The cinema of Aurelio Grimaldi and the (de)construction of Sicilian Machismo.
The code of honour, in the South of Italy, did not mortify or repress sex: on the contrary, it exalted it. And for that matter the same held for the repression exercised by the classes in power. Chastity and sexual violence were seen with naturalness. Taboos created obstacles, not dissociations. (qtd. in Rumble 247)
However, except for selected sections of his documentary Comizi d'amore (1964), Pasolini's filmography conveniently never addressed contemporary southern Italian sexuality. Instead, in his Sicilian trilogy, Grimaldi takes Pasolini's assertion to task.
All three films treat Sicilian subject matter, two were filmed exclusively on the island, and all foreground the use of a Sicilian colloquial speech, which often diverges from the formal Italian toward dialect. The Italian film industry has habitually employed Sicilian dialect for comic purposes, as a debased linguistic form. This habit has become a virtual cinematic convention from which the Italian public has had difficulty detoxifying itself. Since Aristotle, theories of comedy have stressed the sense of superiority generated in the audience toward comic protagonists, as opposed to the "fear and pity" accorded the tragic hero. Grimaldi's cinema attempts to eradicate the Italian sense of superiority vis-a-vis the Sicilians, to detoxify the Italian audience of its habit, and to accord "fear and pity" to its Sicilian characters. Flouting current standard Italian practice, Claudio Bonivento managed to produce Forever Mery without pre-sale to television. Such televisual arrangements have tended to compromise much of recent Italian cinema, both in its subject matter and in its style. At a cost of only two million dollars, Forever Mery made no attempt to compete with the sort of exploding helicopter movie that then dominated not only the global market, but the Italian market as well, instead taking refuge in its own regional specificity. In defiance of typical Italian cinematic distribution and promotional practice, the film premiered neither in Rome nor Milan, but Palermo.
The content of these films also constructs Italian-ness as an opposing category. In keeping with Sicilian tradition, Grimaldi's characters regularly refer to Italy itself as "the continent." The boys in the reformatory in Forever Mery know neither the name of the contemporary Italian republic's first president nor the story behind the government's 1948 constitution. The intrusive presence of their teacher Marco Terzi from Milan appears as just another foreign imposition of the state-supported juvenile system. His liberalism remains at odds with the mafioso mentality of the entire detention center, here in a land where Comte had never come. (1) Terzi frequently sits at his desk in front of the class with a map of Italy directly behind him, while a map of Sicily remains off to the side. Only later when he concedes his own Sicilian origins by referring to Sicily has "my homeland as well" does Risi center this formerly marginalized map within the frame. In Acla the state police similarly appear as an invasive presence with whom the Sicilian peasants, as likely as not, refuse to cooperate in their investigations. When Acla runs away to avoid beatings and the police question the right of a Sicilian patriarch to treat his progeny as he sees fit, the miner Caramazza tells them, "You people from the continent don't understand certain things." What these state envoys fail to understand is their own abuse of Acla, as the miserable working conditions he suffers in the sulfur mines are in service to Mussolini's war machine, a government they themselves represent.
The Italian government attempted to impede the Sicilian cinematic venture of Forever Mery when it refused permission to film in Malaspina, the Palermo reformatory that serves as a setting for Grimaldi's novella. (2) An entire wing of the reformatory was unused and available, and Palermo's mayor Leoluca Orlando had given even his blessing to the project. In a manner eerily reminiscent of Giulio Andreotti, whose legislative initiatives in the 1940s had attempted to curtail neorealist filmmaking because of its unsavory representations of Italian society, Judge Frisella faulted Forever Mery for "creating a false image of the juvenile delinquency problem in Palermo" (qtd. in Rosso, 26). It is partly in Grimaldi's adherence to neorealist filmmaking tradition that his filmography reaffirms the concept of an Italian national cinema. A half-century before Grimaldi, neorealist theorist Cesare Zavattini had advocated a socially engaged cinema. Despite Judge Frisella's criticism, Palermo's crime rate ranked second only to Naples in all of Western Europe. With over two hundred homicides a year, its per capita murder rate was comparable to that of Washington, D. C. Grimaldi's vision of palermitana violence therefore is both socially engaged and hardly exaggerated.
Italian mainlanders have tended to look at Sicily much as Germans have looked at Italy, as a land of sun. During a lesson Terzi even describes the island as having been the home of the sun god Apollo in ancient Greek myth. However, critic Alberto Crespi notes that Grimaldi's Palermo, whether in Forever Mery or Le buttane, "is a frozen modern city with nothing of the folkloric" (17) that habitually characterizes Italian cinematic representations of Sicily. Both Forever Mery and Le buttane occur during the gray Sicilian winter, and Risi enhances the chilling effect in Forever Mery with the bluish tint of many of his images. The reliance of all three films on a nonprofessional cast, and the use of actual former reformatory inmates in Forever Mery in particular, follows Zavattini's preference for the authentic iconicity of non-actors in given roles. These films go further than their neorealist predecessors, however, in their exploitation of contemporary, mobile, direct sound recording technology, so that the integrity of the voice of the character matches the integrity of his or her look and gesture. Such a technique appears especially noteworthy in terms of an Italian national cinema which, more than any other, has persistently relied upon postdubbing and postsynchronization. This cinematic concern for the authenticity of the voice corresponds to that of Grimaldi's award-winning novella, as his book Forever Mery allowed the reformatory boys to tell their stories in their own words. Both Acla and Le buttane exhibit a similar concern for authenticity of voice, as both films include testimonials wherein the characters address themselves directly to the camera/audience in a manner reminiscent of documentaries.
Despite its arguably renegade Sicilian qualities and aspirations, Grimaldi's cinema repeatedly invokes the distinguished century-long heritage of Italian cinema not specific to Sicily. (3) As director, he has been accused of "an adherence more Viscontian than naturalistic to the represented material" (Canova 141). Like Luchino Visconti, whose Milanese upbringing he shares, Grimaldi in his filmmaking exhibits a curious tension between neorealist social engagement and an overt aestheticization of the image that transgresses neorealist principles. In Acla, Grimaldi combines heated Caravaggesque chiaroscuro with long, adoring panning shots to present the naked and dishabille bodies of the miners. Draped one over the other in dissolute slumber in a communal cavern, the scene recalls the post-orgy sequences of both Visconti's The Damned (1969) and Ludwig (1971). Compared with G. W. Pabst's more neutral and distant camerawork in his visual presentation of miners in Kameradschaft (1931), Grimaldi's aesthetics, like those of Visconti before him, appear distinctly homoerotic. Both Visconti and Grimaldi work in the tradition of the late nineteenth-century German photographer, Wilhelm von Gloeden, whose scantily clad images of southern Italian adolescents from Capri to Taormina have since become fodder for gay postcards and picture books. Robert Aldrich writes of a tendency "in Gloeden's photos ... for the natives to be dressed up (or undressed) as ancients or reduced to folkloric models" (166). Grimaldi's visual treatment of the miners in Acla is as "folkloric" as Visconti's representations of the fisherman in La terra trema (1948) and the Bavarian Volk in Ludwig. Nominally dressed in the loincloths that barely cover their genitalia while exposing their buttocks, Grimaldi's miners play a game of homoerotic peek-a-boo in the Gloeden tradition. (4) In the opening scene of Acla, when Signora Rizzuto recounts the family history, Grimaldi cuts from one family portrait to another. The sequence recalls Visconti's concern for genealogy and his propensity for filming family photographs, traits that mark his cinema at least from La terra trema (1948) through The Damned (1969). In particular, La terra trema and Acla share their genesis from the work of the Sicilian writer Giovanni Verga. While Verga's I Malavoglia served as the basis for the impoverished fishermen of Visconti's film, his unrealized project addressing the similar economic plight of sulfur miners, to have been titled La zolfara, finally reaches fruition in Grimaldi's film. Le buttane, while equally aestheticized, generally bears less indebtedness to Visconti, with the notable exception of the scene wherein the male prostitute Maurizio murders his client. The combination of effete art in the mise-en-scene, exquisite music on the soundtrack, attempted theft, and explosive violence virtually replicates Simone's encounter with Morini in Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers (1960). (5)
More than Visconti's, Pasolini's is the ghost that haunts Grimaldi's cinema. Forever Mery alludes to the filmmaker's sordid and violent death by borrowing heavily from the testimony of the murder trial. As in the Pasolini case, an encounter between a younger hustler and his older affluent client takes place in the client's car parked beside a deserted lot. Also as in the case, an argument over remuneration and services rendered escalates into a violent scuffle in which the young hustler finds a plank and hits the client on the head, leaving him with a bloody wound. Risi shoots the wounded and unconscious man from the feet at ground level in a re-evocation of Mantegna's Dead Christ, an image that recurs throughout Pasolini's filmography in such works as Mamma Roma (1962), La ricotta (1962) and Pigsty (1969). Read in reference to Pasolini himself, the image argues for his status as martyr. On the metacinematic level, the fact that Forever Mery was filmed in Ostia, the actual location of Pasolini's murder, renders the scene eerier still. However, unlike Pasolini's case, Grimaldi's screenplay contains the violence by rendering the wounded client as merely temporarily unconscious. The fact that the hustler in question was an effeminate transvestite, rather than the rough trade type preferred by Pasolini, adds a bitterly ironic counterpoint. Mantegna's Dead Christ image becomes as much a signature of Grimaldi's cinema as it was of his predecessor's. In Le buttane when Maurizio undresses for his client and lies upon the bed, Grimaldi films him both from the level and at the position of his feet, arguing for the martyrdom of the young hustler's sexuality to his client's libidinal needs and compelling financial wealth. In the same film, when the Tunisian Mohon defends Orlanda by hitting Mario over the head with a candelabrum, Grimaldi presents Mario from this angle as well, arguing for the character's martyrdom to his own sexual drives.
In Acla, Grimaldi introduces the priest in a high angle shot that expresses his supercilious distance from the Rizzuto family down below. When he removes the children to boarding school amid much screaming, the scene recalls Herod's slaughter of the innocents in Pasolini's The Gospel According to Matthew (1964). In the same scene, the solitary girl's repetitive cry of "Mama" evokes a similar moment of maternal loss from Salo (1975). Both intertextual readings serve Grimaldi's critical position regarding an unfeeling clergy. The erotophobic priest not only intrusively disrupts the traditional Sicilian family structure; he also launches an invective of theological blackmail against the miners in his attempts to extort alms. He calls them "animals," "a race of pigs," "slaves of lust and libido," and miscategorizes the venal infracture of sodomy as a "mortal sin." By asking the miners for donations to maintain their own children with whom he has absconded, the priest creates gainful employment for himself within the church hierarchy. At the same time, he disavows his complicity in the economic structure that forces these men into an exclusively male environment, thereby encouraging slippage from the homosocial into the homosexual in the first place. In Le buttane, Grimaldi intercuts from a television game show to a round of Catholic bingo as a more explicit method of exposing the capitalistic underpinnings of institutionally religious ventures.
For Grimaldi, like Pasolini, it is not the institutionally religious, but the primordially physical that constitutes the essential human condition. Like his predecessor, Grimaldi deploys classical music, in this case Purcell, to accompany visual images of human squalor and suffering, not as a means of counterpoint but rather as a method of eternalizing the elemental struggles that his camera presents to the viewer. Such music renders the weekend return of the miners to their homes in Acla epic, particularly as Grimaldi's camera respectfully distances itself for a panoramic view. More frequently, however, Grimaldi prefers panning shots and close-ups to render the monumentality of the physical, as his filmography engages in an exercise of Pasolinian semiotics. Pasolini quite simply claimed, "Cinema expresses reality with reality" (Heretical Empiricism 139). This seemingly simple declaration regarding the iconic nature of cinema as a semiotic system overturned the entire Saussurian tradition of the division of the sign into signifier and signified. Furthermore, Pasolini privileged "the human body as an irreducible medium of communication" (Marcus 137). The "irreducibility" of the human body bespeaks the uniqueness of its role as simultaneously both signifier and signified. Maurizio Viano contextualizes Pasolini's views within western philosophic tradition:
By stressing the body of the subject and the body as subject, Pasolini took issue with the disembodied, rational subject of the Enlightenment ... In fact, Pasolini's remark that "the flesh is the mold of the spirit" suggested that he was not merely prompting an inversion of the traditional body/mind relationship, but that he was pointing toward the much needed supersession of their dualism. (38)
The uniqueness of the body as sign corresponds to that of cinema as semiotic system, and thus explains Pasolini's predilection as filmmaker for fetishizing the body in the sort of contemplative close-ups and pans that Grimaldi inherits. For French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, however, it is not the body, but the phallus that is the uniquely irreducible sign. Despite his semiotic theories regarding the body as a whole, Pasolini's homosexuality predictably elides the phallus into the penis. In fact, insofar as homosexuality remains doubly implicated within the psychodynamics of phallocentrism, Pasolini even hyperphallicized the penis in a manner not unlike the sort of Sicilian machismo Grimaldi exposes and attempts to critique.
In keeping with neorealism, Grimaldi's narratives focus on the disenfranchised, here represented by Sicily itself vis-a-vis the uncomprehending Italian state. He discovers in the social tensions of the Palermo of the 1990s a corollary for what Pasolini had observed in the Roman periphery of the postwar era, as both directors gravitate toward the subproletariat. Pasolini's subproletariat characters found themselves temporarily forgotten amid the shuffle of Roman social classes adjusting to the demands of modern western capitalism. Grimaldi's characters find themselves permanently forgotten, as the evolution of international capitalism leapfrogs over such undeveloped sections of the West in favor of the lower cost labor and burgeoning markets of the former Third World. The oppressive nature of consumerist capitalism upon the disenfranchised in society bookends the narrative of Forever Mery. The film opens with Claudio's inept attempt at breaking into a leather goods store and concludes with the fallout of Pietro's equally abortive effort to rob a department store. Pietro's sole attempt at earning an income by working at a construction site finds him literally and officially disenfranchised. A runaway convict without papers, he is readily exploited and paid half the promised wage.
The operations of capital, as it commodifies the body, determine the situation of the prostitutes of Le buttane in particular. Maurizio, played by Marco Leonardi, appears as a sweeter-faced version of Pasolinian rough trade. (6) Whereas Veronica ascends a staircase to work as a place of empowerment, Maurizio descends a staircase to what for him is a place of degradation. Aldrich outlines a paradigm for male homosexual relations in the Maghreb that readily translates to the latitudinal parallel of Grimaldi's Sicily. He argues that Maghreb homosexual practice "seems to depend a great deal on the difference between 'active' and 'passive' and ... the willingness to give recompense to partners" (177). Maurizio's first encounter with his client graphically demonstrates the dynamic of the symbolic castration of the passive partner, whose economic reimbursement redeems his status as possessor-of-the-phallus. The sequence opens with an Angst-ridden cello providing an aural corollary to the close-up of Maurizio's detached facial expression. The client, followed by Grimaldi's panning shot, slowly makes his way up the back of Maurizio's thighs, buttocks and back with a series of kisses. Lying face down, Maurizio's body position reads as a denial of both penis and phallus. The scene abruptly cuts to a close-up of Maurizio's skin as he vigorously washes himself in the shower and feebly attempts to equate physical with psychological cleansing. Similar cleansing sequences, of BluBlu after her meeting with her pimp, and of Linuccia after she has been urinated upon, confirm this reading of Maurizio's disgust after his liaisons. Only upon his exit from the shower does his phallicism reassert itself. When Maurizio claims his earnings, Grimaldi portrays such remuneration as restitution of the phallus through use of an insistent crotch shot that juxtaposes the bulge in his jeans with his hands counting the money in close-up. The next sequence reveals the consumerist fruits of Maurizio's labors as he replaces his denim jacket with a leather one. Italian homosexual critic and theorist Mario Mieli writes, "L'acquisto e allora illusione di riacquistare facolta erotiche rimosse, che ci sono state sottratte dalla repressione sociale" (145). Mieli claims the Italian male prostitute "soddisfaceva i suoi bisogni sessuali facendosi pagare, dando cosi una giustificazione economica alla sua frociaggine" (153). When fiscal compensation fails Maurizio as phallic compensation, he kills his customer. Mieli notes, "Picchiando, punendo [il suo cliente] il ragazzo era convinto inconsciamente di punire e ricacciare indietro la sua omosessualita" (153). Hauntingly, in terms of the metacinematics of Grimaldi's filmography and its indebtedness to Pasolini, Mieli's observations herein cited are actually in reference to Pino Pelosi, the youth who murdered Pasolini.
Aldrich provides a social context for Maurizio's dilemma:
In Italy, traditional language--before the invention of the word "omosessuale" and the colloquial "frocio"--contained specific words only for the "passive" partner in anal intercourse, arruso or ricchione, and for a transvestite, femmenella, whereas no special term (or the concept underlying it) existed for the "active" partner. The two groups, active and passive partners, were quite separate and individuals did not have sex with others from the same group. Only the ricchioni developed a "homosexual" subculture, while "active" partners participated in general heterosexual life.
In southern Italy such obsolete constructions of homosexuality have widely persisted, inhibiting the development of a specifically homosexual subculture. The 1995 edition of Bruno Gmunder's international gay guide Spartacus, for instance, identifies not a single gay establishment in Sicily's two largest cities, Palermo and Catania, and only one in Syracuse. While the female prostitutes may socialize among themselves, the society of Le buttane provides no context in which Maurizio can construct a subjectivity that is both masculine and anally passive, and his reimbursement eventually fails to reconcile this crisis.
While Maurizio's is a crisis of subjectivity, Mery's in Forever Mery is one of anatomy. Sicilian society furnishes Mery both with a name, "femmenella" or its more gender-blurring synonym "feminiello," and with a context in which to construct his identity as both anally passive and effeminate. He laments the presence of what he calls "the thing between [his] thighs," and longs either to be a child or to grow old, periods of life in which the social gendering of the body proves less significant. The Milanese-raised Terzi espouses a traditionally liberal and sociological position that argues against the Sicilian equation of homosexual preference and symbolic castration, but his views meet largely with defeat. Pietro asserts that Mery is female because "he is a woman inside his head." When Mery's father threatens to "cut off [Mery's] balls," the action is seen as merely reconciling his son's anatomy to his socially constructed subjectivity. The reformatory guards address Mery as "signorina," and even Terzi, despite his ostensibly enlightened bourgeois position, complies in calling him "Mery" rather than "Mario."
Anti-patriarchal even as they are doubly implicated in the dynamics of phallicism, homosexual writers hold a unique position from which to assess such intensely phallocentric cultures as the Sicilian. English writer William Ward, author of the gay guide Getting It Right in Italy: A Manual for the 1990s, notes:
The pre-sexual-crisis Italian male defines his virility more in terms of personal phallic potency than of the intensity of his feelings for women. Strictly speaking, he is more of a narcissist than a heterosexual, the conquest of women being more an affirmation of his attractiveness (to himself) than any deep-rooted fascination with the feminine mystique.... Since it is his cock, rather than any invisible bond with the feminine, that is the focus of his sexuality. (qtd. in Aldrich 177)
In his Journal romain, 1985-1986, French gay writer Renaud Camus concurs in his diagnosis of "these too manly-males, with their aberrant idea of virility" (qtd. in Aldrich 205). As represented in Grimaldi's filmography, "the pre-sexual crisis" male sets the norm for constructions of masculinity in Sicilian society, and in heterosexual relations. Signor Rizzuto mounts his wife abruptly without foreplay in Acla, and the male clients in both Le buttane and Acla pound away with general disregard as to the involvement of the prostitutes themselves. Mieli scrutinizes "la negazione della donna di cui si parla fallocraticamente, senza considerazione autentica, riducendola a buco e cioe a quel che non e" (107-108). Even in Forever Mery, when one inmate expresses his concern for a prostitute having enjoyed herself with him, his concern remains with "his cock rather than with any invisible bond with the feminine." More narcissistic than altruistic, he merely seeks confirmation of his own potency and virility.
From the Phoenicians, through the Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Neapolitans, Spaniards, and up to the continental Italians, Sicilian history has largely been one of internal submission to external domination. Sicilian phallocentricity replicates this dynamic and attempts to compensate for externally imposed submission by socially internalizing an overvaluation of the dominant position. The rigid hierarchies of the mafia thus function as the prototype for all of Sicilian society. The exclusively male spaces of the boys' reformatory in Forever Mery and the sulfur mines in Acla present microcosms of this hyperphallicized psychosocial dynamic. Both films are loosely structured around the initiation of a new vulnerable male member, Claudio and Acla respectively, into these all-male spaces. Claudio's legal sentence of three years correlates to Acla's eight years of indentured servitude in the mines. In Forever Mery, Natale holds the position of "boss" largely because he has won himself a place within the mafioso system of the reformatory by avenging his father's murder. He calls the mafia "beautiful" and incites the class to chant its name in defiance of Terzi. Natale explains the mafioso worldview in terms that explicitly link it to the phallocentricity of Sicilian culture: "In life you're either a hard prick or a soft prick. Some dish it out ... others get screwed." This dynamic of dominance and submission collapses everyone into two categories, but Terzi's name indicates a third. Natale concedes that outsiders to Sicilian culture can belong to a third kind, "the prickhead." This term assimilates Terzi into the phallocentric paradigm of Sicilian culture, even as it recognizes the intellectual aspects of his sociological attempts to counter what Natale considers the essentialist power dynamics of all human interaction. Not only the inmates but also the reformatory staff accept Natale's view. Despite Terzi's assertion that the guards are representatives of the Italian state, they remain Sicilian natives. As such, they mercilessly beat a transgressive Pietro into submission and readily reveal Claudio's identity as informer, and violator of mafioso omerta, in his report of Carmelo's attempt at rape. Another Sicilian complicit with this code of silence, the warden ironically accuses Claudio of having "taken the law into his own hands" by making such a report to official, yet hollow, authorities such as himself.
Claudio violates the phallocentric mafioso code not only in transgressing omerta, but also in refusing the submissive role Natale and Carmelo would literally thrust upon him. When Claudio first enters the reformatory, Natale humiliates him by forcing him to go from one bed to another in search of a place to deposit his belongings. Ultimately, he approaches the last bed and receives Natale's approval. He unravels the mattress to discover a rat, an act of symbolic castration, as "ratto" is derogatory Sicilian slang for "tiny penis." (In Acla, when a bragging Toti displays his penis, Acla disparagingly calls it a "rat" and douses it with water). Intercuts of an inmate reading a pornographic magazine open to sodomitical images confirm the phallocentric nature of Natale's aggression. Natale further symbolically castrates Claudio by calling him "Claudia," while the other inmates metaphorically vaginalize him by pelting him with oranges in the cafeteria. Carmelo's overtures to Claudio are similarly coded with dynamics of dominance and submission. Sodomitical graffiti in the toilet prompts Carmelo to observe that women are preferable, "but...." Aldrich's thoughts finish Carmelo's sentence: "Homosexual sex represented a 'lesser evil' than the seduction of virgins and married women, but a more exciting sexual diversion than other alternatives, such as masturbation and bestiality" (175). Carmelo menacingly fondles a mop stick to assert his role as bearer-of-the-phallus as he alludes to the sodomitical drawing. In a later scene, he denies Claudio's phallicization by kicking him in the crotch. Claudio defends himself by grabbing a metal bar and striking Carmelo on the head, causing him to lose an eye. The incident recalls the homoerotic tensions in the mythic story of Cyclops, whom Theocritus metaphorically equated as one-eyed monster with the penis. Euripides' dramatic version of the tale specifically ascribes the blinding of Cyclops to his attempted rape of Silenus, king of the satyrs. Homer's rough original geography permits placing the event either in Sicily or its neighboring Aeolian islands, providing further validity to a Cyclopian reading of the incident in Risi's film. As with the mythic figure, Carmelo's phallocentric insistence on homoerotic dominance renders him a "one-eyed monster" as well. Terzi attempts to counter the power fixation of such noxious phallocentrism by reading "The Father of the Saints" by nineteenth-century Roman poet Gioacchino Belli. As opposed to Natale's linguistically impoverished reference to the male member as "minchia," Belli supplies some fifty metaphoric names for the penis which include not only weapons of aggression, but also fruits, vegetables, toys, and musical instruments, as givers of pleasure.
The film exposes Natale's vulnerability by showing his nightmare-ridden sleep, something that reveals his weakness not only to the audience but also to his fellow dormitory inmates. His imminent transfer to an adult prison means his place in the hierarchy of the phallocentric dynamic of dominance and submission soon will be reversed. He draws a huge penis on the chalkboard as a graphic assertion of the ostensibly inarguable phallocentric position, but the image fails to cover over or erase the accuracy of the previous chalkboard declaration "Natale is sad today," an indication of his disavowed vulnerability. Whether it be Carmelo's collapsible knife or Pietro's toy gun, the phallic symbols appropriated by these boys are shown to be ineffectual and impotent in a larger world that exceeds both the hermetic regionalism of their mafioso code, and the compensatory phallocentric psychology its rests upon.
Grimaldi establishes such phallocentrism in Acla even before his protagonist enters the exclusively male environment of the sulfur mines, when the male member fixes one's place in the social hierarchy during the ritual of the family bath. The pre-pubescent Acla and his younger brother are relegated the position of women, attending the fully phallicized males in their wash. Beginning with the patriarch, each male takes his turn in the progressively dirtier water. Intercuts of Acla's reaction shots to this series of integral male nudes confirm for him the role of the developed penis as determinant of power. (7) Paradoxically, in order to gain a position of prestige within the family hierarchy and become, in his mother's word "a man," Acla must risk becoming "a woman" in the exclusively male environment of the mine. The power and gender dynamics Grimaldi presents in the Sicilian sulfur mines replicate those T. Dunbar Moodie has observed in South African diamond mines. Moodie notes that prior to age twenty "men became 'wives' on the mines in order to become husbands and therefore full 'men' back home" (420).
Acla is introduced to the mine by the back of his master Caramazza's hand. Like Claudio in Forever Mery, Acla's inferior age, size, and relatively mild demeanor quickly brand him as vulnerable. Like Maurizio in Le buttane, his pleasing looks code him as object of desire. Caramazza and the boys in the mine call him "pretty," and the other miners generally refer to him in the feminine. His striking blondness marks him as genetically recessive, and by sociocultural extension, submissive. (8) During one of Acla's beatings, Grimaldi cuts to an image of his grandmother, from whom he inherited his fair coloring, to confirm the Darwinian translation of recessive genes into a submissive position. When the other boys openly discuss sodomizing him, he protests, but is warned, "Here they lower your prick with your pride." In such a social environment, the two are interchangeable. Acla quickly becomes familiarized with Linuzzu who, like Maurizio in Le buttane, trades sexual favors for fiscal empowerment. Linuzzu reduces the debt on his warranty each time he allows the older miner Ciccu to sodomize him. Child labor in the mine thus encourages child prostitution. Ciccu attempts to seduce Acla with offers of olives and sardines, complimenting his buttocks, and urging him to concede to "a miner's fate."
Acla resists the submissive role thrust upon him and runs away, but as an island, Sicily topographically encloses him in its hermetically phallocentric system. Having fled the mine cavern, he is caught in a cave. He then receives his most ruthless beating, one of some half dozen beatings of children in the film, whose very number threatens to transform the film into a cinematic exercise of the sort of abuse it supposedly condemns. When Ciccu taunts him by asking if he ran into a door, which would have provided Acla with an opening and escape, Acla responds that he ran into a wall, as that which closes in upon him and entraps him. Both Acla and Ciccu respect the mafioso practice of omerta, as neither discusses the actual physical cause of his scars and bruises. As Ciccu leads him back into the mines, his fate is sealed.
Moodie writes that "'homosexual' relations on the mines seem to take place almost exclusively between senior men (men with power in the mine structure) and younger men" (412). He assesses "the impossibility, at least in the case of [the] miners, of ... sexuality outside the context of power relations" (413). In Grimaldi's three films, only Acla's older brother Pino's relationship with Melino, a partner his own age, offers an alternative to the dynamic of dominance and submission. The scene wherein a miner plays a tango on the gramophone serves to emphasize the mutual and reciprocal nature of Pino and Melino's relationship. This sequence purges the dance (historically an Argentine dance of domination and submission performed in bordellos) of its original gender and power inequities. Grimaldi deploys intimate close-ups to convey the intimacy of the shared gaze between the two men, as they gently sway back and forth holding hands. The relationship of Pino and Melino, played out within the power-encoded environment of this phallocentric and exclusively male society, risks symbolically castrating them both. Pino must suffer the taunts of his fellows miners, even robbed of his pubic hair, which Ciccu claims as a prize to offer the pre-adolescent Acla.
Still, the image of two men dancing together prompts another male couple to do the same. The image of males dancing without women also emerges in the boys' twist scene in the boarding school of Le buttane. An unconventional male bonding ritual, it recurs throughout Pasolini's cinema from the cafe scene in Accattone (1961) to the closing moments of Salo. In Salo, the quotidian aspect of the two guards dancing bespeaks, at least in part, a supersession of the female, all of whom have been eliminated in earlier scenes. In large measure, Forever Mery and Acla presuppose this supersession. In the world of Acla, where boys perform the role of "wives," women are mere procreative necessities. Since, as Mieli argues, phallocentric machismo reduces women to a mere "buco," the male transvestite Kim easily usurps the role in Le buttane, despite the abundance of actual females in the film.
The ritual of the family bath in Acla establishes water as a nurturing female principle. When Acla escapes the parched heat and dust of the mine, he searches for the sea. (9) Ironically, despite Sicily being an island, he cannot find it and sees the sea only in his dreams. Forever Mery plays upon this aquatic metaphor when Terzi holds the mafia's exploitative power responsible for dessicating Sicily's rivers. Natale, proponent of the mafia, draws flowing lines on Terzi's arms as Antonio reads out the names of the island's dry riverbeds. When Terzi suggests nurture as a substitute for power, as a principle for human relations, by reading the students' essays on love, it even rains. As for Acla, when he does reach water, it is only a lake, reflecting nothing but the aridity of its surrounding landscape. Grimaldi basically presents a Sicily which, continually attacked from outside, turns in upon itself. This closure predicates both its mafioso mentality and the narcissism inherent in its excessive phallocentrism. Mieli discerns, "Il virilismo non e altro che l'ingombrante introiezione nevrotica, da parte dell'uomo ... trasformandolo in rozza caricatura di maschio" (108).
Laura Mulvey's heterocentric feminism asserts that "Man is reluctant to gaze at his exhibitionist like" (810). However, Grimaldi's Sicilian male nonprofessionals prove themselves more narcissistic than heterosexual, as Ward argues. Complicit in their own exhibitionism, they allow the filmmaker to expose their "introjected virility" as a "raw caricature of the masculine." Almost half the screen time of Acla displays an exclusively male cast in virtual undress, and the male clientele of Le buttane disrobe eagerly almost without exception. In contrast, the bodies of the prostitutes themselves more often than not appear fully clothed, dishabille, or discreetly hidden from the camera by the bodies of the male customers who mount them. Grimaldi repeatedly pans the backsides of his male characters, privileging thrusting male buttocks as a signifier of copulation, much as Pasolini had done in his Trilogy of Life. Grimaldi also sutures his homoerotic camera to the gaze of his female characters as a heterosexual surrogate, much as Pasolini did with Lucia in Teorema and Medea in Medea. (10) Orlanda's encounters with Mohon typify this technique, as Grimaldi alternates head shots of her fully dressed with full shots of him integrally nude as she inspects his body for lice. While this shooting strategy encourages empathy with the prostitutes as subjects, it also exhibits the male clientele as object. Linuccia's young spendthrift client revels in such exhibitionism, humming musical accompaniment for himself as he performs a striptease for both her and Grimaldi's camera, tossing off one indument at a time. One of Orlanda's clients goes further, performing a naked dance on the bed in hopes his swaying penis will inspire her to offer a free second round.
In contrast, the film remains highly selective in its presentation of women's anatomy, despite the implicit promise of salacious female images in its title. For instance, when BluBlu washes off in the shower, Grimaldi avoids so much as a shot of her breasts. The first ostensible exhibition of female genitalia in the film is not female genitalia at all, as Kim disrobes for a client and hides his genitals between his thighs. Alessandro Di Sanzo from the title role in Forever Mery, now renamed "Alessandra," had misled Grimaldi into believing that he was a post-operative transsexual. (11) As a result, Kim's exhibitionism in this scene substitutes imaginary and symbolic castration for actual castration. Instead of gendering the vagina, the moment merely denies the penis, which here retains its status as sole referent in a phallocentric culture. Veronica supplies Grimaldi with his only genuine integral female nude in the film. Hoping to gain a free go-round with her, three prospective clients recount penis-centered stories; yet she retains possession of the actual phallus, the key to the bordello. Locking up, she orders the three to undress, their induments cascading upon the floor, each in turn flopping upon the bed, and all heavily edited in mathematical precision to the accompaniment of a Baroque fugue. As the intertwining motifs of the fugue culminate in unison, Veronica enters the room and throws open her robe for the only pussy shot of the film.
Generally, the female prostitutes both demand payment in advance and command the behavior of their clientele. Given this behavior, a cursory reading of the film might seem to confirm Camille Paglia's theory of the superior power of the prostitute vis-a-vis the libidinal neediness of her male customers. However, Grimaldi's prostitutes must still submit to males other than their clientele. Miluccia and Veronica work in a bordello whose male owner profits from their labors. The streetwalking BluBlu works for a disgustingly obese pimp whose forced attentions prompt Grimaldi to fade to black, as if the encounter were visually unspeakable. Orlanda seems to work alone out of her house, but the sudden return of her boyfriend-pimp Mario indicates otherwise, and her assertion of autonomy provokes him to beat her. Among the female prostitutes, only Linuccia works independently, but such disregard for subservience to an individual male exposes her to the abusive machismo of Sicilian society at large. The film concludes not with Veronica's apotheosis of the vagina triumphant, but with Linuccia's humiliation in the face of the reassertion of the penis as phallus. As a parallel counterpoint to Veronica's scene with three men, three young clients in a car approach Linuccia. She takes control, setting the price and leading them to a secluded spot. After the transaction, the youths "celebrate" by beating her up. The incident recalls a similar one in Pasolini's Accattone, except that Linuccia's clients also urinate on her. Like Maurizio and BluBlu before her, Linuccia attempts to cleanse herself, the magnitude of the soiling requiring her to wash in the sea. Unlike Veronica, who retained the key as controlling phallus of the bordello, the car radio mocks an uncomprehending Linuccia with the English lyrics: "You have got the key." The violence of the delinquents argues that she does not.
In his polemics against traditional bourgeois codes of censorship, Pasolini defended cinematic renderings of male genitalia in his Trilogy of Life. He claimed "that there is plenty of ideology, and how, right there in that enormous cock on the screen, right there over their heads which they do not want to want to understand" (De Giusti 128). However, Grimaldi does not accept this view or Pasolini's semiotics uncritically. When Linuccia's spendthrift client reaches orgasm, Grimaldi intercuts shots of hackneyed visual metaphors such as a match lighting, a faucet turning on, and a glass breaking over his heavy breathing, thereby debasing the experience. The sequence debunks the seriousness of Pasolini's attempts to investigate the mystery of the human condition by decoding the body, and its sexual function in particular. With Grimaldi's camera often at crotch level, the critic Gianni Canova called Le buttane "a socio-anthropological defile of pubic hairs and penises" (141) whose very overabundance demystifies what Pasolini had called "the archaic, dark, vital violence of [the] sexual organs" (Lettere luterane 71). The urination of Linuccia reduces the penis to a flaccid instrument of degradation. At the bordello's Christmas Eve party, the giddy substitution of a dildo for a karaoke microphone diminishes the penis to a toy, as ineffectual a phallic symbol as Carmelo's knife or Pietro's gun in Forever Mery. Such sequences strive to unthread the fabric of Sicilian machismo, which nevertheless insistently re-weaves its conflation of penis and phallus in Grimaldi's homoerotic images. His cinematic attempt to disengorge "that enormous cock on the screen" of its ideology through overfamiliarity simultaneously reasserts phallocentrism, as Pasolini's dream becomes BluBlu's nightmare of an accelerating montage of penises. Grimaldi's closing freeze frame on her tongue stuck out to the camera constitutes an insufficient Felliniesque gesture of defiance to the extensive exercise in Pasolinian semiotics that preceded it.
By the time of the making of Salo, Pasolini had recanted his semiotic theories regarding sexuality, the human body, and its genitalia in his "Disavowal of the Trilogy of Life":
First: the progressive struggle for the democratization of expression and for sexual liberation has been brutally superseded and cancelled out by the decision of consumerist power to grant a tolerance as vast as it is false. Second: even the "reality" of innocent bodies has been violated, manipulated, enslaved by consumerist power--indeed, such violence to human bodies has become the macroscopic fact o (Lettere luterane 72)
Both Acla and Le buttane presuppose this "macroscopic fact." The indentured servitude of the "innocent bodies" in Acla enslaves the boys to consumerist power and fosters child prostitution. Le buttane intercuts close-ups of food, money, and body parts, as it presents the commodification of the body as a consumable good. The unsettling aspect of Grimaldi's cinema, particularly when removed from Risi's direction, is its quintessentially postmodern blurring of ideological positioning, seemingly complicit in the very thing it purports to attack. Grimaldi does not so much "destruct" Sicilian phallocentric machismo as he deconstructs it and even reconstructs it, simultaneously celebrating what he criticizes. The ostensibly communist Pasolini at least realized his complicity in the evolution of a consumerist society. He wrote, "In fact, my films have contributed, in practice, to a false liberalization, actually desired by the new reformist and permissive power, which is also the most fascist power in history" (qtd. in Rumble 248). Acla seems to illustrate that the permissive power and false tolerance of capital predate the sexual consumerist revolution of the late 1960s and early 1970s in which Pasolini participated. When the Baron visits his sulfur mines, he seems to be well aware of, and selectively inattentive to, the homoerotic dynamics his exclusively homosocial work environment encourages. Moodie's study of South African mines again provides a parallel. "[S]ex of the 'mine marriage' type served the interests of the industry ... the white compound staff certainly knew of 'mine marriages' and turned a blind eye to them" (421-22). In like manner, Pasolini's Salo sounded an alarm to which Grimaldi, in the interests of capital, has turned at least a partially deaf ear. If Acla was intended in part as an indictment of child abuse, the gratuitous beatings of its young protagonist(s) and its distinctly homoerotic images have found an audience among homosexual pedophiles who comprise the primary demographic of Award Films, which markets the film internationally. Salo may be disturbing because it is not consumable, but Acla is even more disturbing because it is.
Illinois State University
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(1) Auguste Comte (1798-1854) is generally considered to be the father of modern sociology. Comte argued that human behavior was more determined by social environment than by any innate moral predisposition. Such a view exculpates the individual, placing responsibility upon society, and thereby incites pleas for social reform, a traditional liberal position.
(2) The inmates refer to Malaspina as "Rosaspina." This conflation of the vaginal "rose" and phallic "spine" recalls the novels of French homosexual writer Jean Genet, specifically Our Lady of the Flowers and The Miracle of the Rose. The content of these novels also plays upon the slippage between the homosocial and the homoerotic in prison environments.
(3) For instance, when Risi's reformatory boys play soccer with an imaginary ball in Forever Mery, the sequence cannot help but reverberate with echoes of the conclusion of Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow Up (1966). When Carmelo rests his head invasively upon Claudio's lap to the intimate accompaniment of guitar music, the sequence constitutes a sarcastic recreation of Benvolio's first meeting with Romeo in Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968). In Acla, Acla and Maurizio's blithe and brutal frog-hunting recalls early scenes from Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 (1976), while the image of children eating watermelon at the festival borrows from a similar moment in Pasolini's Medea (1970). The use of induments as fetish objects in Le buttane has its precedents in Teorema (1968) and sections of numerous other Pasolini films.
(4) In contrast, Risi's actors in Forever Mery remain clothed and his predilection for bluish tint renders them gelid, despite the potential for a homoerotic imaginary in the all-male space of a boys' detention center dormitory.
(5) The differences between the two sequences are equally telling. While Visconti deals with the incident before the fact in an agitated manner that enhances melodramatic effect, Grimaldi presents the scene after the fact, contemplating the memento mori of the client as residue of an inevitable melodrama already played out.
(6) The actor Marco Leonardi functioned equally well as desired object of the gaze in Like Water for Chocolate (1992, dir. Alfonso Arrau).
(7) Grimaldi prioritizes the penis as hopeful site of future pride with his full frontal shot of Acla urinating in the moonlight. By showing a fairy tale-like moon in the background, Grimaldi creates a visual rendering of the title of Cesare Pavese's famed novel, The Moon and the Scythe (1950). The Italian title, La luna e i falo, metaphorically connotes the feminine with the moon and the masculine with "falo," as a near homonym for fallo, Italian for phallus. In a later scene, after Acla has been humiliated, he squats like a woman to urinate in the moonlight.
(8) An observation attributed to Pasolini proves oddly and incidentally symptomatic of this elision of recessive genetics and passive sexuality. Cesare Musatti recalls, "Pasolini sosteneva che si nasce omosessuali, cosi come si nasce biondi in un paese dove la maggioranza ha i capelli scuri" (31).
(9) This ending reverses the dynamics of escape, entrapment, and the sea that concludes Francois Truffaut's The Four Hundred Blows (1959). Like Acla, Truffaut's film also deals with a young male protagonist who searches for a place to belong.
(10) This technique is not specifically Pasolinian, of course, as Visconti deployed it as well in films such as Ossessione (1943) and Senso (1954). Outside of Italy, George Cukor's work with Katherine Hepburn and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's with Hanna Schygulla reveals this same gender preference disguising shooting strategy.
(11) I discovered this information from a conversation with a personal friend, Claudio Cordaro, who has worked as Grimaldi's costume designer (Rome, June 29, 1994).
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|Author:||Van Watson, William|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 1999|
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