Anyone familiar with the work of Pier Paolo Pasolini knows the difficulty that usually accompanies it. A self- declared Communist, though he was always at odds with the Party, a lover of Catholicism despite being an avowed atheist, and openly gay in 1960-70’s Italian culture, Pasolini lived a life marked by contradiction. As you can imagine, this conflicting lifestyle is never more apparent than in his poetry, novels, and films. And his debut novel, The Ragazzi (The Boys), is the perfect introduction.
Written in 1956, The Ragazzi follows the life of Riccetto, and his ragazzi della strada, as they grow up in the Roman slums after World War II. The already poor areas of the city were further impoverished by the then collapsed Italian economy. Though this poverty doesn’t seem to hinder Riccetto and his friends, who get their kicks by stealing from the blind & less fortunate, picking fights, and keeping their eyes peeled for the next piece of tail.
As the ragazzi grow up, there is little hope for moral maturity. Finding themselves in a shady card game a few years after Riccetto’s First Communion, the boys have a run in with the police. Lucky for Riccetto, he is able to escape without a scratch, while the other boy loses his life. The ragazzi decide to attend the funeral service for their late friend, only to ridicule his stupidity for getting caught under their breath, and duck out early.
A few years later, after being released from jail for stealing, Riccetto finds himself back to the joyous life on the street. During a late night romp with a friend, the two ragazzi, now in their early 20’s, encounter an old peasant outside a bar. Though he is poor, Riccetto and his friend believe there might be something they can steal from him anyways. They follow the old man to a nearby field to steal cauliflower. Finding that they have something in common with the old tramp, the three men urinate in the garden as a token of gratification to the farmer.
As the novel comes to a close, it’s obvious that these men, still merely ragazzi, have no direction or goals. Pasolini illustrates this by his vicious vignettes, portraying Riccetto and his friends as products of their environment, and proud of it. In fact, he opens the novel by quoting a popular song, “Under the Mazzini monument.” Reading the novel, we question who the main character truly is – the prowling Riccetto or decadent Rome?
“Nadia was stretched out on the sand, motionless, her face full of hatred for the sun, the wind, the sea, and all those people who had come to the beach like an army of flies on a cleared table. Thousands of them, from Battistini to the Lido, from the Lido to Marechiaro, from Marechiaro to Principe, from Principe to l’Ondina, lying alongside dozens of bathhouses, some on their backs some on their bellys–but those were mostly old people. As for the young ones, the males, wearing drooping drawers or else tight trunks that showed off what was underneath, and the females, those show-offs, in tight, tight swimming suits with their hair streaming—all of them were walking up and down ceaselessly, as if they had nervous tics. They were calling to one another, yelling, shrieking, playing practical jokes, playing games, going in and out of the bathhouses, calling to the attendents. There was even a band of young boys from Trastevere, wearing Mexican hats and playing accordion, guitar, and maracas in front of the bathhouse; and their sambas blended with the rumbas on the Marechairo loudspeaker, reverberating off the sea. Nadia was lying there amid all that racket, wearing a black bathing suit, and showing a lot of hair, black as the devils, in sweaty coils under her arms, and the hair of her head was also coal-black, and her eyes were glaring murderously. “
By no means does Pasolini make it easy for us in The Ragazzi. Much like his literary adaptations of Boccacio’s The Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the characters in the novel weave in-and-out on a poetical whimsy. Though he technically predates Gruppo ’63, the leading art group in the Modernist inspired neovanguardia, (which birthed writers Umberto Eco and Amelia Roselli), Pasolini seems to follow their dogma of “literature as a plaything.” This emphasis on the non-significanza leaves us traversing through the decrepit Roman slums in The Ragazzi, catching up with our characters when they choose to make themselves known:
“The other boy climbed up on the cart too, and stretched out on the second armchair, with his hands on the seat of his pants. ‘Christ,’ he said, ‘I’m dying. I haven’t eaten since yesterday. ‘ But just then in all the hubbub, two long whistles sounded from the end of the bridge. Recognizing the sound, the boys lying on the armchairs turned halfway round, and where trolley tracks curved at the end of the Portonaccio plaza, tacking swiftly among the cars and buses lining up for the bridge, they saw two other loafers coming along, pushing a cart and sweating. Besides whistling, they yelled and gestured at the two on the armchairs. They came up, their cart full of refuse, stinking like a sewer. They were all rags and dirt, with two inches of dust and sweat on their faces, but their hair was as neatly combed as if they had just left the barbershop. One of them was a slim, dark boy, handsome even in all that dirt, with coal black eyes and fine round cheeks a color between olive and pink. The other fellow had reddish hair and a swollen freckled face. ‘Since when are you hearding sheep, cousin?’ the boy in the black shirt asked the handsome boy, not shifting an inch from his position, sprawled on the armchair with his hands on his belly and the butt sticking to his lower lip. ‘F— you, Ricce,’ said the other. Riccetto-for it was the little bastard himself-wrinkled his brow meaningfully, tucking his chin into his throat with a know-it-all look.“
Pasolini familiarized himself with these rough-and-tumble ragazzi when he first moved to Rome, an experience he recounts in the documentary* Pasolini the Fanatic, considering the slums, “concentration camps built for poor people.” Though he seems to deface the lower class depicted in the novel, Pasolini, true to his lifestyle, loved them as well. Vehemently opposing the consumerism that ran through Italy, citing it as a continued form of Fascism, The Ragazzi was originally written in Roman dialect, which had virtually disappeared. “Change in technique is essence of opposition. Renouncing literature, that is (written in) the imposed (Tuscan) language, I gave up my Italian nationality.”
You wouldn’t be alone disagreeing with Pasolini. On its publication, The Ragazzi was censored by the Christian Democratic government for obscenity and also condemned by the Communists for lack of positive heroes and perspective. This repudiation, on both sides, appears a precedent that would remain throughout the author’s career. But it’s difficult not to admire the writer and filmmaker who fought for the culture he loved. Living through the terrors of Fascism, followed by the conformity of consumerism, Pasolini was a rebel through and through.
Pasolini was killed in 1975 after being run over with his own car by Guiseppe Pelosi, a 17 year hustler. At the time, there were rumors of a right wing plot against Pasolini, but these were disposed of after Pelosi confessed. In 2005, Pelosi retracted his confession, citing that he faced the pressure of violence to his family and that three men actually killed Pasolini for his political views. Sergio Citti, a close friend and actor in many of his films, believed the murderers to be extortionists who had stolen reels of Salo. Whoever Says the Truth Shall Die, a documentary about the death of Pasolini, investigates these details better than I can.
Today we associate Pasolini primarily with his scathing last film Salo, which is a disappointment because he has so much more to offer.
“The love I have for humanity, and the history its created from its psychology – because you know destiny is a product of psychology, was enough for me to become an artist.”
*If you would like a copy of this documentary, because StageVu has horrible lag, let me know.