Mean Streets

film 2 of 7


Draft Review by Dean Duncan Mar 28, 2015

Very striking and powerful, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s first film as director is full of text-book neo-realist techniques: (non) actors cast more for look or authenticity than for technique, action played out in actual, decidedly dreary locations, camera shadows and imprecise post-synching, uninflected and episodic narrative structure which is, for all that, still full–extremely full!–of dramatic power;

It’s more than neo-realist too: the classic period (1945-1952, by most accounts) was well past, Pasolini’s poetic methods and semiotic concerns are foregrounded in a way quite atypical of the movement, social urgency is added to, maybe replaced by intertextual density (c.f. the very significant, morally and even doctrinally apt epigram at the film’s beginning); in fact, Accatone is a passion play in which we follow a wretched character (the ugliest and most beautiful face in a film full of transfixingly ugly beauty) inexorably to his inevitable and sordid death; what’s remarkable is how moved we are by that death, that this character’s seemingly unrelieved unredemption is far from a nihilistic commentary on man’s contemptible nature and hopeless prospects;

Marx is partly responsible, as dusty poverty is very powerfully portrayed, and it’s clear that some of this mess comes from social inequity and capitalist brutality (paralleled by the brutal capitalisms of the pimps, the worst of which is Accatone himself, and thus the critique is knowingly undercut–the social order provides the model, but these characters perpetuate the social order, and not only because they’ve no choice); but depth of characterization and hints of nobility make Accatone more than just a materialist screed; the tragedy is actually tragic, not just a demeaning Scarface-like (De Palma, I mean) destruction;

I think that, notwithstanding Pasolini’s vaunted atheism, its religion most of all that saves Accatone from plain wallowing; Pasolini’s famously uses J.S. Bach’s music, a comparatively limited selection (some Brandenburg, repeated quotes of the Matthew Passion’s concluding chorale) which doesn’t prepare one for the enormous power of the transcendental montage that music produces: where some have found plain irony (sacred music, fallen images, ha ha) or even sacrilege (at the end of the brawl at the ex-wife’s house, scabrous Accatone is framed as the bowed and battered Christ figure), I find a combination of almost painful compassion–God, represented by the music, looks down and atones again for all the error, misrecognition, sin and wretchedness (the St. Matthew’s cue after all describes the crucified saviour), and thereby binds the wounds up, finally welcoming home–that broken head, those last words, the final image of the reprobate thief (!) crossing himself!–the wretched sinful soul;

A further intertextual reference, not anticipated by Pasolini, and so very important: that opening quote from Dante evokes the biblical reference (John 9: 24-5) that ends Raging Bullthis is where Martin Scorcese’s aching, ugly, yearning religious films come from! their wallowing can get, does get excessive (see review for The Wolf of Wall Street, q.v.), but often what seems unremittingly and unacceptably infernal is actually–note the quote’s source–purgatorial; for all the seeming excessive, more than the undoubted excess, reflected after all in the lives of so very many poor, benighted people, there is enormous pain and reaching and, finally, enormous, searing, practically paradisaical redemption