Letter from Thessaloniki

On the very day the 47th Thessaloniki International Film Festival, headlined by the German film aesthete Wim Wenders, opened with a sneak preview of Stephen Frears’s «The Queen,» which examines the reaction of England’s royal family to the 1997 car crash that killed Princess Diana, police clashed with demonstrators just a few blocks away, the way they do every time Greece commemorates the anniversary of the 1973 student uprising against the junta. This was not a complacent day, to say the least. As for «The Queen,» it also opened the New York Film Festival this summer, and in all probability avid film festival-goers will have great difficulty finding a movie in this festival that has not already been shown someplace else. The films in the official program, drawn up by the festival’s director Despina Mouzaki, comprise 14 first or second feature films. Competition is largely characterized by low profiles and lower budgets. Yes, only first-timers are eligible for the competition. Also last Friday, across town, near the campus of the Aristotle University, anarchists and «anti-establishment activists» held up the predictable signs («Down with Law,» etc, etc) and an upside-down flag, which they later set alight. Last night, in the presence of President Karolos Papoulias, the Greek-French filmmaker Costa-Gavras – who is not without a certain shrewdness in political matters – presented his latest film, «Mon Colonel.» It shows horrible atrocities being committed as part of the «war on terror» – in this case during the Algerian war of independence in the 1950s. Explicit films and violent demonstrations: How much like the life and death of one of the greatest poets and filmmakers of last century, Pier Paolo Pasolini. His eventful life comprised good-looking boys, Marxist politics and some of the most controversial films ever made, but Pasolini is perhaps best remembered for how he died. In 1975, the 53-year-old Italian writer-director was discovered bloody and mangled, the apparent victim of a gay pickup gone unpleasantly wrong. A young hustler Pino Pelosi confessed to the murder but conspiracy theories abound to this day: Was Pasolini killed by fascists? Or by the corrupt politicians he was investigating? Some first-class material for a Costa-Gavras film. Writers and filmmakers, after all, are valuable in spite of their neuroses, obsessions and rebellions, not because of them. I thought of that while meeting film director Nikos Koundouros who was in town for a day. It so happened that during my years in Rome, I shared the «attico» floor in via di Ripetta with Koundouros’s producer Enrico Marussig (who also produced the director’s work «Vortex») and Pasolini was often a guest in the house of the Marussigs. It was the late 1960s and early 1970s, the era of the so-called »student contestation» and the time before Marussig lost all of his money, making films that no one wanted to see. Therefore Marussig was responsible – together with Alberto Moravia – for the film section of the high-brow publication Espresso. At the time, Pasolini, though accepting the ideological motivations of the students, declared often they were «anthropologically middle class» and, subsequently, destined to fail in the revolutionary attempt. On a hot July night, Marussig convinced Pasolini to have a poem he had just written printed in Espresso. In this poem the unpredictable Pasolini sides with the police, dismissing the privileged students as self-indulgent and bourgeois. It was evident that the publication caused a huge shock in Italy. Addressed to the students, the poem went, more or less, as follows: «Yesterday in the Valle Giulia district when you clashed with the policemen, I was sympathizing with the policemen! Because the policemen are the sons of the poor, they come from the outskirts of cities and from the country, My dear boys and girls, they have the same age as yourselves, being in their twenties, We both are against the institution of police, yet, if you want to be against somebody, turn yourself against the heads! The young policemen which you – the sons of your dads – have attacked belong to a different social class, Therefore, yesterday, we had another phase of the struggle of class: And you, my friends (even if you are on the right side) were the rich ones, While the policemen (even if they were on the wrong side) were the poor ones.» In «The Defense of Poetry,» 1821, Percy Bysshe Shelley claimed that «poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.» Quite true in Pasolini’s case. Pasolini principally aimed at denouncing and impeding the cultural homogenization and the anthropological mutation of the Italian people. Since I have been sitting on the jury of the Greek film festival program this year, I have seen all the Greek films of the last 12 months. And it is clear to me that what Pasolini dramatically recognized as growing consumerism and conditioning by the mass media some 30 years ago is evident in Greek cinematography today. Indeed, Pasolini had a significant effect on a number of Greek film directors, among them Nikos Koundouros. Shortly before he was brutally killed on the night between November 1 and 2, 1975, Pasolini said: «During all my life, I have never carried out an act of violence, neither physical nor moral. Not because I am fanatically for non-violence. If this is a form of ideological self-pressure, it is violence too. In my life I have never exerted any violence, neither physical nor moral, simply because I trusted my nature, that is my culture.» The festival will close on Sunday with an Alain Resnais film which, judging by the title – «Private Fears in Public Places» – does not seem to care for romance.

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