Classic Film Club: 'Accattone'
Each week Tom Huddleston watches a classic film he's never seen before. The rules are simple: each film must be considered a masterpiece and each must be completely new to him. This week: Pier Paolo Pasolini's 'Accattone' (1961)
The eponymous character, named after an Italian slang term for a petty thief, is a lazy, self-involved small-time pimp who prefers to spend his time hanging out with his equally shiftless friends and sponging off his whore Maddalena than actually getting a proper job. But when Maddalena is viciously roughed up by a band of Accattone’s rivals and ends up in jail, he’s forced to look for an alternative source of income. This arrives in the form of Stella, an innocent, unblemished girl who soon becomes drawn into Accattone’s corrupt lifestyle.
Pasolini’s control over his material is exquisite: he develops Accattone as very much the hero of the story, opening with a scene in which the character eats a kilo of potatoes, ‘Cool Hand Luke’ style, then attempts to swim across the Tiber. Fixing on amateur actor Franco Citti’s likeable, hangdog mug, Pasolini sketches his character as something of a folk hero, a rough-diamond proletarian Adonis cast aside by society and forced to fend for himself. Then, by gradual increments, he cuts his character open and shows us the black emptiness inside.
The director pulls no punches in his condemnation of his central figure. Accattone stops at nothing to make his own life easier: he has abandoned his wife and infant son in abject poverty while he lives in relative comfort on Maddalena’s nightly takings. We watch as he romances the innocent Stella, listens intently to her tales of childhood destitution and resentment towards her prostitute mother, and then attempts to put her on the game. The low point comes when he steals the gold chain from around his four-year-old son’s neck and pawns it to buy a pair of decent shoes for Stella’s first night on the job.
But the film never stages an outright attack on Accattone: we’re always encouraged to at least attempt an understanding, to explore the societal, economic and cultural reasons for his self-centred behaviour: post-war depression, social breakdown and peer pressure. And however cruel Accattone’s behaviour becomes, there’s always somebody worse, whether it’s the teenage hoodlums who brag about their random beating of a prostitute or the greasy businessmen who fixate on Stella because she ‘doesn’t look like a whore’.
Aesthetically, the film is a triumph, depicting the rotten heart of Rome's suburban slums in swathes of crumbling concrete and wide streets of cracked stone: even Accattone and Stella’s momentary romantic idyll in a grassy meadow is ringed by blocks of imposing, run-down flats. The only time we see open country is during Accattone’s surrealist death dream, and even this brief glimpse of pastoral beauty is spoiled by the taciturn gravedigger in the foreground. Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli utilises long, roving takes as the characters walk and talk, and stark, invasive close-ups of faces in repose (the cast was sourced entirely from the districts in which Pasolini shot, and it shows). Both these visual techniques later found their way into Godard’s ‘A Bout de Souffle’, which in many other key aspects echoes Pasolini’s film, from it’s surly, lone-wolf hero to a shock ending steeped in religious symbolism (though Godard’s film contains little of the searching, politically motivated integrity of Pasolini’s).
Accattone’s redemption is perhaps inevitable, but even this receives a complex, multilayered treatment. His attempts to work for a living end in ignominy, and lead to a diversion into petty theft. But at least he gives up his attempts to put Stella on the street, and maybe this is triumph enough. Pasolini would dig far deeper into the dark side of human nature, most infamously in his ‘Salo: the 120 Days of Sodom’. But ‘Accattone’ remains a stark, penetrating and affecting study of humanity at its most despicable.
Author: Tom Huddleston
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