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UCLA Serves Up a Pasolini Retrospective : Movies: The Italian director is finally receiving his due 16 years after his violent death at age 53. The series opens tonight and continues through December.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly 16 years after his brutal death at 53, controversial Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini is at last receiving a complete retrospective of his films at UCLA’s Melnitz Theater. Opening tonight and running through Dec. 6, the retrospective is presented by the university’s film archive in association with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Pasolini Foundation and various other institutions both in Italy and the United States.

For all his talent and passion, Pasolini, who began as a screenwriter, was a notoriously uneven filmmaker, who ranged from the neo-realism of his earliest films to the stylized lushness of his versions of various literary classics, moving from the sunniness of “The Decameron” to the final despair of “Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom.” Most of Pasolini’s features have been shown in Los Angeles, but many of his shorts have never been seen here before; the entire festival represents a major restoration effort, extending even to subtitles.

At the time of his death, Pasolini was proclaimed a great poet by his close friend, the late writer Alberto Moravia. (The series opens Friday at 7 p.m. with a brief reading of his poetry by actress Laura Betti, Pasolini’s long-time collaborator and director of the Pasolini Foundation. Four charming short films will follow.)

Pasolini is unfortunately best remembered for his death at the beach resort of Ostia on Nov. 2, 1975; he was severely beaten and run over by his own Alfa Romeo. A 17-year-old bakery worker, who claimed that openly gay Pasolini had made advances to him, was convicted in April, 1976, of his murder.

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The brutality of Pasolini’s death has caused many to believe that more than one person may have been involved. It has even been theorized that Pasolini, a fiery Marxist--and a filmmaker whose works brought him 33 charges of obscenity, all of which were ultimately dismissed--was the victim of a political conspiracy.

In any event, his violent end, fitting eerily with the unparalleled bleakness and unrelieved morbidity of his final film, an adaptation of the Marquis De Sade’s “Salo,” updated to Fascist Italy, has tended to overshadow his status as a major filmmaker of international renown.

With his very first film, “Accatone” (1961), Pasolini moved beyond the social protest of neo-realism to the higher plane of man’s eternal struggle against his fate. For his very first hero--or anti-hero--he chose a lazy Roman pimp called Accatone (Franco Citti, seen last in “The Godfather III”) and resolutely stuck to telling the young man’s story in the languorous tempo of his existence. The film is marked by Pasolini’s compassion for Accatone, his refusal to judge him and his ability to force us to recognize the pimp’s humanity.

“Accatone,” which Pasolini adapted from his own 1959 novel, remains one of Pasolini’s finest films, as does his second, “Mamma Roma” (1962), a kind of companion picture to “Accatone” and which apparently was not released in Los Angeles. We meet Accatone just as he is about to lose his sole source of income, a prostitute who has been convicted and sentenced to a year in prison for perjury. We also meet Mamma Roma (Anna Magnani, at her incomparable, volcanic best) just as she’s given up streetwalking, having scrimped and saved for years, to open a produce stand in an open-air Roman market and to reclaim her 18-year-old son (Ettore Garofolo), who’s been raised in a small town and whom she overwhelms with an almost seductive mother love.

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The film is marked by some extraordinary tracking sequences as Mamma Roma strides through the night, proudly announcing her dreams and feelings to a chorus of passersby--and also by a climactic image of crucifixion. Film historian Ephraim Katz has aptly remarked that Pasolini’s entire career was characterized by “a brave attempt to reconcile his allegiances to Marx, Freud and Jesus Christ.”

In “Gospel According to Matthew” (1964) there are decided portents to the despair that progressively overcame Pasolini, who saw his virile, implacable Jesus (Enrique Irazoqui) as a revolutionary and his miraculous acts as part of his myth. While the film’s raw realism offers a welcome contrast to the grandiose Hollywood Biblicals, this “Gospel” really doesn’t work because of its crucial lack of spirituality. Pasolini is above all captivated by Jesus’ final suffering and martyrdom on the cross to the extent that it takes on the aura of a masochistic fantasy.

The following year Pasolini made “Hawks and Sparrows,” a witty, whimsical yet profound allegory in which he attempts to resolve Marxism with Christianity, involving shifts between past and present and suggesting that we must assimilate the past in order to face the future freely. Toto, the great, elderly Italian clown, and the comical young Ninetto Davoli star as a humble father and son on a picaresque journey.

Pasolini’s stunning 1967 version of “Oedipus Rex,” filmed largely in Morocco with Franco Citti, more Everyman than royal figure in the title role, daringly opens with an autobiographical sequence set in Lombardy in the 1920s, in which he identifies himself with Oedipus, suggesting even that as an artist he has been blind.

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Alas, his 1970 “Medea” with Maria Callas, no less, in the title role, misfired. A pretentious, tedious foray in barbaric chic with bizarre costuming a la Vogue Magazine, it turns upon Pasolini’s notion that Medea did not kill out of vengeance but because of the belief of her people that death was not an end but a prelude to birth in another world. It’s an intriguing idea, but Callas has a fiery, tempestuous presence that vitiates it entirely. (Can one seriously imagine a Callas Medea that didn’t seem a woman scorned?).

The craggily handsome and wiry Pasolini cast himself as a 14th-Century artist in the sunniest, most enjoyable movie he ever made, “The Decameron” (1971).

He poses the question: Why produce a work of art when it’s so nice to dream about it? The answer is to celebrate life, no matter what, as we watch this rich, sensual fresco through the eyes of the artist, who is able to perceive a transcendent beauty in every aspect of life--despite humanity’s infinite capacity for the folly, greed, duplicity and hypocrisy that overflow the film’s eight classic tales dealing with a variety of gulls and cuckolds.

For all his success with bringing author Giovanni Boccaccio’s work to the screen he failed badly the following year with Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” a dull and drawn-out experience--despite its X rating at the time.

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Yet in the artistic ups and downs that characterized his entire career, Pasolini completed what he called his “trilogy of life” with the ravishing and joyously affirmative “Arabian Nights” (1973), which, like “The Decameron” is a celebration of life, even though shot through with a sense of the dire and cruel absurdity of fate.

Filmed in the most gloriously sunlit color in Ethiopia, Iran, Nepal and Yemen, “Arabian Nights” is one of Pasolini’s most beautiful films. Its various vignettes, which flow easily from one to another, are framed by a youth’s quest for his beloved, a slave girl who has been kidnaped. With the irony that so characterized Pasolini’s entire life and career, the film ends with the observation that “the beginning was bitter, but the end was sweet.”

This film was to be followed by “Salo” (1975), in which Fascist dignitaries, early in World War II, take turns corrupting a kidnaped company of young people, ending with a revoltingly graphic series of tortures and murders--and then, the director’s own cruel death. At that time Michelangelo Antonioni remarked: “In the end he was a victim of his own characters--a perfect tragedy foreseen in its own aspects--without knowing that one day it would end up overcoming him.”

For more information about the Pasolini film series: (213) 206-FILM, 206-8013; for the Pasolini photograph, poster and video exhibition at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Nov . 11-Dec . 20: (213) 247-3000; and for the Saturday all-day Pasolini symposium at UCLA: (213) 206-5388.

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