Pier Paolo Pasolini’s first film is a portrait of young males in a Roman slum. Its aim isn’t to contextualize poverty but to describe the pervasive mood of a subculture, one of meager opportunities, cynicism and despair. The title character, ferociously and at times lyrically played by Franco Citti, pimps Maddalena, whose arrest by the police divests him of income, sending him into a downward spiral. Eventually he resorts to petty crime. He dies as anonymously as he lived.
Pasolini based this remarkable film on his novel A Violent Life, where the protagonist is a homosexual rather than a pimp; the substitution suits and deepens the material. It is silly and heartless to insist that the boy might do more to lift himself up. As with Gregory LaCava’s Primrose Path (1940), with which this film has much in common, we see while watching it how environment and personal despair feed one another and how that environment sucks Vittorio Accattone in. In a way any “way out” for him is impossible; he is mired in the whole atmosphere and process of his hopeless existence. He tells Stella, the innocent peasant with whom he falls in love, upon meeting her, “You’re lucky not to know things.” Vittorio knows too many things.
Gut-wrenching: the scene in which watching his toddler play in the dirt (Accattone abandoned wife and infant), out of his son’s earshot he apologizes aloud for being a bum. With Citti in the role, there is nothing rhetorical about the moment; it is bone-deep and soul-shaking.
The bursts of Bach on the soundtrack are intended as ironic counterpoint to the film’s desperate, messy lives—a reflection on the order and beauty missing there. This music doesn’t work, coming off instead as a bone to the culture-vultures.
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