[Notes on the INA-Casa housing plan and its appearances in Pasolini’s Rome. Written in the context of an essay on the film Twisted Realism by Raphaël Cuomo and Maria Iorio.]
By providing 110,000 flats in less than ten years the INA-Casa plan not only “gave space to live”, but it also “gave prospects to see”. This giving however was not a gift. Giving a prospect means giving distance, and giving to see is essentially an engagement with the desires, projections, and self-images of the beholder. The “new life” which the new housing projects were officially propagating might be precisely what he or she who sees them grow on the horizon would never achieve. While it plays on the imagination to have, what giving to see ultimately gives is to have not. The gesture acts on the twofold modality of seeing which Georges Didi-Huberman investigates in Ce que nous voyons, ce qui nous regarde: “The familiar experience with seeing will likely cause us to expect a possession: when we see, we usually have the impression to receive something. But the modality of the visible becomes inevitable – and that means tied to a question of being – when seeing means that one feels how something constantly withdraws, or in other words: when seeing means losing.” The crucial point in the kind of visual engineering employed in the INA-Casa plan was that both ends of the story are possible. Looking at the prospect of the new housing blocks from a distance one could never be sure if that distance would ever decrease.
The INA-Casa quarters changed the field of reference by extending the periphery of Italian cities into the surrounding countryside and by recalibrating the relation between the periphery and the center. “When going to work in the city center one used to say, ‘I am going to Rome’”, an elderly witness is quoted in Twisted Realism. The new housing blocks were not perceived to be part of the city yet, but they were not anymore on the countryside either; a place in-between which corresponded neatly to the position in life which those migrating from the country to the city were imagined to be in. In order to prepare European post-war societies for the new capitalism they were in for, it was imperative to loosen the ties people had to a place by creating structures which made no claims to a specific time or duration and yet satisfied the temporal need for a home. Capitalism needs to set people’s aspirations in motion, and that means it needs to make them believe in things in the distance or even things which are not visible yet, and it needs them to identify this visual field with their own future. The INA-Casa quarters were designed to house and nourish this belief in personal progress and “upward mobility”. Miraculously easy access to them was therefore as essential as their visibility from the far distance.
The particular INA-Casa project in which Pasolini decided to shoot Mamma Roma provided a landscape in which this spatiality of time had become emblematic. The new apartment blocks were sprawled in a hilly area which provided ample perspectives and horizons. The periphery presented itself as the interface between city and countryside, the new and the old life of most of its inhabitants, and the still abundant green space allowed for all kinds of transit dwellings to persist next to the new housing blocks: shacks, dens, and garden patches which kept austerity within sight as a reminder. Most prominently however, the Tuscolano quarter grew around the picturesque ruins of the ancient aqueduct which must have created the illusion that in the broader picture of men’s history on earth the speed in which the INA-Casa projects were built was nothing to worry about.
Pasolini, consciously or not, found in this social landscape a similar dynamic which he sees at work in writing a screenplay. In his essay collection Heretical empiricism he famously discusses the screenplay as “a structure that wants to be another structure”. In many ways Pasolini’s analysis of the semiotics of a screenplay can be applied to the INA-Casa plan. The plan was quite literally a screenplay in the sense that it was meant to provide a script for a future life and it effectively generated a series of pseudo-documentary short films to promote its intentions and instruct future inhabitants of the INA-Casa blocks how to make use of their new dwellings.
A short documentary on Pasolini by his assistant director Carlo di Carlo features and interesting 360° pan shot of this landscape, to which the narrative in Mamma Roma returns again and again. Taken from a fixed position the panorama shot lines up the different structures in this landscape like a temporal narrative from ancient times to the present. It was clearly intended to show how stark differences in living conditions are comprised in the present. The side-by-side of poverty and wealth is a common token in descriptions of cities in transition or societies with deficiencies in social justice. It usually functions to discredit the official propaganda of “upward mobility” and it makes the buildings of the well-off look ignorant and complacent. In Twisted Realism this scene reappears, filmed from a Moviola and played in reverse which cannot be recognized however from the images. ….
The rapid growth of the INA-Casa developments was frequently commented on by contemporary observers. The marvel of new homes for thousands growing “out of nothing in no time” was certainly connected to the recent experience of air raids and the destruction of thousands of homes and lives over night during the war. It was the positive to the negative. For those who had experienced the war, this must have been obvious. If the connection was not made explicitly by the INA-Casa promoters, it was because the plan, as much as it was a plan for new prospects, was also a design for oblivion. The psychological dynamics of this new architecture sent the past into the exile of the memories, dreams, and traumas of those who inhabited it. Without much ambiguity – and apart from their immediate merits for the housing question – the INA-Casa plan and comparable efforts in other European countries were plans to make people see, believe, and forget. The changes which those imposing rows of house effected in people’s relation to space aimed at an equivalent modification in their relation to time. Believing aligned the gaze to the future, while forgetting was a way to do away with questions of guilt and at the same time blur the logic of merit. Both orientations engrossed the eye and twisted people’s relation to the visible. Massive construction efforts like the INA-Casa plan were designed to negotiate the delicate balance between the visible and the possible. They served to make people look at the world in terms of want without wanting too much.
In one of the numerous promotional films which the Italian government produced to “preview” the new life in the new housing blocks, a woman is told that an INA-Casa apartment was “almost gratis”. Along with the idea that flats were allocated to applicants by a central bureau, this astonishing affordability fostered the ideology that there was something “miraculous” about this new life (1). In Twisted Realism scenes from this promotional film are shown playing on a “Moviola” in an archive environment. They are old images of new houses and seem to encompass a looped timeline. When the voice-over quotes the announcement “Gratis? Almost gratis”, the film is put in reverse. The protagonists remount their scooter backwards and cruise out of view as if sucked to their origins. But there are no origins, no history, there is no reason for their being chosen, no merits, and no beginning to this miracle story, or rather it began when forgetting set in. The hermetic loop structure of this promise – “gratis? almost gratis” (the true price is not given) – reaches a next level when in the following scene the woman who was chosen to soon move to an INA-Casa flat turns out to be working in the technical department of a film production company. We see her inspecting film stock on a Moviola very much like the one which the camera is recording these images from, when suddenly a voice from a loudspeaker summons her into a screening room. There she sits a few moments later, the projector above her head is switched on by an invisible hand and on the screen before her appears another INA-Casa promotional film like the one she is currently acting in. The same? Almost the same. For “Liliana”, the woman in the film, this “almost” makes all the difference because it keeps her from seeing herself trapped in a loop which starts and ends in a promise. For those who actually lived in one of those apartments or were aspiring to move there, seeing Liliana watching herself on a screen might have served to appease a frequent estrangement with the new life. The film might have been reassuring not because it claimed that the images were real, but because it prepared for a life in which reality had become something to which we relate based on an image.
The promo film described above appears to be about the Tiburtino Quarter on the Southern edge of Rome. With its deliberately playful architecture and village-like “authenticity”, the Tiburtino Quarter was an upgrade development within the INA-Casa plan and figured as a model for years to come; its architecture was vividly discussed in expert circles and referred to as “neo-realismo”. Pasolini’s fascination for the new INA-Casa quarters was fuelled by this claim. Not so much because it borrowed its name from cinema, but because it laid the finger on the dilemma: that “realism” had become a form of appeasement and that “reality” was exiled from everyday life.
Already a few years before situating his film Mamma Roma in the INA-Casa development Tuscolano, Pasolini reflected on the visual and social messages of the new housing blocks in his novel, Una Vita Violenta. When the protagonist Tommaso is released from a turn in prison, his family has just recently moved to a new house in the Tiburtino Quarter. Having known only shags and mud and leaking roofs before, he is now stunned and stupefied when he walks to his new home. When he went to prison, construction at the Tiburtino Quarter had only just started. “Now it was there, all nice and completed, with a little wall around it, on the fields that had remained what they were before, full of filth.” Tommaso’s first sight already reveals what this neo-realism also meant: the visible distinction between those who had made it, and those who were left behind, between filth and prosperity. While the distinctions are visible, the process that led to them remains invisible. Tommaso is walking to a home he has never seen before, he has to ask for directions to find his own address and when he sees it he cannot believe his eyes. He walks up the stairs and finds that an invisible hand has already tuck a sticker with his name at the door: Puzzilli. In his absence things have been arranged and life miraculously turned for the better. He has a new place it seems, and for no obvious reason.
Pasolini’s vivid description of Tommaso coming home from prison is a condensed tale of the humiliation which the lower classes were in for in the petit bourgeois mainstream of post-war Europe. It is a far cry from a revolutionary class who reclaims what has been robbed from them over centuries to the new suburban commuters who secretly believe that they don’t deserve what they have and who don’t know how they got where they are.
The war in-between is made more explicit in a number of scenes from Pasolini’s original Mamma Roma script which didn’t make it into the final film. They capture the sense of bewilderment and “miracle” which the new housing development materialized in the landscape. While in her everyday struggle for her own and her son’s future, Mamma Roma appears caught in a petit bourgeois dream, the vision she has in these scenes make her see reality in realistic terms, i.e. with its ideological grimace exposed. These scenes would have mirrored the more or less “realistic” narrative of the film in a more and more surreal landscape in which petty dreams and sordid nightmares are made of the same images and in which Mamma Roma would gradually lose herself. Maybe Pasolini decided they were too explicit. There, “with a solemn face and tears in her eyes like when one is happy and at the same time a little shocked from seeing something really strange”, Mamma Roma witnesses dust turn into clouds, a desert become the sea, herself walking on water, and the countryside being invaded by the sprawling outskirts of the city. At some point the screenplay suggests that she walks with Ettore through a bucolic dreamscape where they suddenly see, like a “miraculous apparition”, rows of newly built houses with raw walls and rolled down shutters. Small, modern houses, whose gardens are well kept and empty, and “whose inhabitants are currently asleep or off to work”. For the contemporary reader this image would likely have signified the next step up the social ladder which Mamma Roma and Ettore would struggle in vain to reach, the privately owned family home of the bourgeois. Dream or nightmare: you choose.
Later on in this surreal epilogue Mamma Roma hears a roaring sound, the sound of an airplane she thinks, and then she recalls the air raids during the war, the distinct sound of the bomber planes whose drone would rattle the sky. She recalls the fear of those on the ground that the planes might crash from the sky or that the pilot would randomly drop his load of bombs in order to gain speed for his flight home. Considering the time frame of the film and piecing together the biographical fragments spread throughout the screenplay, Ettore would have been born towards the end of the war. Leaving him with their relatives on the countryside, Mamma Roma could have arrived in the city around March 1944, just in time to witness for example the allied bombing of the Casal Bertone housing complex which in the beginning of the film she so desperately longs to move out from.
In an essay of his collection Empirismo eretico (Heretical empiricism, 1972), Pasolini refers to the screenplay as a “structure that wants to be another structure”. The sense of want expressed in this characterization does not indicate a deficiency but a desideratum. A desire, a hunger quite accurately, which for Pasolini makes the screenplay a progressive form with a power to set things in motion. The words in a screenplay are charged with the will to become images in a film. That is what makes author and reader of a screenplay accomplices, because reading a screenplay means “to provide it with a visual completeness which the text lacks, yet which it aims at.” What is particularly interesting is the “drama” which unfolds. Being signs that want to become images, Pasolini explains, the words in a screenplay provoke a drama between the three elements whose correlation constitutes their meaning: grapheme, phoneme, and kineme. The screenplay takes sides: “The words in a screenplay typically set apart one of the three elements which constitute meaning: the kineme.” The relation between the word and the kineme resembles the love of a mother for her favourite child. A passionate love, biased, pragmatic and unjust, like Mamma Roma’s love for her son Ettore and like Pasolini says his love for reality is; fuelled by the want for a better future and therefore ready for sacrifices in the present. The signs in a screenplay know how to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. With the help of their accomplice, the reader, they take two parallel paths: they gather their meaning by playing the common game of all written language and complying with the general rules of lingo and jargons, while at the same time earning their meaning by referring to another sign: the image of a film-to-be-made. Grapheme and Phoneme are good children who always obey and never lie. Kineme is the renegade who aims further and defies the laws and restrictions of the given. Kineme will make it big, or so his mother wants to believe, because he is not content with what he sees, but believes in what he imagines.
Pasolini was well aware and also explicit about the utopian and rebellious drive he attributed to a screenplay. If the curious desideratum which a screenplay allowed to project on reality was what made Pasolini swap prose for film, there remains the question how the fulfilment of the screenplay’s desire in a film image would affect this rebellious momentum. If a screenplay is a structure that wants to be another structure, isn’t the final film then the end of this want and the appeasement of the hunger?
1 – More than anything else, the ideology of “Wirtschaftswunder” (the „economic miracle“) which Germans are claiming to have experienced in the 1950’s helped to conceal the violence of the new economic order as well as the profits it drew from the older one.