While trailing through the film work of Pier Paolo Pasolini, it becomes clear that the director has an eye for capturing specific moments that manage to visually remain with the viewer. Whether it’s the floating maid in Theorem (1968), the walking on water in The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964) or any number of images from Salò (1975), the director is often defined by a specific, canonised collection of stills and images. Yet there is one aspect of his work that turns up several times and is surprisingly taken for granted (surprising chiefly because it often implies a heavy dose of surrealism as well as symbolism). This aspect is Pasolini’s connection and meticulous use of landscape.
Using the term landscape could perhaps be seen as too vague a criteria to discuss. As the director rarely (if ever) used a studio to its full, preferring to shoot the outside, it’s a given that many of his films use real environments to reflect his idiosyncratic obsession with casting non-actors alongside professionals. The landscape discussed here is a very specific type of landscape that has appeared in several of his films, a trilogy of which are to be discussed here.
Like the realities built by Pasolini, this landscape is of a brutal construct. It is filmed and put together high in the volcanic ash wastelands of Italy; looking partly like an alien planet, partly like a world ravaged and left for dead by people. What is most interesting about this use of place is that it appears to adopt different functions varying from film to film. This place isn’t personally special for the director, it doesn’t seem to hold any affectionate place within his complex heart. It is instead a beautiful, horrid tool ready to be used for whatever Pasolini wishes.
The first use of landscape to discuss here is in Pasolini’s 1967 adaptation of Oedipus Rex, though the land here is far less volcanic than the other examples. This is perhaps the least symbolic and complex of the uses discussed in this article but worth investigating simply to show that the more general ideal can be used almost as a control. The landscape fits well into the film’s narrative, reflecting the morally barren society in its own barren, rocky aridity. To set the film in a more fanciful, Cleopatra style world would do no justice to the brutal, almost primitive and animalistic, emotional journey of the characters. Instead, this location enhances the happenings making them seem desperate, dangerous and isolated (at least outside of the crumbling palace).
The desert of ash and rock makes an appearance a year later in Pasolini’s next film, Theorem (1968). This time, the landscape has become more than a setting but an altogether new entity; a symbol for the final resting place for the father’s character and his emotional breakdown. The film follows a bourgeoisie family being emotionally broken apart by the love of a guest who enters and leaves their lives quickly enough to disable them seemingly indefinitely. While the father’s breakdown starts off in a packed train station, it moves quickly and surreally into the rocky landscape for the final primal scream of the film.
The landscape here is far more obvious and effective simply due to the contrast with the packed, busy lives in the high depths of society. The emptiness of people within the space and the lack of obvious life easily contrasts to their lives back within society which is simply full of people, places and escapes. This seems to be the contrast that Pasolini wishes to draw. As an attack on the middle classes, it works as defining their inner world as empty and desolate no matter what their outer worlds wish to imply. Finding himself confronting his inner world and seemingly stuck there, the father breaks down into a primal character showing the only honest transition that Pasolini clearly feels is left open to the bourgeoisie.
These symbols of inner worlds continue on even more so in the final film to be discussed. A year later and Pasolini’s Pigsty (1969) is using it as the final driving force for visual attacks on the petit-bourgeoisie; the last he’d properly make before resorting to more controversial, direct methods in Salò and his Circle of Life series. Pigsty is a film deliberately split into two very different scenarios. One shows the son of a bourgeois post-war industrialist who finds solace in bestiality while the other shows an almost narratively unconnected story of a young cannibal who forms a group and terrorises passing locals before being executed.
The landscape is dramatically different for both stories but reflect that same contrast found in Theorem. Julian, the pig-loving son, inhabits a beautiful country estate full of grotesque characters while the cannibal inhabits the barren land of the previous two films, roaming endlessly. The contrast is unavoidable and very clear as to deliberately draw the resemblances in scenario while ironically clashing two very different, visual stories. Pigsty is a film so clearly full of bile that the brutal landscape of the cannibals becomes strangely refreshing after the stuffy, greasy world of the stately home and it seems a natural end-point in the progression of landscape use in the trilogy of films.
In these three films, Pasolini uses very similar landscapes but for various different effects. Though the imagery more associated with him and his filmography is of course powerful, visceral and almost iconoclastic, there’s something about this complex place that seems to sum Pasolini up more than images of magic realism or limbs and torture. The rocky outback shows a desolate, pessimistic world that is at once subduing and exhilarating to witness; a perfect summation of why Pasolini’s filmmaking is so addictive and endlessly rich.
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