Accattone, Pier Paolo Pasolini's debut picture (1961), probably had to be made and, indeed, may have been daring and radical in its time. More than fifty years later, the film seems a bit self-indulgent and superfluous. Like Scorsese's early films, particularly Mean Streets, the picture feels confessional, an attempt to use moving pictures as a form of personal memoir. The movie is sprawling, repetitive, but Pasolini is a great director with a great eye and he imparts a bitter poetry to parts of the film. There is a surrealist tendency mostly concealed in Pasolini's neo-realist mise-en-scene and another picture that Accattone resembles is Bunuel's Los Olivados, a movie that is also set in the bleak, sun-burned wasteland at the outskirts of a major city in which dream imagery lurks just below the realistic surface.
When I was a child in the early sixties, my family lived in a suburb of St. Paul and I recall that everything then was under construction. The lane where our houses were located was surrounded by vacant lots where graders and earthmovers were always filling ponds, burying marshes, and making roads so that the foundations of new houses could be set. An enormous freeway was under construction just over the hill, acres and miles of new highway where concrete was always being poured and, at the edges of the freeway, vast malls were being built. The people in my neighborhood were the children of farmers who lived in west Minnesota or had hardscrabble dairy operations in the north woods. Everyone had moved to the Twin Cities within the last decade or so and the suburbs with their pockets of tract housing tucked in valleys and sides of hills under the spanking new water-towers were being built for these new arrivals. Apparently, a similar phenomenon existed in Europe in places like Greece and Rome, urban centers to which a largely agrarian and peasant society had been displaced. Accattone, which means something like "the Scrounger", documents this process. The campagna outside of Rome has been transformed into an enormous and bleak desert of construction sites where poor people live in ruinous clay and brick shelters, dwellings that look like something you might find at Pompeii although less clean and well-kept. On the horizon, great reefs of apartment buildings line the ridges and there are nasty little traffic circles, built around what seem to be Roman or Etruscan tombs, heaps of masonry enshrouded in tattered underbrush where whores ply their trade. There are ruins all around, although it is never clear whether these are ancient or medieval or just the debris of construction undertaken a few weeks earlier. In these badlands, a pimp named Vittorio (and nicknamed Accattone) manages his hapless girlfriend Maddalena. Maddalena has previously informed on another pimp and small-time criminal, Ciccio, who has tried to break her leg in revenge. She lives in a squalid hut with her sister, a kind of dwarf who is always lugging around a three-foot long baby. Accattone is boaster, a loudmouth who can readily be induced to gamble away his earnings -- he takes bets and, at the start of the film, dives off a high bridge into the Tiber to earn a few dollars. Groups of slackers sit around desolate sidewalk cafes bullshitting to pass the time and feral mobs of juvenile delinquents boast about entrapping prostitutes and beating them half to death for fun. Maddalena runs afoul of one of these groups of kids and gets savagely beaten. When she complains to the cops, something goes wrong and she gets sent to prison while her assailants are never charged. Accattone meets another woman, a bottle-washer named Stella. He falls in love with the young girl, a refugee from the country where her mother was a prostitute. Although Accattone expresses devotion to the rather dim-witted and zaftig Stella, his friends predict that he will have her turning tricks in ten days. Sure enough, Accattone browbeats the girl into working as a prostitute. She's inept, however, and the family is threatened with starvation -- Accattone is (sort of) supporting the dwarf and her numerous children including the giant baby. (In much of this film, the characters are literally starving to death -- they are always scheming to get food.) The hero tries to work but is too soft and lazy to succeed at the job. Indeed, as he goes to work, his other slacker friends mock him by saying: "You've got a job. Now, you've become prosaic" triggering a fist fight. At the end of the film, the hero walks around Rome with a couple of small-time criminals searching, we think, for a truck to steal. In fact, the hoods are just trying to snatch food and produce off the truck. They manage to seize a half-dozen salami, but Maddalena has informed on the protagonist and the police are watching. They pursue the criminal who flees on a stolen Vespa, ending up in a wreck in which he dies. The film ends with one of the other hoodlums vainly trying to cross himself while handcuffed as Accattone bleeds out in the gutter. Pasolini was an important Italian poet and he imparts a weird intensity to several scenes -- the picture is never, strictly speaking, completely realistic. Indeed, to use the phrase employed by the movie -- the film is never actually "prosaic." We first see Accattone executing a beautiful swan dive off a high bridge and this image of falling beautifully that seems programmatic for the film. A fight involving the brother of Accattone's ex-wife devolves into men rolling over and over in the dirt, an image very much like the anguished wrestlers in Francis Bacon -- it's intrinsically sexual. When Accattone dreams, he imagines himself led to the gate of a graveyard -- two naked babies stand by the gate, an image that could come out of William Blake. Beyond the wall of the cemetery, a vast barren landscape of mountain and valley extends to the horizon (we seem to have been transported to Sicily) and there is a man digging a grave. Accattone tells the man to dig his grave in a place where it is not so shady and the old peasant obliges. In one scene, Accattone covers his face with wet sand and glares at the camera, an image that combines abject disfigurement (he looks like one of the plaster casts at Pompeii) with defiance. Some of the scenes showing the prostitutes lit by car headlights are very beautiful and the badlands of the construction zones are never less than intensely picturesque. The impression is that of Pasolini's surrealist and poetic imagination at war with his squalid subject matter.