The Real Fake News: The Death of Pasolini

Matthew Tannam-Elgie examines another genuine case of fake news, once again from 1970s Italy

Al Biondo Tevere is one of those restaurants that owes a lot of its charm to its peripheral location. The antithesis of a tourist trap, it’s located on the long stretch of road leading out of Rome known as Via Ostiense. There are no fountains there, and barely any tourists. The restaurant’s late owner, Giuseppina Sardegna, was just as unassuming as the establishment. A quiet woman who I usually found sitting near the courtyard in the Summer heat, she had been one of the last people to see Italian writer Pier Paolo Pasolini alive.

One fine day two or three years ago, I had a little chat with her in my flimsy Italian. Surprisingly, we seemed to understand each other and I still remember what she said about Pasolini’s alleged murderer:

“He was seventeen. It wasn’t possible.”

Pasolini, of course, was a broad-shouldered fifty-three year-old whose love of football had contributed to his athletic build. Pino Pelosi, the young male prostitute who was said to have killed him, was rather small and much less sturdy.

Pasolini had entered Sardegna’s restaurant with Pelosi after picking him up near Rome’s Termini train station. Sardegna and her husband, Vincenzo, were getting ready to close the restaurant but let them inside as soon as they noticed the writer, who often ate there. After some chicken for Pelosi, and a beer for Pasolini, Vincenzo saw them out to the latter’s car and they drove to the coastal town of Ostia.

It was at Ostia that Pasolini was killed, ostensibly beaten to death by Pelosi with a wooden plank. The trial of Pelosi in Rome’s Juvenile Court became, as biographer Barth David Schwartz notes, a trial of Pasolini’s public image. Given his renown as a journalist, filmmaker and maverick, it’s no surprise that the Italian media pounced on the death and the ensuing courtroom drama.

Weekly news magazines quickly proclaimed the incident at Ostia to be a sexcapade gone wrong, while celebrity journalists wrote articles claiming that Pasolini was killed by a group- Pelosi and some others. Although independent investigations by various newspapers and individual researchers found no evidence to support that claim, it was widely reported as fact. While more recent investigations have certainly added credibility to the idea that there may have been more than one killer, the year 1976 saw Italian publications rush to reprint the allegation without sufficient corroboration or fact-checking.

On the other side of the proverbial fence, there were publications which declared- perhaps too soon –that the killer had acted alone. Some of these publications were very much at odds with Pasolini’s political views, leaving the possibility of slander and whitewash open to some. The murder was depicted as the inevitable conclusion to the scandalous life of a polemicist who provoked outrage as a matter of course.

Indeed, to emphasise the murkiness of this story, it’s important to note that genuine “fake news” interfered intermittently in Pasolini’s life. In the 1960s, a photograph of Pasolini with a rifle was circulated, ostensibly showing him robbing a bank. In actual fact, it was a picture of him playing a gangster in a film made a few years previously. If such fakery could take place when the artist was alive, it’s no surprise that it happened in the wake of his death.

Also important to note is that, following the fatal night on the Roman coast, inaccuracy was not exclusive to the partisan papers; publications with no official political affiliation found it difficult not to slip into fantasy. Mainstream Italian journalists occasionally obfuscated Pasolini’s final moments with events that lacked a firm foundation of truth- such as semi-fictional accounts of Pasolini’s interactions with Pelosi prior to his death. This was, apparently, the result of a desperate need for clarity following an unclear crime that had been committed virtually the night before the papers hit the stands.

The more muddied the waters become, the more futile it feels to try to make sense of them. At the end of the day, unanswered questions and questionable reporting- the basis of real fake news –are too frenetic to handle. In the end, it feels more reliable just to bathe in that sunlight filling the courtyard of Al Biondo Tevere, the hazy recollections proving more reliable than the reality surrounding a most mysterious crime.

This story is the fourth in "The Real Fake News", a series that looks at actual examples of media manipulation used to spread biased (or completely false) information.