Insights- Fighting Back with Contamination: Pier and Pierre

Our material world is defined and solidified by the movements of capital. In Pierre Bourdieu’s article “The Forms of Capital” he argues that capital crafts the “games of society”. All of our interactions, with objects, persons, or otherwise are concerned and comprised around our own personal capital accumulation (or lack there of) and the way in which we choose to exercise it’s use. He does not spell out a solution for the phenomenon of social and cultural capital but merely states the ways in which they exist and the methods persisting that make certain power, influence, will is retained in a hegemony of wealth in the hands of the few.

Social and cultural capital, and their desirability are established by those with the most exclusive access to its finest materials. Our access to certain standards force us into our capital circles, for example, yacht owners hang out with other yacht owners, those who can afford private school receive better education which lead to increased opportunities, having rich friends provides comfort and ease to leisure activities but those people can often only be met if someone is of a similar income. Bourdieu argues the underlying structure of our world is formed by interactions based around the exchange of capital.

Pier Paolo Pasolini was a novelist, philosopher, poet, activist, and most prominently a filmmaker in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Pasolini’s films were often distinctly sexual and provocative in a way few filmmakers could attest to, no one had the ability to ignite the tempers of both the intellectual right and left as Pasolini. He was a noted student of Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, the influence of Gramsci’s work with cultural hegemony, historicity, and championing of consciousness for the proletariat had an undeniable impact on Pasolini’s work, but his semi-secret life as a homosexual man kept him from falling to easily under any labels as Italian Marxists often didn’t claim him as one of their members due to their homophobia.

His work is his own, difficult to equate to any filmmakers at the time or since, some have compared his filmmaking to that of the Italian neorealists, which seems a lazy assumption based on race and perhaps a collaboration with Fellini, because surely his work is too romantic, heady and occasionally cynical to be saddled with the baggage of that title. He films prostitutes, beggars, murderers, pimps, pedophiles, adulterers, bored monks, horny nuns and marxist crows as if they were saints.

In “The Forms of Capital” Bourdieu outlines the structures comprising our daily lives: the realm of cultural and social capital affirm, reaffirm and ultimately define our positions in society. Pasolini’s The Decameron, an adaptation of Giovanni Boccaccio’s seminal collection of 14th century Italian stories, aimed to destabilize this realm, this covering over of the culture of the proletariat which Pasolini would argue is a culture more honest, more true and perhaps more beautiful than that of the hegemony curated by the bourgeoisie. Pasolini’s The Decameron offers a comical, joyful, playful vision of youthful sexuality, subverting many of our assumptions about renaissance society, dangling the possibility that these characters may been more liberated than we because innocence could still exist, persisted and was celebrated. It had not yet been regulated to another form of capital but existed outside the realm of material exchange.

Following the receptive public and cold critical reaction to The Decameron and Pasolini’s following trilogy (Trilogy of Life encompasses The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and, Arabian Nights, all resounding commercial successes as far as Pasolini’s overall career is concerned), the creator turned towards the present state of bodies while loosely adapting another classic work of Latin literature Dante’s Divine Comedy resulting in 1975’s Salò, Or the 120 Days of Sodom. Pasolini adapts these staples of world literature in an uncompromising and original execution, he reclaims them for the working class through language, performance, tradition and storytelling. Pasolini captured the degradation of substance, attempting to contaminate the forms of capital with the very freedoms it stripped from the masses: love, truth, clarity. The forms once innocent, can never be again, the history of capital cannot be undone, sexuality, food, art, revolution, morality are now reduced to mere tools of corporate fascism, of which we ourselves are its victims and proprietors.

Pasolini was no stranger to adaptation with The Decameron as he had already translated for the screen not only major works of literature in, Oedipus Rex, Medea, and The Gospel of St. Matthew but he also further explored his own published literary works in Accattone and Teorema. For The Decameron, however, Pasolini reworks Boccaccio’s stories, muddying their structure and doing away with their framework.

In the original story a group of seven young women and three men attempt to escape the Black Plague ravaging their city and take refuge in the countryside for two weeks. They entertain themselves by telling tales. Over the course of Boccaccio’s text the ten refugees tell one-hundred stories, ten of which Pasolini employs in the film. The other half of the film is composed of ten original episodes inspired by Boccaccio’s tone and style, written by Pasolini himself. In Boccaccio’s version, a leader is chosen for the day to curate the stories around a certain topic of their desire.


One of the primary functions of Boccaccio’s work was not only to reflect on the current state of his time, the plague, religion, sexuality, but also to establish the virtues and ethics surrounding these topics for the coming generations, which for Boccaccio (and Dante) was the renaissance. These writers created immensely popular works that have been read and taught for centuries, not only as items of cultural significance, but much like the bible, became objects of moral foundation. Both the Divine Comedy and The Decameron are taught in private schools, higher learning institutions, taught to the few who dictate the needs of the many. This was particularly true of Pasolini’s era, as there was a stark gap in the education of the Neapolitan farmers he grew up around opposed to the wealthy bourgeois families he depicts in Teorema. If these same affluent children are reading these stories, internalizing their moral guidelines and proliferating them, there must be something corrupt if we have found ourselves in this current society of extreme disparity and division.

Pasolini if anything, reads The Decameron as an ode to the origins of the Italian elite that also belongs to them, “… he will use this text, ironically, to tear cinema away from the bourgeoisie, which has lost its ascendency as a historical force”. Pasolini’s The Decameron is an attempt to wrestle these texts out of the hands of the few and disseminate them back to the people whom the tales are about, the peasants, swindlers, youths, love-makers. The bonds of the forms of capital can be shattered only if we seek to take back the works from their perceived labels and pretensions by means of contaminating the original.


This contamination is a process of inclusion and exclusion, negating the intent of foundational novels, opposing their essential thesis, in order to reach more relevant truths with grander implications for our current existence in post-late-capitalist society, “…a devotedly antagonistic, as it were, cinematic imitato of the original”. Prior to an analysis of the content of contaminating an adaptation is the form, Pasolini furthers his inquiry into form by altering the language of Boccaccio’s text. This is most apparent in a scene where an elderly man sits in the streets reading to a crowd from Boccaccio’s The Decameron he quickly becomes frustrated with the flowery Tuscan dialect and throws the book aside speaking in his native Neapolitan language. If the forms of capital have any power which helps them to retain their divisive nature, their greatest tool is language, the language of the rich and of the poor may as well be taught as two separate classes, in some socioeconomic circumstances they are.

This scene has a meta-commentary undercurrent, in the spirit of the Dirty Projectors Rise Above rendition of the Black Flag album of the same name, Pasolini and this storyteller preaching to a crowd are recounting these tales from memory rather than the page, giving their creative license, new affirmative power over the original forms. This awakened authority begins with language, returning these stories to the people who comprise the content diminishes their stature as documents dictating the behavior of the masses and reemphasizes them as methods of expression, even revolution for the proletariat.

The most crucial indictment of the influential falsehoods concerned with the forms of capital are in the story of Ciappelletto, a murderer, thief and pedophile who finds himself dying in a town where no one knows him after being expelled from another town for rape, forgery and the aforementioned murder. He protects himself from these crimes by participating as a brute debt collector, the debtors often as conniving and vile as he. The film opens with him bludgeoning an unknown character, presumably a debtor, before throwing their body off of a ledge.

When he arrives in this foreign village Ciappelletto is gravely-ill, he’s well aware that these are his last moments for the world, he sends for a priest to absolve him of all his evil sins. Much of the comedy of this scene comes from the audience waiting to hear an honest confession from Ciappelletto in the eyes of his savior, instead he lies, filling the priests ears with an image of an honest, meek, frail and wholesome individual.

With this testimony the priest is brought to tears, blessing this man as a saint in the eyes of God. Ciappelletto dies only to have the church hold a massive funeral procession that raises him to the heights of sainthood. In life Ciappelletto suffered persecution, exile, he is bisexual, poor, ugly and lazy, he’s never been wanted anywhere. In death, however, he is made holy, not only redeemed in his lying but exalted. Whereas Dineo, one of the refugee-storytellers of Boccaccio’s Decameron insists that “the obscenity of his tales is a function of his obedience”, Ciapelletto’s obedience in death is a product of his obscenity in life.

Image result for the decameron ciappelletto PASOLINI

The forms of capital are flimsy, bias and irrational if a man like Ciappelletto is able to reach such pillars of esteem. What strength other than maintaining a hegemony do the forms really have? Are the words of the church, governments in all their conglomerated wealth really enough to uphold goodness? This line of questioning is akin to that of Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux; Ciappelletto and Verdoux may be ghastly, frightful men in their own regards but they are merely products of human nature reacting to a ghastly, frightful world around them. They harbor only a fraction of the malice that the cruel leaders of our world contain, for Ciappelletto it was kings and queens, for Chaplin the Hitler’s, McCarthy’s, the bankers, for Pasolini it was the capitalist, unwavering and ruthless who differed little from the fascist in their desire for total control. Ciappelletto manipulates the accepted moral exercises of society, social and cultural capital are malleable not only in their content but in their application to the individual, Ciappelletto understands that the material of capital is perhaps far less important than the perceived nobility or convenience of action within its stated bounds. He mimics Boccaccio’s intent while subverting it:

“Boccaccio offers an image of a self-regulating society, which articulates its own rules of comportment, and in which power is identified with, or is derived from, the delimitation of the sayable, the act of imposing a frame upon the field of narrative possibilities: the act of exclusion.”


Ciappelletto has excluded the truth of his own existence and in doing so has achieved the ultimate vindication, in denial he has achieved redemption.

The prevailing triumphant force in the story of Ciappelletto is innocence, a society so lovingly gullible as to be convinced of his purity is one corrupted by a set of ideals, yet unadulterated by another, “…the portrayal of a late-medieval Italian society in ideological and economic crisis, as found in the Decameron, becomes an allegory of late-capitalist society”. The future awaiting them was one that Boccaccio and the Decameron helped establish, the Italian aristocracy which collapsed into dictatorship and finally into capitalism. Innocence during this age persists and has such weight that art and sex prevail over almost every conflict, theological, financial or otherwise.

“The transactions of all the participants in this story, except for the priest-confessor, involve the lending or changing of money, the charging of interest: usury, a practice where money, obviously, is not identical to itself, literal denotative; if this were so then loans would supply no gains for lenders. This practice, furthermore, as Marx describes it in Capital, presupposes the abstraction of money from products of use values. That is usury entails a distancing of currency from the values it once was supposed to reflect.”

Pasolini chose to cherish the products of capital in an effort to distance the two from each other, not to reduce the importance of the products but to reduce the value of capital. Pasolini claimed he created the Trilogy of Life for the pleasure of telling stories, something he restated in interviews and most explicitly in the final moments of his adaptation of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Perhaps art and sex prevail over the forms of capital because in an Aristotelian sense they are pursued for the sake of themselves. Pasolini is creating something for the sake of itself in both craft and execution transcending capital through the joys of creation.


Sex is a primary focus of The Decameron, one of the earliest stories tracks a young man who leaves his job as a farmer to join a nunnery where he acts as though he is mute, the nuns take advantage of this to engage in the unknown glories of sexual interaction assuming he won’t be able to communicate to their fellow sisters. This would be a fantastic plan if all the nuns weren’t curious and he becomes a kind of living sex-toy for the entire nunnery. The boy breaks his silence to mother superior when he confesses he can no longer get hard because of all the nuns he has been having sex with. The mother superior then runs him into the church declaring God has given them a miracle, in order to work out their sexual situation with proper scheduling and planning, God has embellished the young man with the ability to speak. Innocence and creation once again prevail over the young man’s working conditions on a farm where no women were allowed, he was making money to garner food, increase his social standing, settle down, but he abandoned that to have sex with an entire nunnery, the irony of this inversion of the romantic longing for nature, farming, working with the seasons is eschewed in favor of a life of satisfying the sexual desires of a group of nuns. Through Pasolini’s eyes the latter is more pastoral, wholesome and innocent.


Pasolini casts himself in a brief role as “the artist” a disciple of Giotto, a famous chapel painter, who has traveled to a monastery to construct two murals. He is depicted as restless, taking his meals with the monks quickly and impatiently, eager to get back to his work. When the murals are completed in the films final scene, Pasolini as the artist, with the monks celebrating around him looks upon his work and utters the sentence “why complete a work when it is so beautiful just to dream it”. This line had far reaching implications for Pasolini’s life, proceeding catalog and most crucially to art’s relationship to capital, to the nature of having a “complete” work that for him as a filmmaker necessitates being sold, distributed and commodified the moment it’s finished. Art still possessed the potentiality to be incomplete in the medieval age, its rules and hegemonies had not yet been solidified, molded into cultural and social capital regulated to those who have time to interact with and control it.


Pasolini finished the Trilogy of Life in 1974, it cost him a personal relationship with his longtime lover Ninetto Davoli, who acted in all three films and featured roles in previous movies such as The Hawks and The Sparrows, in addition to his standing as an auteur taking a significant hit. The public reaction to the trilogy was largely receptive as a result of the frequent displays of sex and frivolity, however, the trilogy spawned a number of pornographic imitators, all updating ancient literature into steamy, exploitive depictions of sexual intercourse. Pasolini found innocence and grace in the these bodies, while others sought to intensify how gratuitous and explicit they stood to become. While working on the screenplay for Saló, Pasolini penned an abjuration to to the trilogy, confessing his feeling of loss, “I reject my Trilogy of Life, although I do not regret having made it”. The reception of his films disproves their sentiment: that bodies, sex, art are still pure, capable of immense innocence, but these nude bodies of the young proletariat boys and girls, Italian teenagers, were quickly reduced to pornography and vulgarity.

Sex as a form of exchange had become strictly capital, the act was no longer joyful but commodified, perverted, orchestrated to appeal strictly to base sensation, complete debasement. In the abjuration he calls out specifically the free-love movements of the late 60’s in America and more harshly the May of 68’ in France, feeling that the youths involved in these movements were privileged bourgeoise students who are only revolting out of a sense of entitlement and that they have failed to understand the full implications of their actions, “They do not see that sexual liberation, far from bringing ease and happiness to young people, has made them unhappy, shut off, and consequently, stupidly presumptuous and aggressive”.

Pasolini had succumbed to the helpless cynicism of the forms of capital, a world in which all human connection, projection and sharing is tainted by the material standard of the few. He felt that his trilogy was a failure, in the effort to destabilize the hegemonies of the bourgeoisie he became daunted, discouraged and pessimistic in reaction to the tight grip they have on the life of common people, he no longer saw antiquity with the same  warm glow, instead felt the renaissance ushered in the establishment of the Italian aristocracy. The bodies of those paintings, chapels and monasteries had become frail and consumable, and perhaps always were.

“… I am adapting to the degradation and accepting the unacceptable. I maneuver to rearrange my life. I am beginning to forget how things were before. The loved faces of yesterday are beginning to turn yellow. Little by little and without any more alternatives, I am confronted by the present. I adjust my commitment to greater legibility (Saló).”

Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom is ultimately the synthesis of Pasolini’s renewed cynicism. It was originally planned as part of another trilogy Pasolini’s Trilogy of Death, these films were intended to mirror the structure of the Trilogy of Life, adapting three tales from antiquity, distorting and spoiling their content. He was only allowed to complete Saló as he was murdered by fascists shortly before its release. These films would have explicitly agreed with Bourdieu’s theory but had implications about the state of our relationships that Bourdieu perhaps wasn’t conscious of.

Pasolini extends his method of contamination to its natural limits in Saló, this is an adaptation of the Divine Comedy, employing its form. The characters in the film travel through different circles, applying Dante’s journey into the underworld to a group of youths at the end of the fascist reign, who are enlisted to be sex slaves for the local leaders.

The first circle “Circle of Manias” involves the young boys and girls submitted to large orgies and pornographic stories read over gentle piano music while being groped by older men. Initially these older men submit the children to standard abuses of power, everything is horrific but nothing is yet surprising, the men are still obsessed and interested in the “normal” bounds of sex, they still have some semblance of the sexual morality and ethics imposed on them, the men begin to grow bored with this power; that rape, sex, cuckolding, are simply not enough. The standards of sex, even at their most simple are crafted by fascist powers, Pasolini then moves into his condemnation of what he calls “consumer fascism”.


The second circle “Circle of Shit” involves the fascist leaders growing increasingly disenfranchised with their power, so they long for more to compensate: they begin eating poop, forcing the children to defecate and eat their own waste. Pasolini used this as a metaphor to evoke the fast, cheap food of McDonalds, he felt the death of culture had already begun, right when we started eating our own shit. Further it exists for the pleasure of the few while debasing the masses, the men in all their excess enjoy covering their faces in shit and watching the children eat their excrement off the floor. All capital has been reduced to shit, whereas the forms of capital once retained integrity, pride, and strength, now they are little more than ugly tools serving the shallow sensibilities of the powerful few.


The final circle, “Circle of Blood” is the culmination of the madness of Saló, reducing the forms of capital to a single form: violence. Art, sex, food, beauty have all become vicious, cruel and self-serving. There is a moment of hope dispersed throughout this stomach-churning conclusion, a young girl is found to have a photo of family from home, she then tattles on two girls who have fallen in love, strictly forbidden to have sex with anyone but their masters, the two are threatened until they reveal that one of the young boys is sneaking out to the maids cabin at night and sleeping with her. When the leaders arrive to find the maid and young boy having sex they raise their guns to shoot them, both the young man and woman had starring roles in the Trilogy of Life, here they are slaves about to be murdered for the same acts they committed so carelessly in those films. The young proletariat in defiance forms his hand in a socialist symbol before pumping it into the sky. For just a second the fascists are frightened, the look on their faces recognizes the two most powerful forces in opposition to the forms of capital: love and hope. The film concludes with two young men in military uniform dancing in each other’s arms to the films theme as the sound of children being tortured ring from the courtyard behind them.


“The structures of the cinema therefore present themselves as transnational and transclassist rather than as international or interclassist. They prefigure a possible sociolinguistic situation of a world made tendentially unitary by complete industrialization and by the consequent leveling which implies the disappearance of particular and national traditions.”

Pasolini believed there was very little difference between cinematic reality and the one we experience in everydayness. He found his way towards the cinema as a result of feeling inadequate expression using the novel and poem. His “Cinema of Poetry” captures in its totality, films ability to transcend the forms of capital. Cinema survives but has succumbed to capital in a massive takeover by the corporate powers of industrialization to buy out cineplexes, movies are becoming spectacle rather than stories, blockbusters are becoming the new epic poem. Hegemonies have become so strong that the space for novel ideas, fresh ideologies and interesting solutions to old problems are waining, becoming increasingly stale, bland and repetitive. The forms of capital are brittle yet are more standardized than ever before, “The collapse of the present implies the collapse of the past”, what than of the future?

Further Reading

  1. Bourdieu, Pierre “The Forms of Capital” The Sociology of Economic Life by Mark Granovetter, Routledge (2011). Pg. 46
  2. Patrick, Rumble. Allegories of Contamination: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life, University of Toronto Press, 1996. Pgs. 102, 103, 112, 120, 133
  3. Pasolini, Pier Paolo. “Trilogy of Life Rejected” Criterion Collection Spine #631. Pgs. 6, 7, 8