There is Federico Fellini’s Italy, there is Roberto Rossellini’s Italy, there is Vittorio de Sica’s Italy, and then there is Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Italy. Of these, Pasolini’s is the ugliest. No director has painted a bleaker and more powerful portrait of the ugly side of human nature than Pasolini. Anyone who has seen (or half-seen) his Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom will know what I’m talking about. His debut film, Accattone, while not as excessive or self-indulgent as some of his later work, is still quite depressing – I don’t mean this in a negative way – and somehow manages to be as lyrical as some of de Sica’s work.
In Accattone, the men need women more than the women need men, although not for purposes that you would normally expect. The men sit around and indulge in idle gossiping, and occasionally place lame bets like who can swim on a full stomach and come out alive, or what are the chances of someone’s girlfriend turning into a prostitute soon. They believe that work is for animals and hence refuse to be mistreated just like them. So what do they do instead? They treat their women like animals and put them out on the streets. The central character in the story is an entitled pimp called Vittorio “Accattone” Cataldi, played by Italian actor Franco Citti, who appeared in The Godfather and The Godfather-III as Calo, one of Michael Corleone’s loyal henchmen. He exudes raw masculinity and vulnerability in equal measures.
When Accattone’s first girlfriend Maddalena gets arrested for prostitution after getting violently assaulted by a bunch of brutish men, he is dejected and looks for ways to make a fast buck. He has a wife and young son who had left him and now lives with her father. Maddalena was his primary source of income, and now that she is gone, he is on the lookout for his next meal ticket. When he meets a demure virgin girl called Stella, he first seduces her gently and later turns into a prostitute, just as he did with all the others. The interesting thing about Stella is that she becomes one willingly because she knows perfectly well that this is what he wants from her. But unlike his past girlfriends, Stella transforms him, although for a brief period. For him, the thought of doing slavish labor is humiliating, and the lure of his previous life becomes too strong to resist.
The film is quite subversive in that Pasolini never judges his characters. It doesn’t have a hopeful ending, but it’s a perfect resolution for the Accattone character. Pasolini uses the music of Bach to accompany several forlorn moments, and the particular Bach piece that he used here was used later by Martin Scorsese in Casino. And I can see now why Scorsese did that. There are traces of Accattone in several Scorsese films, especially Casino (Sharon Stone played an ex-hooker who is being manipulated by his pimp), Raging Bull (Jake LaMotta and Accattone share similar character traits), and Goodfellas (women being used by men). Also, the relationship between Harvey Keitel and Jodie Foster’s characters in Taxi Driver slightly mirrors that of Accattone and Stella’s.