When Piero Paolo Pasolini was murdered in November 1975, he left behind two decades of prolific verse and prose writings, a suite of feature and short films, and a complex reputation. Although he was routinely attacked by the Italian Left and Right, posthumously Pasolini has assumed a place as a canonical Italian modernist. The production of research, commentary, and interpretation steadily grew as research materials became available through his fondo. The quantity of scholarship on Pasolini's films is now more abundant than that attending all but a few directors. Probably only Hitchcock, Eisenstein, and Welles surpass it. This has not made Pasolini's cinema any less uneven and idiosyncratic, but the attempt to assemble them into a "project" alongside his mass of writings has become a large and complex endeavour, even a "Pasolini Studies."
At first, Pasolini's subversive departure from the Christian humanism underlying Italian neorealism went unnoticed. The movement paved the roadway for serious Italian filmmakers since the 1940s. His first movies, Accattone (1961) and Mama Roma (1962), just looked like late neorealism. By then, he had already written two realist novels set in the Roman borgate (the ringing slums) where he himself had struggled through the 1950s. He served Federico Fellini as a script consultant on Nights of Cabiria (1957). Then, after his first films, Pasolini staked out an important place for himself in the rising Catholic-Communist dialogue during the brief papacy of John XXIII. Pasolini made La Ricotta (1963), a short mocking popular religious movies, and then pressed on to the international success of his third feature, The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). The film began a cycle of religiously themed movies. The unwinding of Pasolini's religious preoccupations also ran in parallel with unfilmed scripts, Bestemmia (Blasphemy) and, later, a biography film on St. Paul. He worked on these obsessively for lengthy periods. Their radical idiosyncrasy was hardly reflected in the "Franciscan" Hawks and Sparrows (1966), his revisiting to Rossellini's The Flowers of St. Francis (1950). Teorema, both a film [End Page 129] and a novel (1968), did much to catch up with it. Benini devotes her two best chapters to these films.
For years, the Gospel film embarrassed Pasolini's English-speaking critics, who preferred him as a political leftist director. Over time, though, Pasolini's tangled passion for the sacred came to occupy an important place in Pasolini Studies. It has helped change attitudes toward his passion that certain later theorists like Žižek, Nancy, Hardt, Derrida, and Girard put religion back on the agenda. The lion's share of this work on Pasolini, however, has been pursued by Italian scholars writing in Italian. This is one of several reasons that Stefania Benini's The Sacred Flesh is so welcome. She is very generous with lengthy quotes in translation (the Italian originals appear in the elaborate endnotes) and careful paraphrases. Her book offers a synoptic view of the accumulated scholarship on Pasolini and religion, including contemporary theorists. There are also large swatches of his own untranslated writing. This could render the book diffusive or pedantic. Though she is at times long-winded, Benini has her own thesis to gather steam. The book advances readings of only five of Pasolini's films and on the two unmade film scripts, to which she devotes lengthy and exhaustively researched consideration.
Pasolini never ceased being at heart an Italian Catholic. He was thoroughly anti-clerical and, after a dalliance during John's brief papacy, felt increasingly alienated from the church. His religious perspective seized on the Incarnation, to the exclusion of almost everything else except for the peasant Christianity he saw as archaic and therefore genuine. Benini explains that he saw "Christ [as] a kenotic figure who emptied himself of his divine nature to fully embrace his humanity." Benini shows that Pasolini may have begun by studying well-known religious scholars popular in the 1960s, like Mircea Eliade and Rudolf Otto and the Italian anthropologist Ernesto De Martino, and would, like them, never cease to keep separate the sacred and profane. But he also believed...