My Accattone on TV after the genocide

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By Pier Paolo Pasolini

Originally published as ‘Il mio Accattone in Tv dopo il genocidio’, in Corriere della Sera, 8 October 1975. This particular version was published in the collection ‘Lutheran Letters’, translated by Stuart Hood.

Accattone can be seen in laboratory terms as a specimen of a way of life, that is to say, of a culture. Looked at in this way it is an interesting phenomenon for a researcher but a tragic phenomenon for anyone directly involved; for me, for example, who am its author.
When Accattone came out – although we were at the beginning of what was called a ‘boom’, a word that makes us smile, like ‘belle epoque’ or ‘streamlining’, we were in another age.
A repressive age. In the fifties nothing had changed that had characterized Italy in the forties, and even earlier. The continuity between the Fascist regime and the Christian Democrat regime was still perfect. In Accattone there are two striking examples of that continuity: first, the segregation of the sub-proletariat in a condition of marginality where everything was different, and second, the pitiless, criminal, uncontrolled violence of the police.
On this second point we are all agreed and there is no point in wasting words on it. In fact, part of the police is still like that – one need only go to Madrid or Barcelona to see our old acquaintances in all their squalid splendour.
On the other hand, a lot could be written on the first point because in 1961 when Accattone appeared, no middle-class person knew exactly what the urban sub-proletariat (and specifically the Roman sub-proletariat) was and how it lived. And in 1975, the year when Accattone was shown on television, no middle-class person yet knew exactly what that sub-proletariat had been and what that sub-proletariat is like today. I find myself explaining and arguing at one and the same time, that all middle-class persons are, in fact, fascist, always, everywhere and to whatever party they belong.
In 1961 for the first time Accattone unleashed explicit phenomena of ‘racism’ in Italy. Hence the ferocious ‘persecution’ of myself and of poor – sub-proletarian – Franco Citti. But today, in 1975, things are not much different. ‘Racism’ in a confrontation or clash with the sub-proletariat always comes out explicitly; it emerges from that lethargy and that sense of power which determine (all the more rigidly for being unconscious) the middle-class idea of existence and existence itself.
In 1961 the bourgeoisie saw evil in the sub-proletariat in exactly the same way as American racists saw it in the world of the negro. And at that time, incidentally, the sub-proletanat were to all intents and purposes ‘negroes'; their ‘culture’ – an excluslve culture within a wider one which was in its turn exclusive, the peasant culture of the South – gave the Roman sub-proletariat not only original psychological traits but completely original physical traits as well. It created a real ‘race’. The fIlm-goer of today can certify this by looking at the characters in Accattone. None of them – I repeat for the thousandth time – was an actor; in so far as each one was himself. His reality was represented by his reality. Those ‘bodies’ were like those in real life as well as on the screen.
Their culture which was so profoundly different that it created nothing more nor less than a ‘race’, gave the Roman subproletarians a morality and a philosophy of a dominated class, which the ruling class confined Itself to ‘dominating’ without any attempt to evangelize it, that is to say, to force it to absorb the ruling class’s own ideology (which m the case in point was a repellent and purely formal Catholicism).
Left to itself for centuries, that is to say, to Its own immobility, that culture had elaborated values and models of behaviour which were absolute. Nothing could question them. As in all popular cultures the ‘sons’ recreated the fathers – took their place, replicated them: this is something which constitutes the sense of ‘caste’ which we in a racist manner and with such contemptuous Eurocentric nationalism, take pleasure in condemning. There was therefore never any internal revolution inside that culture. Values and models passed immutably from father to son. Yet, there was a curious regeneration. It was sufficient to observe their language (which no longer exists); it was continually invented, although the lexical and grammatical models were always the same. There was not a single moment of the day within the circle of districts which made up an immense plebeian metropolis when a linguistic invention did not echo through the streets or in the fights; a sign that this was a living culture.
In Accattone all this is faithfully reproduced (and one sees It above all if one reads Accattone in a certain way that excludes the presence of my gloomy aestheticism). Between 1961 and 1975 something essential changed: a genocide took place. A whole population was culturally destroyed. And it is a questIon precisely of one of those cultural genocides which preceded the physical genocides of Hitler. If I had taken a long journey and had returned after several years, walking through the ‘grandiose plebeian metropolis’ I would have had the impression that all its inhabitants had been deported and exterminated, replaced in the streets and blocks of houses by washed-out, ferocious, unhappy ghosts. Hitler’s SS, in fact. The young boys, deprived of their values and their models as if of their blood, have become ghostly copies of a different way and concept of life – that of the middle class.
If I wanted to reshoot Accattone today I would be unable to do so. I could not find a single young man who in his ‘body’ was even faintly like the young men who played themselves in Accattone. I could not find a single youth able to say those lines with that voice. Not only would he not have the spirit and the mentality to say them, he would quite simply not understand them. He would have to do the same as a Milanese lady reading Ragazzi di vita or Una vita violenta – that is, consult the glossary. And finally even the pronunciation has changed (Italians have never been phonologists and we must assume that on this point a dense and final mystery will descend).
The characters of Accattone were all thieves or robbers or people who lived from day to day; it was a film, in short, about the underworld. Naturally it was also surrounded by the world of the people of the working-class quarters, possibly implicated in the conspiratorial silence of criminals but fundamentally working
normally (for a miserable wage – see Sabino, Accattone’s brother). But as an author and as an Italian citizen I did not by any means pass a negative judgment on those characters from the criminal underworld; all their defects seemed to me to be human defects which were pardonable as well as being socially perfectly justifiable: the defects of men who obey a scale of values different from that of the bourgeoisie, that is to say, men who as I have said were totally themselves.
In fact they are enormously sympathetic characters; outside the framework of bourgeois sentimentalities it is difficult to imagine people as sympathetic as those of the world of Accattone, that is of the sub-proletarian and proletarian culture of Rome up to ten years ago. The genocide has removed those characters from
the face of the earth. In their place there are their understudies, who as I have already had occasion to say, are by contrast the most hateful people in the world.
That is why I said that Accattone, viewed as a sociological report, cannot but be a tragic phenomenon.
Does the reader require proof of what I am saying? Well, If he does not know the working-class quarters of Rome (imagine!) let him try reading the news in the papers. These ‘criminals’ are no monsters. They are products of an ambiance with criminal tendencies just as the criminals of Accattone were the products with criminal tendencies of an environment; but what a dIfference between the two environments.
I would be an idiot to generalize; my paradoxicality is merely formal. Certainly half, and more than half, of the young people who live in the working-class quarters of Rome or, in short, within the Roman proletariat or sub-proletariat, are honest as far as criminal records go. They are clever boys too, but they are no longer sympathetic. They are sad, neurotic, full of petty bourgeois anxiety; they are ashamed of being workers; they try to imitate the well-off kids. It is the latter today who are the guiding models.
Let the reader compare people like the neo-Fascists from Parioli who carried out the terrible murder in a villa at Circeo and those like the youth from the working-class district of Torpignattara who killed a driver by splitting open his head on the tarmac; while being different on two social levels these people are identical but the former – those well-heeled kids who were mocked and despised by the boys from the working-class quarters, who considered them to be pitiful nonentities; whereas they were proud of what they themselves were – are the models of their ‘culture’ (which provided them with gestures, mimicry, words behaviour, knowledge, criteria).
Today the papers throw the blame on the inhabitants of Parioli (privileging them incidentally through their interest). But if the neo-Fascists of Parioli have not won, yet the inhabitants of Parioli have done so. At the same time the papers note (with a few years delay) that ‘the Roman underworld has turned nasty’. But the papers are the accomplices of politicians and politicians are completely out of touch with reality.
Recently a ‘moderate’ journalist on a powerful bourgeois paper and an authoritative leading member of the PCI, while they argued with me on various levels, each made the same incredible mistake. For both of them, that is to say, the ‘defects’ which were exhibited in my narrative and film work of fifteen years ago seem to them to be presented ‘negatively'; which implies on my part an attitude of obvious, natural condemnation – an attitude which is theirs.
So unconsciously are they racist that the suspicion does not even begin to occur to them that I might see these defects as elements of a ‘good’ or at least of a cultural reality, which was what it was but was also life and directed towards life. And both see as a case of sad coherence my explicitly and violently negative attitude towards the boys of the working-class quarters of today. Refusing to see any thing real in my radical reversal of Judgment on the sub-proletariat (which for me implies a personal tragedy), they refuse to admit in substance a reality which concerns the whole country; that is to say, the radical and objective destruction of the world of the dominated classes. They do not admit the fait accompli of the genocide. They cannot do other than believe in progress: tout va bien.
Moreover, all those who reproach me for my vision of everything that is Italy today a vision which is catastrophic because it is total (if only from the anthropological point of view) – compassionately mock me because I do not take into consideration that consumerist materialism and criminality are phenomena which are spreading throughout the capitalist world and not only through Italy. Miserable, dishonest and stupid that they are, is it possible that the thought does not pass vaguely through their heads that in those other countries where this plague is spreading there are compensations which, to some degree, re-establish the equilibrium?
In New York, Paris and London there are fierce and dangerous criminals (almost all – surprise! – coloured or almost coloured); but hospitals, schools, homes, asylums, museums, experimental cinemas, all function perfectly. Unity, acculturation, centralization, took place in a very different way. Marx was a witness of their genocides more than a century ago. That such genocides are taking place today in Italy substantially changes their historical nature. Accattone and his friends went silently towards deportation and the final solution, perhaps even laughing at their warders. But what about us, the bourgeois witnesses?