The Mubi Cinematheque: Accattone (1961)
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Pier Paolo Pasolini’s first film will prove difficult for those who need a sympathetic lead character to latch onto. Vittorio eschews his own name in favor of a nickname, which is how everyone he knows refers to him. This nickname, source of the title “Accattone,” is a slang for beggar, or a lazy person. Being a ne’er-do-well pimp, Accattone not only lives up to his name, but also finds ways to revel in the twisted nobility he has attached to it.
He is not without charisma. In the opening scenes, he is playing to the people around him, pulling a stunt by jumping off a bridge into a body of water. He’s a showman. The shine is quickly dulled by how he treats his girlfriend (also one of the prostitutes he runs). He shows no remorse for an injury she sustained and forces her to the street where she is beaten, and left for dead. In an ironic twist — still very early in the film — she is the one who ends up in jail instead of her attackers.
Accattone hustles his friends (and they would do the same), the women he meets, and strangers alike all in the effort to avoid an honest job. When briefly entertaining the straight and narrow, he only lasts a day before again attempting short cuts.
Pasolini, who also co-wrote the script, does not treat his subject with scorn or celebration. Instead, he offers him to the audience honestly. There is no pedestal appointment and there is no damning. Accattone is as he is, for better and worse. What it comes down to is whether or not he’s interesting enough as a main character, or if Pasolini’s methods are at a level to elevate the material. It’s close.
As maddening as Accattone’s exploits are, and how irredeemable he comes across at times, his story is fairly engaging. This is especially true when he slithers around his estranged wife’s family and his son who may or may not recognize him. It’s obvious from these scenes that his path of apathetic destruction has claimed victims before. We are presented with three stages of Accattone’s relationships: his enraged ex, his current but increasingly cautious belle, and his new charge. It’s likely that there were more prior to his ex-wife. True to his nature and nickname, he has refused, and continually refuses, to take responsibility. Instead he blames others and is unwilling to explore his inward nature beyond how great his life of slothful debauchery is (which it isn’t).
Narratively, Accattone gets repetitive. Any hint of reflection or attempts at pushing past his self-made roadblocks come very late. A very effective dream sequence injects sparks of intrigue and opens his closed self up to a little closer analysis. Otherwise, Accattone is a very shallow individual focused primarily on money, of which he has none, and women, of which he squanders in efforts to obtain more of the former.
Even outside of that late dream sequence, the film is put together in very assured fashion. The night scenes when Accattone’s girl is led off by her johns are full of tension. It’s telegraphed from before it even starts that things will end badly, and it helps heighten the situation. Especially when she displays a resigned acceptance of what’s to come. It doesn’t mean she won’t fight, it simply means she knows she’ll have to. It’s then when it’s fully apparent that Accattone is a film without heroes.
Having only seen Pasolini’s Sàlo: or the 120 Days of Sodom prior to this, I am curious if his style and delivery is consistently as cynical and nihilistic throughout his filmography. While both films differ in topic, they are both meditations on the darkness of humanity. Sàlo is more about the nature of excess dominating over a morally bankrupt culture while Accattone deals more with slothful negligence of duty to those in need. It’s easier to harm than to help, or so it seems.
It’s worth a look, but I would also like to recommend another recent addition to Mubi, which is Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist. I elected to skip it because I had seen it already, and loved it while I had not yet seen Accattone. The Conformist is an occasionally surreal political drama set amid fascist Italy. It has been a while since I saw it, but I remember being very impressed. Interesting sidenote: Bertolucci served as a production assistant on Accattone as well.