In 1961, an Italian by the name of Pier Paolo Pasolini made a movie, his first movie ("Accattone"), and perhaps never guessed that 53 years later, it'd wind up screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox on March 9, 2014 as part of a series in his honour, Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Poet of Contamination.
He could also probably not have guessed that using regular people in lieu of actors would be far more commonplace today than it was in 1961 ("Beasts of the Southern Wild", "This is England", "The Class", "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels"). Pasolini took a bit of a risk with "Accattone", but it's paid off well, and contributed to the whole Italian neorealism movement.
But a bit of a backtrack is needed: Vittorio (Franco Citti) is the accattone in question (Italian for 'beggar') and we first see him in the seedy underworld of pimps and prostitutes. His luck, or whatever he had of it, runs dry one day, and gets into a real-life game of Cops and Robbers (two guesses which side he's on).
Although "Accattone" focuses mainly on Vittorio, he's less of the main character and more of a human metaphor for what was going on in Pasolini's world at the time. Italy was just 16 years removed from World War Two—and we all know how that ended for them—but was facing greater consequences than simply picking up the pieces amidst the rubble.
Pasolini's film is a stark juxtaposition between artful depth and commonplace slum life, with the former coming strongly attached with upturned noses and "moral" values and the latter proudly revelling in perceived filth. It's not quite that the latter wants to become the former, but that they hold a certain contempt for them, and Vittorio expresses this notion when he comes to the crossroads of virtue and self-preservation. It's a mighty thin line that separates the two, and more people live in the other than they might like to think they don't.
However, the downside of living a life of self-preservation, particularly in the slums, is it almost inevitably becomes Hobbesian, while the other side can pay their way out of curtain calls. But in a way, the poor life almost seems more appealing because of the undercurrent of strength in it: Vittorio's friends seem to really care for each other in a way where the 1% might drop each other like flies, and it makes sense. When you strip away all the superfluousness in life (money, career, career aspirations, hobbies, travel, etc.), what else are you left with but yourself and your relationships? They take centre stage, so it's only natural they get the most effort. Of course, this isn't to say that it's the case all the time, but Pasolini certainly makes a case for it in "Accattone".
What's common to all people, no matter the class divide, is the ability to be sneaky and conniving, and Vittorio is no exception. He preys on the innocent Stella (Franca Pasut) in a way that conjures up simultaneous recoil and fascination, due in no small part to Pasut's skill here. She deftly skirts falling into stereotypes, and instead becomes more and more of a real person.
It's a chilling, bleak life at what life could be with a couple of missteps and a lot of rotten luck, and Pasolini doesn't sugarcoat anything—but nor should he. Hollywood glamourizes the life of crime too often ("Oceans 11", "James Bond").
Pasolini smartly shows us with "Accattone" the truth is far from that; it's "nasty, brutish and short".