After French actor Pierre Clémenti died, cult author Dennis Cooper lovingly dedicated a blog to the androgynous and perverse poster boy of 1960s European art cinema. One of the motivations Cooper gave for his tribute was simply because the Bardot lipped, doe-eyed Clémenti is “what beauty looks like.” After recently seeing the Pier Paolo Pasolini film Accattone (1961) for the first time, for me the equivalent of “what beauty looks like” is closer to the Italian actor Franco Citti. (OK, Alain Delon figures in there somewhere too). Citti is of a similar vintage to Clémenti (who of course worked with Pasolini himself) but of an entirely different, butch-er and swarthier type.
Accattone represents the film debut of both the great uncompromising Italian auteur Pasolini (who wrote and directed it) and neophyte 26-year old leading man Citti. In the Italian Neo-Realist tradition, Pasolini cast his films with non-professional actors. Pasolini certainly struck gold with Citti, who he’d go on to use in several subsequent films. Accattone entirely centres on Citti’s astonishingly natural performance and charismatic physical presence. As writer Judy Bloch has pointed out, his “rough-hewn beauty is like a slap in the face.”
I actually saw Pasolini’s second film, Mamma Roma (1962) before Accattone. (I love Mamma Roma slightly more than Accattone simply because it features a lacerating performance from the volcanic Anna Magnani, the earth mother / she-wolf of Italian cinema. Citti pops up in Mamma Roma too – again playing a pimp as he does in Accattone, this time with a sleazy little moustache). Both Accattone and Mamma Roma firmly share the same sensibility as Luis Bunel’s Los Olvidados (1950): they’re devastating politicised studies of how grinding poverty defines peoples’ lives and their options.
Anna Magnani, the great tragedienne of Italian cinema, in Pasolini's Mamma Roma (1962)
Pasolini in conversation with Anna Magnani during the filming of Mamma Roma (1962)
Pasolini was fascinated and inspired by the uncorrupted and marginalised peasant culture of the cafone (the Italian equivalent of hillbillies; in English subtitles, when characters in Accattone and Mamma Roma argue their insult of choice is frequently translated as “hick”, which seems to be a scathing put-down). This is the milieu of Accattone, depicting the underclass of pimps, prostitutes and thieves struggling for survival in the post-war borgate (slum or shanty town) outside of central Rome. (Accattone, like Mamma Roma, was filmed in the Pigneto district – one of my favourite, most atmospheric neighbourhoods of Rome. At the time Pigneto would have been a slum. It’s been gentrified considerably since these films were made, but for me Pigneto is still haunted by Accattone and Mamma Roma and the ghost of Pasolini).
Citti plays the film’s anti-hero, a sullen young pimp. He’s named Vittorio but everyone calls him “Accattone” (Roman slang for beggar or scrounger). Accattone and his gang of lay-about friends reject work for a life of sponging, hustling and pimping -- and who can blame them, when the film implies the only alternative would be back-breaking hard physical labour at starvation wages anyhow? “Work?” Accattone howls, incredulous, at one point. “Animals work!”
At first you think how brave Pasolini is to base a film around such a callous, amoral and unsympathetic character, especially when you see how abusive Accattone is towards his dim-witted whore Maddalena and realise he has a wife and young child he’s abandoned. So Accattone is a prick, but as portrayed by Franco Citti he's a sexy and compelling prick. And as the film progresses we see chinks of despair, self-loathing and stoical suffering in Accattone -- revealed mostly wordlessly through Citti’s soulful expression and sorrowful hooded eyes. One of Citti’s best moments is after his brother in law kicks the snot out of him, while the entire extended family and neighbours cheer him on. With jeers of, “Pappone!” ("Pimp!") ringing in his ears, the battered Accattone makes his abject walk of shame home; we alone see the dejected expression on his face. It’s a heart-wrenching moment.
Seen today, Accattone is still viciously hard-edged and unsentimental. Men beat whores for the sheer sport of it, and because they can. Cartagine (a rat-faced, feral teenaged psychopath and one of Accattone’s partners in crime) brags in a bar about how the night before he and his friends assaulted a prostitute. “What a beating! You should have seen us,” he laughs. “How she begged us!”
(An aside: one of the prostitutes (Margheritona) is played by actress Adriana Moneta, who's like someone out of Fellini's Le notti di Cabiria (1957). She’s instantly recognisable as Ninni, the prostitute who gets picked up by a slumming Marcello Mastroainni and Anouk Aimee in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960). According to IMDb, these were her only two film credits – if true, her filmography may be modest but she can claim to have played the archetypal earthy, tough but good-natured Roman prostitute for two of Italian cinema’s great maestros).
Marcello Mastroianni, Adriana Moneta and Anouk Aimée in La Dolce Vita (1960)
Pasolini ennobles the struggles of his characters while never romanticising their poverty. (To his credit, he’s never guilty of poverty chic or poverty porn). These are people who are genuinely at risk of going hungry, who are reduced to stealing and selling their father’s false teeth in order to eat; it’s shown as virtually inevitable that a pretty girl will turn to prostitution. Accattone is simultaneously squalid and lyrically beautiful. What Pasolini does do is elevate the harsh, grinding suffering of the impoverished cafone to the level of operatic high tragedy in beautifully composed shots that evoke Renaissance paintings, with classical music swelling on the soundtrack. When Maddalena is driven to a deserted wasteland and savagely beaten by some vengeful Neapolitan henchmen of her previous pimp, Bach soars on the soundtrack as the camera observes her lying like a broken doll on the ground, swooping down on her abandoned handbag and a solitary shoe.
Maddalena is played by Silvana Corsini, presumably another non-professional actor. Pasolini obviously liked her, as she would later play Bruna, the town tramp with fuzzy arm pits who seduces Anna Magnani’s teenaged son in Mamma Roma. Information about Corsini is scarce: maybe she was simply a pretty local girl and Pasolini liked her face, but Corsini has an interesting screen presence and is exceptional at suggesting credulous, slightly uncomprehending not particularly bright child-women. After Maddalena’s assault, there is a memorable scene in the police station where the local thugs and pimps are brought in for her to try to identify her attackers. A true connoisseur of firm Mediterranean male flesh, Pasolini’s camera lingers over the handsome criminals’ tough insolent faces in loving close-ups. In retrospect, you can’t help but shudder and recall Pasolini was murdered by a psychotic teenaged rent boy in 1972 - if they represent his ideal type, Pasolini certainly paid the consequences.
The subtitles are in French for this clip, unfortunately
From the start, it’s hinted that Accattone painfully recognises the futility of his life and harbours a death wish. We see funeral processions, premonitions of death, and nightmares about impending death. “Either the world kills me, or I’ll kill it!” Accattone wails towards the end of the film. One guess who wins that challenge. Suffice to say, the film ends with a character exhaling, “Ah, now I’m fine ...” with cruel irony, while someone else stands over them making the sign of the cross with handcuffs on their wrists.
A drunk Accattone with tears running down his face