A Tale from the Slums of Rome

In its own way, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1961 directorial debut Accattone could be seen as the last gasp of the Italian neo-realism movement. It is also a remarkably self-assured first film that blends the lyrical with the sordid in its depiction of life on the outskirts of Rome where pimps, thieves and petty criminals scrounge for a living with little hope of ever escaping their dead-end existence. Based on Pasolini’s second novel, Una Vita Violenta, Accatone successfully launched Pasolini as a film director but also marked the beginning of an acting career for Franco Citti in the title role. What is most interesting is that Una Vita Violenta was again adapted for the screen under that title the following year but it is hardly ever mentioned or revived. Pasolini had no involvement with the production but it did star Franco Citti in the central role of Tommaso, a character similar to Accattone, and the two films would make a fascinating double feature in terms of their contrasting tones and directorial style. 

Accatone is a blunt and emotional diamond in the rough that channels the sacred and the profane in equal parts while Una Vita Violenta (Violent Life) is fashioned as more of a dispassionate, documentary-like depiction of grinding urban poverty and its consequences. Accattone is still readily available on DVD from Water Bearer Films (though it is sadly in need of remastering). Violent Life, however, is more elusive but nonetheless essential viewing for Pasolini completists and those interested in Italian cinema of the early sixties.  Co-directed by Paolo Heusch and Brunello Rondi, Violent Life was adapted from Pasolini’s novel by no less than five screenwriters (Ennie De Concini, Franco Brusati, Franco Solinas and the two co-directors) with dialogue contributions from Sergio Citti, brother of Franco and a close friend of Pasolini. Tommaso, the protagonist, is part of a delinquent gang (they call themselves The Californians) who thumb their nose at steady work and opt instead to survive through hustling, preying on fellow slum dwellers and picking up odd jobs from blackmarket profiteers.

Franco Citti plays a gang member from the Roman slums in Violent Life (1962), based on a novel by Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Told in an episodic fashion, we follow Tommaso (Franco Citti) as he lives for the moment with no thoughts of the future. He crashes a dance at the Communist Party Center and later participates in a brawl with anti-fascists at the local movie house. After gorging themselves on cheap wine and pizza, Tommaso and his cronies steal a car and harass young lovers in secluded parking spots. One couple, in particular, are victimized with the man being beaten and robbed and his girlfriend threatened with rape. The hoodlums eventually drive up to a gas station, kidnap the attendant, rob him and roll him down an embankment before driving off into the night. Just a typical day in the life of Tommaso and company.  Una V

Franco Citti (center) plays the ringleader of an Italian slum gang in Violent Life (1962), based on a novel by Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Violent Life is unusually eye-opening in its depiction of slum life in the post-war era when Italian society was coming apart through dissent by Mussolini sympathizers, Communist party members, hard line Catholics and the disparity between the rich, the working class and the poor. It is not surprising that both Accatone and Violent Life were attacked by government officials, the clergy and film censors since they offered such a negative and hopeless depiction of Rome’s underbelly for all the world to see. Yet Violent Life, in particular, stands as a compelling argument for social reform but also as a rare glimpse into the lower depths, as vivid and authentic as such classics as William Wyler’s Dead End (1937), Luis Bunuel’s Los Olvidados (1950) and Hector Babanco’s Pixote (1981).

Franco Citti (far left) looks on as his friend, who was paid for the effort, serenades his girlfriend in Violent Life (1962), directed by Paolo Heusch & Brunello Rondi.

In the course of the film, even Tommaso begins to realize that his life must change if he wants a future. His luck seems to change when he meets Irene (Serena Vergano), an innocent young girl from the projects. Their romance begins with a date at the movies where Tommaso’s sexual advances are rebuffed. He is smitten nonetheless and proceeds to woo her in one of the film’s most memorable sequences. He pays his friend Carletto to get his guitar out of hock and then accompanies the guitarist/singer along with his gang to Irene’s apartment block where the entire neighborhood is serenaded. We never see Irene come to her window, nor are we even sure Tommaso and his pals are at the correct address but, for a brief moment, Tommaso’s romantic gesture is charmingly old-fashioned and sincere. Unfortunately the spell is broken when some men from the projects began demanding other songs from Carletto. When he refuses to indulge them, a fight breaks out and Tommaso, armed with a knife, stabs a man to death.  Arrested and sent to prison, Tommaso serves a two year prison sentence. When he is released, he seems determined to turn over a new leaf. He asks the local priest to help him find work and resumes his courtship with Irene, who has waited for his return. Marriage plans are discussed and Tommaso even mentions joining the Democratic party. But everything is put on hold when he is diagnosed with TB and sent to a sanatorium.

Serena Vergano & Franco Citti star in Violent Life (1962), based on Pier Paolo Pasolini’s second novel.

Tommaso’s evolution as a person is particularly striking in the second half of the film where he abstains from getting involved in an anti-government riot within the welfare hospital or notes his own estrangement from the gang as they torment an elderly beggar. Much more unexpected is a sequence set in a barren, trash-littered field where Tommaso and Irene go for a walk. He finds a flattened cardboard box and lays it on the ground for Irene. When she is hesitant to sit on it, he pulls out his handkerchief and neatly unfolds it on the cardboard for her. The courtly gesture sets the stage for what is certain to be Irene’s deflowering and impregnation – terminology that seems appropriate for Tommaso’s formal behavior – but the encounter goes in a different direction and ends in a lover’s spat about fidelity. The effect is both poignant and desolate.

Franco Citti faces his own mortaility in the 1962 film, Violent Life, based on a novel by Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Violent Life culminates in tragedy but it remains clear-eyed and unsentimental through the final fadeout. In a surprising turn of events, Tommaso risks his life to save a prostitute from her submerged house during a flash flood in the slums. The heroic act results in a recurrence of his TB but he calmly accepts his fate as his bride-to-be and former gang members leave him to his death bed. No good deed goes unpunished.

Tommaso (Franco Citti) is offended by the little beggar girl while his girffriend Irene (Serena Vergano) searches for spare change in Violent Life (1962).

It has to be said that Franco Citti’s performance in Violent Life is the driving force behind the film. Although untrained as an actor, he refused to take acting lessons as his career progressed, convinced that lessons would actually affect his performances in a negative way. Although he acted in many of Pasolini’s films, he also worked for such well regarded directors as Carlo Lizzani (Requiescat, 1967), Valerio Zurlini (Black Jesus, 1968), Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, 1972), Elio Petri (Todo Modo, 1976) and Bernardo Bertolucci (Luna, 1979). Pasolini best summed up his appeal, referring to him and Anna Magnani as “sacred monsters…[they] have something so authentic and personal about them, just as if they had been taken off the street.”

Screenwriter/director Pier Paolo Pasolini in his early years

In Citti’s case, it was true. He was a working class laborer who had spent much of his youth in and out of reform schools. Yet, despite a tough and intimidating facade, Citti has a mercurial nature that can convincingly transition from rage or menace into unexpected tenderness or laughter. He has one of the great faces of Italian cinema and he manages to transform a cynical lowlife into someone worthy of redemption and even sympathy in Violent LifeOf the two co-directors of Violent Life, Brunello Rondi is probably the more famous and is best known as a screenwriter who worked with Roberto Rossellini on such films as Europe ’51 and Escape by Night and with Fellini on La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2 and Juliet of the Spirits. Paolo Heusch, the other director, is better known for his work as a second unit director but his solo work as a director has mainly been consigned to genre films such as The Day the Sky Exploded (1958) and Werewolf in a Girls’ Dormitory (1961).  Other aspects of Violent Life that deserve recognition are the subtle but evocative music score by Piero Piccioni and the appropriately bleak black and white cinematography of Armando Nannuzzi which is like an insider tour of hell and was filmed on location in various industrial communities on the outskirts of Rome. Nannuzzi is best known for Mauro Bolognini’s Bell ‘Antonio (1960), Alberto Lattuada’s Mafioso (1962), Vittorio De Sica’s Il Boom (1963), Sergey Bondarchuk’s Waterloo (1970) and several films by Luchino Visconti (Sandra, The Damned, Ludwig).

Franco Citti (far right) is a street thug with no future prospects in the late Italian Neo-Realism film, Una Vita Violenta (Violent Life, 1962).

Violent Life remains unavailable on any format as a domestic U.S. release but it might surface on Blu-Ray someday through Italian cinema specialists like Arrow Films or Raro Films or even Criterion. If you have an all-region player, you might be able to find a 2006 import DVD version from Minerva via Amazon or you can contact European Trash Cinema which sells a fine widescreen DVD-R copy in Italian with English subtitles.

The author of Violent Life is Pier Paolo Pasolini but he did not contribute to the screenplay or work on the 1962 film.

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