Appunti per un’Orestiade Africana. Pasolini’s attempt to set the Greek trilogy of plays in Central Africa is a project of great promise and possibly insurmountable problems. In this documentary, the filmmaker presents his vision, warts and all, and possibly hints at the reason for its failure.
It is 1970, a period of revolutionary fervor in Italy and indeed throughout the world, and Pier Paolo Pasolini is one of the filmmakers who best represents that spirit. In this atmosphere he makes a daring attempt to present sub-Saharan Africa from a post-colonial, militantly leftist point of view. Can this Italian, just 25 years after the end of Italy’s disastrous imperialist adventures, really chuck all the cultural baggage and create something with a fresh point of view? No. The failure is a surprise for everyone, including Pasolini, and it is to his credit that he was willing to put this mixed documentary together to record the inconsistencies and paradoxes that lead his project to its inevitable dead-end.
Orestiade, or Oresteia in English, refers to a trilogy of Greek tragedies by Aeschylus. The idea of setting the story in Africa is intriguing and full of interesting symbolism, and Pasolini dives in with enthusiasm. He begins by giving a short synopsis of the Oresteia in voiceover, as we see the faces of people on the streets of Uganda and several other countries. After the synopsis, he begins assigning these people possible roles in the first play, Agamemnon. There are returning warriors, an unfaithful wife and plotting offspring and just like that, we are drawn in, because we can immediately see the larger than life characters of Greek tragedy merging with the throbbing humanity in these images. The magic is powerful and there is the feeling that Pasolini could go on just like this with his project, narrating the action in voiceover, and depicting the scenes simply with the faces and gestures of the people.
In fact, maybe Pasolini should have gone ahead in just that way, making this his private Greek tragedy overlaying a collage of fascinating African scenes. At least then there would be an honest distinction between the European fantasies and the African realities. Everyone would have come together on their own terms and would be able to go their separate ways at the end.
But Pasolini believed in the correctness of his approach, and the beneficial effects of the progressive forces he represented. He had high hopes for his film. However, the scenes with the African students in Rome brings this high flying project crashing back to earth.
About ten minutes into the documentary, the lights come up and we are in an auditorium at the University of Rome. Pasolini is there with a group of African students, all male, all dressed formally, many wearing jackets and ties. He explains to them that he wanted to make this film in Africa because he saw so many similarities between modern Africa and Ancient Greece. So the question that he puts to the students is, should he set the story in 1960, at the time of independence, or in 1970, that is, in the present day. The question seems incredibly banal, superficial and irrelevant. Doesn’t he want to hear the students’ opinions on anything they have just seen, or is he just interested in some technical advice?
The faces of the students are like stone. This is 1970, they certainly know that they are in the presence of one of the great artists of the new “revolutionary” Italy, the part of society that is really their hosts and protectors in this storm tossed European country. Yet they seem torn, and unsure what to say. In many instances, the speaking of just a few words is enough to allow a break in the impassivity and let through a peak at the discomfort beneath. One student from Ethiopia speaks in measured objection to the concept, and seems to be controlling an urge to shout out his protests. He says he cannot comment on Africa, because he personally only knows Ethiopia. You cannot generalize about the whole continent, he tells Pasolini. Another student objects to the use of the word “tribes” and wants to refer to races and nations instead. Pasolini’s response to this sounds insensitive and dismissive, telling him that it was the European colonialists who had drawn the maps of Nigeria, and thus Nigerian history was a falsehood. The student is visibly frustrated, but keeps his council, and accepts the great filmmaster’s observations.
The students knew something was wrong, even if they couldn’t quite put their finger on it. But Pasolini is oblivious. The rebel, iconoclast and literary revolutionary pictured himself outside of the colonial and imperialistic hierarchy of European and Italian history, as though his good intentions alone were enough to subtract him and cleanse his project of the stain of colonialism. We never see a frank and open discussion of the meaning of the director’s relationship with his subject, Africa, no matter how many times the students dance around the problem with their inarticulate answers. It is difficult to watch.
Mercifully, the African footage comes back on, following the storyline of the second play, The Libation Bearers. The action is brutal and murder is the pivotal action in this play. The tone is different in this footage as well. There are scenes of war, executions, mourning, graveside rituals. Some of this is newsreel from the war in Biafra, Nigeria. Pasolini may be in over his head here, but he pulls it off, bringing these scenes together with the help of the words of the iconic Greek drama. The Africans in Pasolini’s viewfinder grow immensely symbolic, and he finds the main character, Orestes, in the person of an exquisitely expressive African man who calms the air with his powerful presence. Once again Pasolini reminds us of his unequaled sense of cinematic art and his deep understanding of what is beautiful in a man. But then there is the musical interlude, a combination of exquisitely hysterical riffs by the Argentine saxophonist Gato Barbieri, and some excruciatingly absurd singing by two African American singers, Archie Savage and Yvonne Murray. He sings overly legato lines in a Paul Robeson bass voice that could be effective, but she has a problem coming to terms with her segments. This is operatic, in the way that opera sounds when caricatured by someone who hates opera. And Miss Murray certainly looks like she hates this gig. Her voice is annoyingly shrill and hollow at the same time, her melody repetitive and impoverished. This is the exact opposite of bel canto, and if there were a performance indication at the top of her page, it would probably say something like “a squarciagola.” In other words, shout like a hoarse hyena.
In the second session with the students, Pasolini begins with a question about whether these Africans identify with the character of Orestes discovering a new world. He gets the same cryptic and troubled answers as before. He does manages to get them talking about the uniqueness of the African soul, though, when he switches to a discussion of the power of traditional culture to ameliorate the effects of modern consumerism. But when he asks them how he should continue the story, and how he might render the transformation of wrathful Furies into forgiving Eumenides. He is back to talking about his project as though it were a game or a masquerade. These students are talking about their destinies, the lives and deaths of their countrymen, their own identity, and Pasolini wants to focus on the minutiae of scene building for his film. In all, there are no smiles in this room, no enthusiastic confirmation of Pasolini’s insight into Africanness, no spontaneous identification with the African Orestes.
The African footage returns with the final play, Eumenides, as its focus. Pasolini searches for the way to present that transformation of the Furies. He shows scenes of street dancers, processions, wedding receptions. These are wonderfully evocative scenes, and his possibilities seem to multiply before our eyes. Truly, Pasolini could make a great film out of this project, in spite of it all.
Pasolini must have been profoundly disappointed by the responses from the auditorium, and considering the depth of his knowledge and his appreciations of irony, and his genuine humility, I don’t think that the true nature of the problem escaped him for very long. His questions had ignored the real problem that was there as plain as day. Could this Greek Orestes have any significance to the African situation, and indeed, why should it? Did he have the license to make such a film, using Africans as his workers, forever ordered here and there and never given the chance to make their own decisions and create their own tragedy as they saw it? Was his film simply just another exercise in colonialism?
For some reason, Pasolini never completed this project. This is a pity. He should have gone with his personal vision, created his unique work of art, and let the implications lead where they may. But he couldn’t: he was the engaged, connected artist, committed to an international struggle. The lack of solidarity for his project meant its doom. Still, the documentary remains, and in itself, it is a powerful statement showing the tragic disconnect between European and African, and judging from the difficulties encountered by both Pasolini and his musicians, the inability of either one to truthfully express the beauty of Africa using the tools of European art. Perhaps someday it will be possible, but not in 1970, and probably still not today.