In the aftermath of the 2010 World Cup, the writer Terry Eagleton proclaimed in the pages of The Guardian that “if every right-wing think tank came up with a scheme to distract the populace from political injustice and compensate them for lives of hard labour, the solution in each case would the same: football.” To others, football can be viewed not as a distraction from the day to day realities of the lives of working people, but rather as a mirror held up to it, and as a joyous pursuit central to their emancipation. The game has had no intellectual champion quite like Pier Paolo Pasolini, the dynamic Italian film director, poet, novelist, Marxist intellectual and more besides.
Born in 1922, the formative years of Pasolini’s youth were spent in Bologna, a city where tennis was the favoured game of the privileged, but soccer dominated among the working and middle classes. The love of the game was installed from youth, with Pasolini later recalling that “the afternoons I spent playing football – we used to play for seven or eight hours without stopping – were undoubtedly the best of my life. It almost makes me want to cry, if I think about it.”
Comizi d’amore, or Love Meetings, is one of Pasolini’s greatest works. With microphone in hand, the director, long established as a figure who challenged orthodoxy, proceeded to quiz his fellow countrymen and women at length about sex. It was a subject Pasolini never shied away from, but in 1960s Italy it could still raise plenty of eyebrows. Amongst those interviewed are poets, psychologists, journalists and footballers from Bologna F.C. To Pasolini, interviewing footballers from his beloved side was a natural decision. Football, to him, was a fundamentally important part of life, Italian culture and his own identity. There could be no fully rounded view of society that did not include footballers. Much like the Trinidadian intellectual CLR James saw cricket – the game he loved – as instrinctly linked to life beyond it, to Pasolini football was a prism through which to view the wider world. CLR James asked readers “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”
Pasolini’s screen work often dealt with the underbelly of Italian society; Mamma Roma saw actress Anna Magnani play the role of a prostitute on the edges of society in Rome, Accattone is likewise dominated by the themes of prostitution and crime in a city more synonymous to the outside world with a beautiful architectural tradition than poverty and slumdom. When living in the shadow of Via Donna Olimpia, and its cramped working class housing conditions, Pasolini would spend hours playing football with local youths. One later recalled that “When Pier Paolo was here, we all knew him, he was one of us. He did what we did. He came and he studied us.”
Pasolini tried to understand the game of football, both as it was played on the streets and as it was played professionally, maintaining that Europeans played football in prose, and Brazilians in poetry. As Paolo Demuru has noted, “Pasolini argued that football is an authentic semiotic system, which frames and expresses culture as a whole – so that different cultures play football in different ways.” To Pasolini, football was almost its own language, and “the ciphers of this language are the players, we, in the stands, are the decrypters: so we share a code in common.” Still, it was the game on concrete that fascinated him as much if not more than the professional sport, and soccer exists in his novels, in particular his first novel Ragazzi di Vita, as a form of escapism and communal bonding for those trapped by poverty.
Pasolini’s obsession with the beautiful game made it a feature of time spent shooting his work, as kickabouts were encouraged among those working on the set. Famously, while shooting Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom near Parma in the early months of 1975, Pasolini became aware that the director Bernardo Bertolucci was shooting his own latest work, 1900, nearby. The casts of both films faced each other, with the 53 year old Pasolini leading his side, playing under the name 120, against the 1900 cast, which included a young Robert De Niro. Pasolini’s team lined out in the shirts of Bologna FC, but were ultimately defeated 5-2. It was to prove one of his final matches.
Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered on 2 November 1975, the circumstances of his death remaining disputed and controversial. Living openly as a homosexual man from the beginnings of his career, he is said to have been killed by a rentboy. Guiseppe Pelosi, then seventeen, was arrested for the crime. Pasolini’s body, run over several times by a car and badly beaten, was discovered near the beach at Ostia, Rome. Incredibly, in 2015 Pelosi retracted his confession, instead maintaining that Pasolini had been murdered in his presence by men who proclaimed him a “dirty communist” and “queer”, pointing towards local fascists as the real culprits. It was a time of real and sustained fascist violence against political opponents in Italian life. Other theories exist too. Regardless of how he met his end, as his coffin lay waiting for burial, his close friend Sergio Citti wrapped a football jersey around his coffin, knotting the sleeves to its handles. It was a fitting tribute to a mind which proclaimed that “football is the last sacred ritual of our time.”
Donal Fallon writes for Come Here To Me, a group blog that focuses on the life and culture of Dublin City. Music, history, football, politics and pubs all feature. www.comeheretome.com