Interview: Ninetto Davoli
This past weekend in San Francisco, the U.S. tour of the Pier Paolo Pasolini Film Series, a collection of all of the director’s films restored gorgeously on 35mm prints, moved, shocked, and rattled the Bay Area community just as the films did some 45 years ago. Pasolini is considered by some to be one of the great artistic minds and influences on Italian culture. Films like Mamma Roma, Teorema, and Salo, or the120 Days of Sodom, challenged audiences on a sensory, moral, and intellectual level, with their overt sexual imagery, violence, and, especially in Salo, rampant sadism.
The guest of honor at the San Francisco screenings was Ninetto Davoli, one of Pasolini’s closest friends and star of many of his films, like Arabian Nights, The Canterbury Tales, and The Decameron. A verbose, cheerful soul, Davoli seemed genuinely excited to be there and share his stories about Pasolini with the crowd.
Davoli sat with us privately to discuss the influence of Pasolini both on the world and on him personally.
What’s the most fascinating thing about Pasolini that perhaps people don’t know?
Everyone has private aspects that other people don’t know. But, in a sense, not so much Pier Paolo. He was very open. He let people in. He shared even his most internal, intimate world with the public, fearlessly and with great simplicity, truth, and frankness. This is rare among people. The kind of things people aren’t used to telling about themselves to others, Pasolini did. This is rare, but he had the courage to show his inner life to the external world. People are fascinated by Pasolini because he described the processes of life very honestly and authentically. He wrote about the world a long time ago when people weren’t used to it. People weren’t used to hearing such frankness. Now, people all around the world can understand what he wrote 45 years ago. But back then, he wasn’t understood. He was an alien. He was an oddity. Now people realize that what he described all those years ago has in great part come true. Many of his prophecies have come true, and this is one of his great powers.
Even today, Pasolini’s films are very powerful and challenging works. They’re still forward-thinking and sometimes shocking films. He moves modern audiences just as he did the audiences of 45 years ago. What was inside of him that enabled him to think so far ahead of others?
I can’t explain that. How can I explain that? Clearly he had a superiority of intellect, of culture, and so on. He had this almost prophetic ability to predict events that would happen. This was a natural gift and other people didn’t have it. He was a prophet. He was superior. It’s inexplicable. It’s hard to explain how someone could do this. He could see how life was going to become. He considered America to be, in a sense, guilty for how life was to be in the future to a large extent. It was, at the time, the international superpower of the world, and it was going to destroy people’s simplicity. This is what he saw all those years ago. With its power, it was to influence the entire world. He said that America would be guilty for taking away the “life of the moment” by spreading industrialism and consumerism and so on. This indeed came to pass and it’s what’s happening now.
If you were forced to pick one definitive cinematic moment or scene from Pasolini’s films, what would it be?
I think the most beautiful work Pasolini made was La Ricotta. It struck me very much as being his most beautiful work. For me personally, because it was my first film, because it was my first encounter with the world of cinema, because it was associated with such emotion and such newness, Hawks and Sparrows has the most special place in my heart. It was the most emotional and it will always be fixed in my heart. It allowed me to express the character of this boy that was me, to show my simplicity, to show my way of being. Hawks and Sparrows was what spurred me to do that and to become part of that world. That one is special for me.
Once, I asked Peir Paolo, “Which do you think is the most important of your films?” He answered, “Ninetto. Of all the films I’ve made, none is better or worse. I’m like a mother who has many children. They’re all my children. I can’t love one more than the others. I love them all the same way.
Pasolini contributed a lot to Italian culture through his work. What’s his greatest contribution? In other words, what’s an aspect of Italian culture that perhaps wouldn’t be the same had Pasolini not existed?
He didn’t really change life or the way of being or the moment in Italy. All of the events that happened would have happened anyway if he hadn’t existed. History would’ve taken its course. What he did do was cause many people to understand what life would become. It would have become what it became anyway, even if he hadn’t warned people, but at least he was able to warn people.
What’s the greatest gift Pasolini gave to you? Not necessarily a physical gift, but perhaps a virtue or a sensibility that he imparted you with.
He didn’t so much “give” me any sensibilities that he implanted in me, but he contributed to the discovery and externalization of myself. That “me” which I was discovering with his help is what we then transferred into cinema and what you read in his poems about me. He emphasized my sensibility, my way of being. My being a cheerful boy with a mobile face and all that. I don’t know if it would have been developed to that extent if he hadn’t been there. What he did was allow me to emphasize and externalize it.
The Pasolini Film Series will be hitting these cities in the next few months:
Pacific Film Archive, September 20-October 31
Museum of Fine Arts and Rice Cinema, September 28-October 27
National Gallery of Arts and the American Film Institute, November 2-30