In discussing the delicate yet punchy effect of Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1961 debut Accattone, one must choose words with care. Such care is not quite possible at present, so I'll eschew deeper evocation for a brevity which can perhaps suggest some elements of the film's success.
Accattone is not an avant-garde movie; it has characters, a story, a narrative that unfolds in chronological time, in a real location. (The story: Vittorio Accattone is a pimp; after his girlfriend/employee is arrested, he starves for a bit and then tries to groom an innocent young woman into a pro - yet he ends up torn between a love for her and a commitment to the life of criminality and impulsiveness which is all he knows.) There's a dream sequence but it's rather straightforward - in some ways less surreal than the scenes of waking life. The film's overall style is a more mobile, more impressionistic neorealism, so it exists in a recognizable context as well.
Yet slipping into Accattone, one feels one is entering a universe without rules (even as a certain fatalism shrouds the proceedings) - each step is a step into the abyss, each moment a new discovery. I'm not quite sure how Pasolini evokes this atmosphere. In general terms, he shoots "close to the ground" with locales and milieus that make earlier neorealism seem almost artificial; on the other hand, he employs a loose, mobile mise en scene which seems to settle on (if such a phrase can be used) movements, cuts, and framings based not on screen logic or narrative necessity but a spirit of poetry. And yet the beauty is never forced, few films are more beautiful more organically. The precise alchemy of Pasolini's magic is then difficult to ascertain; ironic, indeed, that he himself turned out to be a theorist, codifying the seemingly elusive poetry of the image.
The music of Bach presides over the film, yet it doesn't feel imposed on the material, rather as if Pasolini chipped away at reality with his camera, and these mournful rivers of sonic emotion came pouring out. I don't know that Accattone's great; it is not as forceful nor controlled as Mamma Roma a few years later. Yet the restless energy which Mamma Roma can only hint at (with suggestions which tease its teenage protagonist and torment his mother with reminders of a life she knew all too well) flows through Accattone - it exists in suspension between true freedom and the fatal knowledge which brings one crashing down to earth.
Viewed "instantly" on the Netflix website, the film is presented in a very rough print, with white-on-white subtitles often hard to read and the visuals often ragged and jumpy - and yet this raw, unkempt, "found" appearance oddly suits Pasolini's vision, however inconvenient.