Nanni Moretti: Looking for Pasolini

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The Italian director retraces Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final journey during a spellbinding long take in his breakthrough film Dear Diary 

Extended sequences perform differently in different films: in Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, a long shot of the main character lying in silence in a dell seems to conjure up a sense of inner peace, perhaps a determination; the director holds the scene until it becomes almost untenable, playing on the idea that we may never know the character’s motivations. Also wrestling with an existential dilemma, the main character in Police, Adjective by Corneliu Porumboiu , thoughtfully slurps at a bowl of watery soup in his kitchen: there is something hypnotic about the process here, about the daily habit he is engaging in; his sheer humanity is revealed to us, in the face of the Kafkaesque ordeal he is going through. 

In Dear Diary — commonly known as the Italian director’s breakthrough film — Nanni Moretti stages an extended sequence of tremendous beauty, which holds as much singular mystery as the two wordless scenes mentioned above. It is all the more powerful for standing in such stark contrast to the sometime zany cinematics that frame it. The film is constructed in three parts: first, a chapter that sees Moretti roaming around a deserted Rome in summer on his vespa, sharing his thoughts about art and the city; then a more classically fictional chapter in which he departs for the Aeolian islands, to visit a friend; and a concluding part, the most sober and the most obviously autobiographical, in which Moretti recounts his experiences with Hodgkin lymphoma. 

The famous long sequence, soundtracked by an excerpt from Keith Jarrett’s Koin Concert, in which Moretti is filmed from behind as he makes a pilgrimage by vespa through the Roman seaside suburb of Ostia to the site of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s murder, caps off the first segment of Dear Diary. This scene, deceptively simple and formally striking, functions as an exemplar of Moretti’s politics and artistry.  

It serves as a conclusion of sorts to Moretti’s pert, political thoughts on Rome and urban living. Pasolini was famously a poet of Rome, in a cinema that depicted the underbelly of the city — a cinema which filmed Rome in all its depredation. Pasolini’s protagonists, such as the titular characters in Accattone (1961) or Mamma Roma (1962), are impoverished workers living on the fringes of polite society. Rome in these films feels half-finished: blocks of modern flats abut fields and rocky outcrops; motorways are dimly lit; the housing is sparsely decorated. In Dear Diary, then, Moretti is placing himself in the lineage of Pasolini’s work and political positioning, in counterpoint to the rising bourgeoisie of Italy. 

This comes through in a previous scene where Moretti visits the quarter of Spinaceto, and defends it from its reputation as an insalubrious, ugly neighbourhood. “It’s not bad, Spinaceto!” he exclaims: clearly, he is sticking up for a certain idea of Rome as a place that lives and breathes authenticity, an idea of the city that’s on its way out. In a delectable scene, Moretti interrogates an inhabitant of the genteel suburb of Casalpalocco, demanding: “Why did you come to live in Casalpalocco?” The man gestures around him: “Look at all this greenery!” Moretti, ranting now: “Yes, the greenery, but you, I’m sure, thirty years ago?, came here. Sixty-one? Thirty years ago, Rome was a wonderful city! Rome was beautiful! This place terrifies me: dogs behind fences, videocassettes, slippers…” Moretti’s cause, in Dear Diary, is nothing less than the decline of Italy: he knows that those Romans who deserted the city in the 60s, when Pasolini was working there, contributed to creating what is now a shell of a town. 

Moretti returns to this subject again and again, in a satirical vein, such as the hilarious scene when, at the top of Stromboli, he finds himself shouting down the mountainside to a group of American tourists, asking them about the latest plotlines of The Bold and the Beautiful. Silvio Berlusconi, who was rising through the ranks of Italian politics at the time, made his fortune by investing in trashy American TV and filling Italian schedules with it. The reference to Pasolini — the way the film takes us, the viewer, on a literal pilgrimage to the place of his assassination — therefore returns us to a kind of prelapsarian Italy.

Indeed, the Roman suburb that Moretti seizes in this sequence as he rides past is a stark, undeveloped landscape: sparsely populated beaches of coarse brown sand between rocky outcrops; cars parked pell-mell on brushy laybys; a tractor wheel hub, some shacks, a stretch of deep grass behind a rusted fence beside the road. This, movingly, shockingly, is possibly the same journey that Pasolini took with the teenager who presumably murdered him, when he picked him up in a cafe and drove him out to a deserted location in Ostia to have sex with him. 

This sequence could have been filmed ahead of Moretti, looking back at him as he travels. But one of its striking touches is that Moretti is filmed from behind, growing distant sometimes, or getting closer as the camera-car draws nearer to him, before receding again. He is leading us, the viewer, on this journey — but his thoughts remain unknowable; his expression cannot be guessed at. At times, during the scene, you catch yourself noting its artifice, feeling the presence of the camera as it pursues the actor-director. There is nothing cosmetically ‘beautiful’ about the sequence, as it scours the town and picks out Moretti’s vespa: it defies you to be bored at times, or annoyed, or to look away. Simultaneously, there is a hypnotic quality to it, as Keith Jarrett insistently pounds out exquisite peals of piano improvisation: howling to himself while he plays, he is the perfect fit for Moretti, whose film is also loose and improvised along a few general themes, in three segments just like Jarrett’s recording. Dear Diary was improvised from day to day, building on a few short documentary sequences, with added segments written and filmed on the hoof. Like the Koln concert, it heads off into different territories, seems to lose us, to tool around at a nagging idea or refrain for a while, then return to a theme thought to be lost. Jarrett, too, reveals the workings of his music, by being present as a player in those cries he emits: we can’t forget his presence as the creator. It may be that this is a Brechtian kind of device, with Moretti denying the audience any catharsis, splitting open the film’s workings to make us realise our own commitment, our own place in the world.

In the series I May Destroy you, thirty or so years later, Michaela Coel sets part of her story in the town of Ostia. By now the place has been radically turned around: Arabella and her friend visit the thriving nightclub scene, and score drugs off a local dealer playing football with his friends in one remaining ground in town that has echoes of Pasolini. Later, the dealer leads Arabella through the streets, and breaks through the gates of a beach fenced off by one of the private hotels in town. It is a wondrous scene, because the whole shoreline, which we had never seen and never even guessed at, is suddenly revealed. The town has been built up to such a degree that the whole coast has effectively been privatised. Arabella and her partner are trespassing. This is the Italy that Moretti could foresee, the segmented country where market forces and unregulated development have further widened a chasm in society, and clawed away at an Italy that still had potential. 

In Dear Diary, Moretti eventually reaches his destination, and slows to a stop. There in Ostia, behind a grille, in a wasteland of grasses and rocks, lies an unloved statue, a dirty white abstract memorial marking Pasolini’s place of death. It cannot be reached from the road; Moretti films it through the battered fence. The camera, now still, dwells on it and the music draws to a close. 

Caspar Salmon

Caspar is a film journalist living in London, UK.