July 16, 2020 • Andreas Petrossiants on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Il Decameron (1971)

BEFORE THE UPRISING, almost all acts had the suffix “during the pandemic” fastened onto them: reading groups or online exhibitions during the pandemic, virtual political assemblies during the pandemic, cooking new recipes. . .during the pandemic. Before the initially insurgent revolt against a racist police apparatus—led by Black people, by decentralized formations, by a youth vanguard now in the process of being coopted by a liberal not-for-profit machine—the Covid-19 pandemic was already understood by many to be the product not only of a virus but of a racialized capitalism that privatizes care and polices the most vulnerable. Before New York City officials mobilized one thousand extra cops to displace unhoused people from the subways to clean them in early May, they had hired five hundred to crack down on fare evasion last December. Before Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a budget with massive cuts to social services, while leaving the six billion-dollar police budget largely intact, New Yorkers were already reeling from decades of austerity. The city had lost twenty thousand hospital beds in just twenty years—a historical dismantling of a once relatively expansive public hospital system. In short, before the arrival of this “novel” plague, different plagues were already here.

Before the uprising, social isolation was expected and widespread throughout much of the world, and largely speaking, it remains so as cases rise in the US and globally. The biopolitically enforced impulse was to ride out the storm; states of exception were declared. Autonomous communities formed (and are still forming) through collective reclusion. Seeking to capitalize on a voracious audience for at-home entertainment, much plague-related popular culture was produced or unearthed. The oldest, perhaps, was Il Decameron, Boccaccio’s collection of novellas from circa 1349–53. The book has resonated with many, especially those struggling to fathom a once-in-a-century epidemiological crisis in historical and literary terms. The premise—a group of young aristocrats socially distance in a Tuscan villa to avoid the Black Death, amusing one another with titillating stories of erotic love and moralizing tales of deception and chicanery—is a utopian one in part. But it’s also one conditioned by hierarchy and exclusion. The nobles are those who tell the stories, reminding us of the differential privileges that structure life under Covid-19 while they, like today’s gentrifiers and rentiers, hole up in luxury security. When Pier Paolo Pasolini directed a loose adaptation of some of The Decameron’s vignettes some six centuries later, Boccaccio’s corpus had become integral to the construction of the cultural patrimony of an Italian nation unified, at least in name, in 1861—a heritage that remained available almost exclusively to the upper classes. According to the scholar Agnès Blandeau, who aptly calls Pasolini’s Il Decameron (1971) a “proletarianization” of Boccaccio’s original, the director’s “vulgarized” adaptation made the stories “accessible to all, not only the educated audience familiar with ancient myths.”Pier Paolo Pasolini, Il Decameron (The Decameron), 1971, 35 mm, color, sound, 111 minutes.

Unlike the top-streamed Contagion (2011), this plague story is not told from the perspective of those in power trying to contain it, nor does it turn on a boosterish resilience narrative. In fact, the director completely omits reference to any biological plague, and with it, Boccaccio’s courtly framing device. Rather than subject the elite to Buñelian slapstick or Godardian contempt, Pasolini relegates such characters to the background, instead centering peasants, gardeners, artists, and their assistants. “You did not find the characters of Boccaccio,” he explained, “because I reduced each to a schemata and then filled them out with the reality of Naples, of a sub-proletarian world, and not a bourgeois one.” Pasolini recognized the class significations of regional dialects, like the thick Neapolitan spoken by the characters in his film, which some Northern Italians may need subtitles to understand—a slightly different, but parallel gesture to Boccaccio’s use of vernacular Italian. Scored by the inimitable composer and frequent Pasolini collaborator Ennio Morricone, who passed away last week, the Decameron’s music also summons the south. In the film’s first story, a street musician playing the famous Neapolitan folk song “Canto delle Lavandaie del Vomero” (Song of the laundrywomen from Vomero) accompanies a scene in which Andreuccio of Perugia (played by Ninetto Davoli, Pasolini’s lover and favorite actor) is told by a wealthy Neapolitan swindler that the city is no place to walk around at night, just before he’s thrown into a pool of excrement.Pier Paolo Pasolini, Il Decameron (The Decameron), 1971, 35 mm, color, sound, 111 minutes.

Expelled from the Italian Communist Party in 1949, Pasolini remained a critical fellow traveler for the rest of his life, seeking a communism that could surpass Marxist-Leninist class analysis for one that could accommodate other modes of social life, without fetishizing the poor or apologizing for Stalinist authoritarianism. Though he was from an older generation, he engaged with Italy’s post-68 extra-parliamentary student movements with some appreciation, and even acted as an editor for Lotta Continua’s newspaper. Still, he acknowledged the movement’s bourgeois origins and disconnect with the poor. For his political heterodoxy, homosexuality, and unabashed antielitism, he was slandered, tried, and eventually killed, his body found brutalized and run over several times by his own car in 1975—a mafia style killing. (Giuseppe Pelosi, the only suspect convicted of the murder, retracted his confession in 2005.) After Pasolini’s death, the violence against him continued: Rightwing pundits, quoting a poem of his out of context, fallaciously claimed that Pasolini sympathized with the police in a clash with student protestors—a rumor that still haunts his legacy.

In his poetry, novels, films, and political writing, Pasolini’s primary exaltations were reserved for the postwar borghi populated with Southern workers; the farmers of Sicily, Campagna, and Friuli who were robbed of their livelihoods and communal forms of living; the sex workers and the unhoused on the peripheries of rapidly developing urban centers. In one of his last columns in Corriere della Sera, Italy’s most-read newspaper, he mourned the rapid loss of Italy’s firefly populations—disappearing due to industrialization—while also slyly referring, perhaps, to the slang term for sex workers—their cigarettes lit up in the night.Pier Paolo Pasolini, Il Decameron (The Decameron), 1971, 35 mm, color, sound, 111 minutes.

In foregrounding pleasure over labor, in celebrating, in Pasolini’s words, “the ontology of reality, whose naked symbol is sex,” The Decameron’s carnivalesque view of the Trecento departs from the productivism and machine aesthetics that characterized Marxian and modernist representations of working-class agency. One character, Ciappelletto—played by Franco Citti, who inhabited the role of the eponymous pimp in Pasolini’s directorial debut, Accattone (1961)—is still a swindler-cum­-martyr, as in Boccaccio’s text, but his main sin is chasing profit, not indecency. Per scholars Peter Bondanella and Federico Pacchioni, his sanctification “becomes a metaphor for the predatory practices of both the church and the middle class.” In another vignette, the handsome Masetto of Lamporecchio feigns muteness to seduce nuns in a convent, and becomes the object of their collective desire as the sisters express their lust with less and less shame. A later story tragically limns the intersection of gendered sexual repression and ruling class reaction: Three wealthy brothers murder Lorenzo, a Sicilian worker in the family’s employ (he hails from Pisa in the original), as retribution for his affair with their cloistered sister, Elisabetta. “Let the servants and masters be equal today!” they taunt in advance of the offscreen stabbing. With the help of her maid, Elisabetta later digs up the body of her lover, saws off his head, and plants it in a pot of basil. As Colin MacCabe writes for Criterion, “The Decameron. . .does present us with the vomiting, farting, fucking body shorn of all the civilizing processes of the Renaissance. But this is as much the realm of the Roman borgate, or shantytowns, where Pasolini found both sexual life and his ultimate death, as any ‘accurate’ representation of the Middle Ages.”Pier Paolo Pasolini, Il Decameron (The Decameron), 1971, 35 mm, color, sound, 111 minutes.

Novelist Alberto Moravia once described Pasolini as a “civil” poet, by which he meant “a poet who sees his native land in a way that the powerful of the country do not and cannot see it.” Fittingly, the director appears in this film as a disciple of Giotto, arriving to a small town to paint a fresco alongside dozens of rural men, a pointed statement that art production was and must remain a civic endeavor. Today, as various pestilences, from gentrification to policing, intensify during our ongoing medical plague, their interconnectedness becomes easier to grasp. After decades of racialized neoliberalism have rendered working-class subjectivity invisible among some theoreticians of the left and abused by the right, Pasolini’s art about and for those living on what he once called the “flimsy crust of our world / over the naked universe” shows class oppression as one plague among many, an amalgamation of crises swiftly cast aside when a “state of exception” is declared.

— Andreas Petrossiants

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