Fifty years ago, Pier Paolo Pasolini turned to the public and asked them a series of uncomfortable questions. They took it surprisingly well. The resulting film, Love Meetings, had its world premiere on July 26, 1964, at the Locarno Film Festival. It’s essentially an informal Kinsey survey, in which Pasolini travels up and down the Mediterranean asking Italians how they feel about various sexual issues. The list includes homosexuality, divorce, prostitution and sexual equality. The law shutting down Italy’s brothels had only been passed in 1958. Divorce would not be legal until 1970. It was a fraught time, what Pasolini himself refers to as the “very old, very innocent, very hot Italy of the 1960s.”
Of course, from the perspective of 21st century America, even the director’s most challenging works have become less controversial. Salò may always terrorize audiences but the nudity in The Decameron now seems tranquil and quaint. At first glance, Love Meetings appears today as innocent as its opening scene, in which Pasolini asks a group of young boys where babies come from. How can the sexual debates in a country where divorce is still illegal be applicable to contemporary Italy, let alone the United States?
The secret lies in its vocabulary. On the surface, the discussions provoked by Pasolini are extremely specific. An entire segment of the film has to do with the “Legge Merlin,” the piece of legislation that finally abolished the brothels. The two words that seem to come up the most are “conformism” and “scandal,” both of which have lost a great deal of potency over the years. The former is mostly used as a noun, describing the social condition of Italy. The latter is usually a verb, a symptom of society crippled by sexual conformism. In 1960s Italy, conformists are scandalized by homosexuality but not by brothels, shocked by a sexually free woman but not a murderer defending his marital honor.
But look closer and you see a discourse that hasn’t changed. Take the first word, “conformism.” Here it evokes The Conformist, the novel by Alberto Moravia later famously adapted by director Bernardo Bertolucci. Moravia actually joins famed psychoanalyst Cesare Musatti as a makeshift “panel of experts” in Love Meetings. Their conclusions on conformity are summarized by Pasolini in this way: “Conformism is the stubborn certainty of those who are insecure.”
The word is omnipresent in the film but its meaning varies from place to place. The difference between sexually open Milan and tightly wound Palermo, the eternal cleft between North and South, is most obvious when it comes to sexual conformity. Pre-marital sex is unthinkable in Calabria but almost a norm among some young people in Lombardy. The word “conformist” may be rare now, but the striking divergence on the issue of sexual freedom in different places and communities remains a powerful force.
As for “scandalize,” this is a bit clearer. The word “scandal” has a slightly higher profile these days than “conformism.” There is an enormously popular TV show called Scandal, after all. Yet while we still have many a scandal we are not often “scandalized.” As a verb it carries a connotation of puritanical pearl-clutching.
In Love Meetings it is not quite so laughable. Many of these Italians are scandalized by anything that upsets their worldview. That includes homosexuality and female independence. Yet what is equally interesting is what it does not include: prostitution and honor killings, at least in the South. This opens the door to understanding the double standard that not only governed Italian society in the 1960s but continues to dominate American culture today.
According to a great many of those interviewed, a woman who becomes a prostitute is despised because she is cunning, taking advantage of male sexual desire to become wealthy. Furthermore, it is acceptable that men go to prostitutes but unacceptable that upstanding women have sexual partners before marriage. The explanation is simply that men are naturally jealous. Both of these positions come from the understanding that the natural state of man is sexual. “If I see a pretty girl I think obscene thoughts in a typical Italian way,” one man explains. The natural state of woman, meanwhile, is virginal and then maternal.
The dominant image of the film, particularly in those sequences filmed in the South, is the crowd of men all ganging up on the camera. They reinforce each other’s sexual energy while the women are hidden. This double standard can be seen all over both mid-century Italian society and contemporary American society, in the debates over everything from contraception and abortion to the wage gap.
Yet it is also important to note that this is not a fully panoramic portrait of Italy. Those who contributed censored themselves. Sometimes Pasolini even mutes the words of his subjects, presumably because they approached him after and asked that their more inflammatory words not be included. There is also the skew of self-selection. These are only the Italians willing to talk about sex. Moravia himself comments on this, explaining that the film is a true portrait of only half of Italy. It is valid but incomplete.
Even this single portion of the Italian public, however, is a powerful beginning. The brightest aspect of Love Meetings’s legacy is the having of the conversation itself, Pasolini’s choice to turn the public square into a venue for open, recorded sexual discourse. Kinsey’s survey was much more scientific but it was also very guarded. People in puritanical America were asked to speak in private, their testimony kept anonymous.
Love Meetings is the opposite. It is a funny, brash and public exploration of human sexuality with real faces and voices. Since 1964, things have only become more and more open. We now fight about access to birth control on Facebook and Twitter. Pasolini the poet might cringe at the way this has changed language, but Pasolini the public intellectual would have been enthralled.