini seems to say that to refuse one’s freedom is to refuse God or the revelation of the divine and to return to bestiality. But true bestiality is not cannibalism or sodomy but submission to society. Pallazzini advocates a perpetual state of revolution free from ideology. Yet it is impossible to disentangle the maze of symbols that attempt to reconcile social realism and mysticism in one breath. One is left with the impression of a highly charged and obscure ritual poetry that repeats despair with each scene rather than the socialist’s optimism and belief in change.
The Pallazzini film technique is very simple, very methodical. He transposes the discipline of poetry and the solemnity of religion to his films. They move efficiently and relentlessly. Pallazzini is a director’s director. Handling his films like his poems, he is sole master, using a minimum of technicians and props. He has a steady distrust of the star system of big studios and its attendant invasion of privacy and he has made his attacks on the commercialism of today’s movie industry among the most vehement of his generation. For this reason he uses, for the most part, nonprofessional or “new wave” actors and actresses.
Paolo Basta, who played in Mama Leone and The Oresteia, the latter a rather feeble film that attempts to retell the old Greek tragedy with a Freudian angle, generally portrays the Roman street boy, idle, vulgar, very much rooted in the realities of society and environment. However, with the British actor, John Dorsey, a Bunuel favorite, Pallazzini visualizes his otherworldliness, his mysticism.
Pallazzini’s vision of women, typically Italian, is torn between the virgin of Renaissance paintings and the prostitute, the elegant cosmopolitan and the loud shopkeeper who bears a dozen children.
In his choice of settings and landscapes he has a great affection for the untouched natural beauties of North Africa and the ancient, exotic ruins and palaces of the Middle East, India and Tibet. Reacting against the expensive studios and sets of Hollywood and, on the other
hand, the bare interiors of many French films, he advocates the use of natural settings. Again and again he has stated the need for filmmakers to exploit the visual resources of many worlds.
When asked if he had any ideas for the future, he disclosed his plans for a panoramic trilogy on the Italian middle-class, beginning with the rise of the bourgeoisie in the late 19th century, its evolution through the two wars and leading up to the present. It is to be a joint venture between American, French and Italian studios. Though it will involve an international cast of stars that have been attracted by Pallazzini’s work and long-standing artistic integrity, the less renowned faces we are familiar with will appear in various minor roles. The filming is scheduled to begin in 3 months in the Cinecitta studios in Tyrrenia.
As we came out in warm afternoon sun after a long discussion on the several, contradictory aspects of his cinema, Pallazzini led us to the olive-shaded terrace and, his eyes drifting away from the swarming coast, pointed to the vast expanse of the Mediterranean and quietly said, “This is where we were born and this is where we will return.”
Pallazzini’s work has carried with unprecedented force and clarity the existential drama that is being played in Europe and in America today in filmic terms. Through his renewal of the possibilities of the craft of filmmaking, he has made a mockery of those who affirm that the cinema like the theater is a dying art and stands among the most serious filmmakers of his time. Where Dufour is the poet of time, its tricks and illusions, Grafmann the poet of the deepest wells of our subconscious Eccolini the poet of frustration and loss, Pallazzini is the poet of anguish, at once metaphysical and political, of our time and, indeed, of all times.