Nov 16, 2012

Ostia (1970)

Throughout film history, there has been a number of films that people have wondered and speculated who was the real ‘auteur’ behind the film, especially in the case of works produced and/or written by a master filmmaker for his young protégé or assistant, including the popular and/or artistically merited cinematic works The Thing from Another World (1951) aka The Thing directed by Christian Nyby and produced by Howard Hawks, Lonesome Cowboys (1968) directed by Andy Warhol and written and produced by Paul Morrissey (the factory filmmaker is a rare case where the so-called ‘master’ took credit for the work of his supposed ‘pupil’), The Tenderness of Wolves (1973) aka Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe directed by Ulli Lommel and produced by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Poltergeist (1982) directed by Tobe Hooper and The Goonies (1985) directed by Richard Donner; both of which were produced by Steven Spielberg (the former film was also co-written by Mr. Holocaust). Out of all the presumably ‘ghost-directed’ films that I know of, Pier Paolo Pasolini presents Ostia (1970) directed and co-written by Sergio Citti and produced and co-written by P.P. Pasolini – a curiously comedic yet exceedingly eerie and ghostly work when examined from a historical perspective – is one of the most interesting examples of the maestro presumably acting as the master over his young apprentice’s first feature-length film. Of course, it would be nothing short of a boldfaced lie to not mention Sergio Citti’s early influence on the great poet, filmmaker, philosopher, linguist, and all-around Renaissance man Pier Paolo Pasolini, as the young pupil was described by his talented teacher as a "lexicon of the Roman dialect" due to his contribution to dialogue and screenplay collaboration in important works like Accattone (1961), Mamma Roma (1962), The Grim Reaper (1962) aka La commare secca directed by Bernardo Bertolucci (this was the filmmaker's directorial debut but it was ultimately penned by Pasolini and Citti), and Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). After completing Ostia, Citti directed one more film of his own – the castration-anxiety-driven comedy and excursion in eunuch entertainment Bawdy Tales (1973) aka Storie scellerate – in the early 1970s, and eight more after Pasolini's death in 1975, but the director’s first flick would ultimately be one of his most personal, especially for his master whose forlorn fate uncannily paralleled that of one of the main characters in the film.

Considering he and his younger brother Franco (who was an actor that was also schooled by Pasolini and would go on to star in over 40 films, including as one of the leads in Ostia) grew up in the squalid and slimy sub-proletariat slums of Rome, Sergio Citti made for an apt teacher in street smarts to the effete Marxist intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini; a motivated man who was by no means the typical armchair leftist revolutionary whose only interaction with the workers of the world was when they mowed his lawn or cooked his brunch. Of course, the relation, which sprouted in the early 1950s when Pasolini was already a published poet, was mutually beneficial as Citti once matter-of-factly remarked, "If I hadn't met Pier Paolo, I'd have probably ended up as a delinquent,” so it was only natural that the novice filmmaker’s first film would be about the gutter-level unlawful antics of plebian hooligans – a duo of criminally-inclined anarchist marauder brothers to be exact. Centering around biologically bonded blood bros Rabbino (Franco Citti) and Bandiera (Laurent Terzieff) – not unlike the films of Pasolini – features themes of oedipal obsession, ghetto sexual and social debauchery, loving and loathing of all-things-Catholic, a dichotomy of the mother and the whore (mother Mary and Mary Magdalene), ferocious family feuds, and – of course – suitably saccharine and sweet moments of love and solidarity. Originally intending to direct it himself, Pasolini handed over Ostia to Citti to direct as he was working on Medea (1969) – an adaptation of the classic Euripides play of the same name starring the renowned Greek-American soprano opera singer Maria Callas that was the final entry of the director’s "Mythical Cyce" (proceeding Oedipus Rex, Teorema and Pigpen) – yet the film bears all the trademarks of a work by the ill-fated filmmaker who once stated: “The mark which has dominated all my work is the longing for life, this sense of exclusion, which doesn't lessen, but augments this love of life.”

The anarchist brothers Rabbino (Citti) and Bandiera (Terzieff) have been close since birth, but especially so after mutually killing their father while still grade school students by pushing him out of a window for slaughtering and eating their beloved pet ewe, so close that there seems to be a perverse sexual component to the relation, thereupon making Ostia all the more of an intimately ‘incestous’ work considering that real-life brothers Sergio and Franco Citti worked closely on the film together as actor (Franco) and director (Sergio). Although sibling–sibling incest is often regarded as the most common form of intra-familial abuse, it has rarely been the subject of films before the 1970s with the couple exceptions being Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), and Anne of the Thousand Days (1969), thus making Ostia a very ‘special’ and ‘singular’ film in that regard, especially considering it is of the homosexual brothers sort, but the topic is only subtlety portrayed and more implied in Citti’s film, most notably when one of bros mentions how the two kin kissed, "like two lovers in a trench" as their matching underwear hangs side-by-side on a clothesline in the near distance of their shared jail cell. The devastating downfalls of the brothers does not occur as a result of their pathological petty criminality (stealing and lying) but because of a bitchy blonde bombshell named Monica (Anita Sanders) who was herself the victim of a number of unreported sex crimes, thereupon morphing her into a horny harpy of sorts with predilection for easy prey: the sexually-confused anarchist brother. After their mentally feeble friend finds Monica – whose own father had just raped her after becoming sexually aroused after passively witnessing an Italian soldier molest her – the two brothers bring the seemingly catatonic woman to their home and allow their friends to sexually ravage her while they remain rather dubiously sexually restrained downstairs. Although not fornicating with her themselves, the brothers and Monica eventually begin a platonic ménage à trios that climaxes calamitously on the beach of Ostia, inevitably leaving one of the brothers dead in a manner strikingly similar in setting and brutality to the real-life murder of Pasolini only five years later and tearing apart the tragic threesome irrevocably and breaking away the brother's beautiful bond for eternity, which is undoubtedly a trademark strategy of the devil himself.

One of the more interesting and superlatively autobiographical elements of Ostia is that of the ferocious femme fatale and her fatalistic encounter with the brothers. Throughout the film – not unlike Federico Fellini’s segment “Toby Dammit” from Histoires extraordinaires (1968) aka Spirits of the Dead – the archetypical blonde beauty is portrayed as a bloodsucking succubus and a disciple of Satan, first in a painting of an alluring fair-haired, bare-skinned lady riding a winged devil, and later with Monica standing unclad on the beach smirking smugly in front of flames as if she is a loyal servant in Hades. Somewhat strangely and fortuitously, the Citti brothers would eventually marry blonde Swedish women, both of whom were coincidentally named Anita, and whose marriages would end disastrously with both ladies moving back to their Nordic homeland. Of course, the most engrossing and stranger-than-fiction foreboding premonition featured in Ostia is the death of one of the leads on the beach via brutal beating. Since Pasolini himself was the one to pen the script for the film, this foretelling scenario of sadistic savagery on the beach of Ostia all the more muddles the waters. While many film critics and Pasolini have recognized that the director’s final work Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) gives some evidence that the renegade Renaissance man could foretell his forsaken future, Citti’s Ostia features an almost literal presentiment of the poet’s death. In May 2005, when Sergio Citti – who was now confined to a wheelchair and hard of hearing – learned that the young male prostitute, Pino Pelosi, who was convicted of murdering his friend and teacher Pier Paolo Pasolini, recanted his original testimony and admitted that he was not the only man on the beaches of Ostia that night over 30 years ago, he was naturally infuriated and one can only assume the film Ostia immediately came to mind. As the only authorized and authentic auteur to Pasolini’s ultra-realist, proletarian-promoting film aesthetic, Citti was indubitably followed by a friendly ghost throughout his life which assuredly reached its peak when recollecting on his directorial debut Ostia.  Despite its afflicting content and all the more dispiriting climax, Ostia does conclude on a positive and even uplifting note that is both celestial and deific, where the sun beams through the clouds as if heaven is opening its gates for the belated brother.  Although his closest friend and blood brother is dead, the remaining brother is free to live his life as an individual of freewill who has to make decisions on his own, just as the director of Ostia would after Pasolini's death in 1975, which eventually led him to working with such big names and respected actors as Jodie Foster, Malcolm McDowell, Vittorio Gassman, Philippe Noiret and Harvey Keitel, which is not bad for a poverty-stricken peasant.  Although barely known and rarely scene, Ostia – a minimalistic tragicomedic Italian 'neo-neo-realist' minor masterpiece – is indubitably one of the most curious filmic chapters in the lives of both Pasolini and Citti.  At worst, Ostia will have you begging for the answer for the perennially unanswered questions: who killed Pasolini?!

-Ty E

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