On the night that outspoken intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered in November 1975, the Italian filmmaker, playwright, journalist and poet was attempting to retrieve the film roll from his infamous final work Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma).
He was allegedly being blackmailed for a princely sum that almost matched the entire budget of the controversial movie, adapting the Marquis de Sade’s sado-masochistic book but relocated to the aftermath of the fall of Benito Mussolini in 1943.
Alongside coroner Faustino Durante, journalist-turned-filmmaker David Grieco was one of the first people on the scene of this brutal assassination, and a chance encounter with Federico Fellino saw Grieco deliver the heartbreaking news to the La Dolce Vita director while on his way to the airport in a cab.
The severely beaten Pasolini had been repeatedly run over by his own sports car.
“The scene was such a mess,” Grieco says over a wonky phone line from a French hotel. “No one preserved the area. Everyone was walking all over it and there were even kids playing football, with the ball rolling on his body.”
The slaying was pinned on 17-year-old sex worker and Pasolini confidante Pino Pelosi. Almost from the outset, doubt was cast over whether he acted alone or, as seems more likely, was silenced as a witness to a much larger conspiracy.
Moral outrage was keen to put the crime down to the director’s defiantly open homosexuality, his membership of the Communist party and his willingness to call out the fascist government and the criminals they mixed with. In turn, Pasolini never truly received justice or even the credit he deserves in his home country.
Grieco hopes to redress that with The Ploy (La Macchinazione), an intriguing film currently screening as part of this year’s Lavazza Italian Film Festival. It stars well-loved singer and actor Massimo Ranieri as the doomed auteur, with the similarity uncanny, a fact once commented upon by Pasolini himself.
“He was scared to do it, and I said, ‘I’m scared too, but that’s a good start, because no matter if we do it beautifully or not, we are going to make an important film,’” Grieco reveals.
Retracing the final days of Pasolini’s life, The Ploy is a compelling and ultimately tragic viewing. Grieco first met Pasolini as a young boy of nine, with the auteur becoming a close family friend. He offered Grieco - who also had small roles in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and Bernardo Bertolucci’s Partner - a part in his 1968 movie Teorema, starring Silvana Mangano and Terence Stamp, but the young man soon pulled out in favour of assisting behind the camera.
“I had a pretty face, but I was so bad,” Grieco laughs.
That included a stint as a sort of personal assistant/whipping boy to Maria Callas while she was filming Pasolini’s Medea, with the actress even demanding he fetch mineral water at 3am one morning. “She was, if I can say so, a pain in the ass,” Grieco says.
It was important to Grieco to do his friend justice and to try and shed some light on his senseless killing, having previously pulled out of an offer to pen the screenplay to American director Abel Ferrara’s 2014 attempt, Pasolini. “He was only interested in Pasolini’s sexual life,” he says.
“Forty years have passed now and in this time Pasolini has been haunting me. He was writing and saying to the people ‘I am a homosexual,’ with pride and bravery, and that was what a lot of people couldn’t stand. If you were a homosexual but you don’t show it, then it’s fine. If you say you are homosexual, then you are like a terrorist.
“This is why in Italian film schools you don’t study Pasolini, you can in schools all over the world, but not here,” he adds.
Through this film and an investigative book, Grieco hopes to play some small role in changing that legacy, but fears the push back will be strong, noting that he sees a swell in homophobia today. “We’ve been dealing with that horrible moralistic thing which is coming back all over the world and it’s frightening. It’s even worse now.”
Catch The Ploy at the Lavazza Italian Film Festival.