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Che cosa sono le nuvole? (What are the clouds?) (Pasolini, 1968)

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About This Clip

Che cosa sono le nuvole? (What are the clouds?)

WRITTEN BY MIT Global Shakespeares regional editor (Italy) Anna Maria Cimitile
20 July 2014


The film

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini

Assistant director: Sergio Citti

Photography: Tonino Delli Colli

Film editing: Nino Baragli

Costume: Jurgen Henze


The film was shot as one of the episodes in Capriccio all’italiana (Italy, 1968; producer Dino De Laurentiis)

The actors

Totò (Jago), Ninetto Davoli (Otello), Laura Betti (Desdemona), Franco Franchi (Cassio), Ciccio Ingrassia (Roderigo), Adriana Asti (Bianca), Carlo Pisacane (Brabanzio). The Italian popular singer Domenico Modugno is the ‘immondezzaro’ or dustman, while the writer Francesco Leonetti, co-founder with Pasolini and Roberto Roversi of the journal Officina in 1955, plays in the film as the puppeteer


‘Opening titles’

The lyrics of the song sung by the dustman, interpreted by popular singer Domenico Modugno, are by Pasolini, inspired by lines in Othello. The refrain of the song is ‘Tutto il mio folle amore, lo soffia il cielo, lo soffia il cielo, così’ (‘All my crazy love, heaven blows it, heaven blows it, thus’), which is a rephrasing of Othello’s ‘All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven’ (3.3.448-49).[1]

The ‘opening titles’ shot establishes an original relationship between the film and the art of Spanish baroque painter Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) as four posters reproducing his paintings are seen there;[2] the posters appear to advertise each a different film and are shown in this order: Don Diego de Acedo, ‘el Primo’ (1635) for the film La Terra vista dalla luna (a film by Pasolini released as an episode in Le streghe in 1967); Philip IV at Fraga (1644) for Le avventure del Re Magio randagio e il suo schiavetto Schiaffo and Don Baltasar Carlos with a Dwarf (1632) for Mandolini (two films which Pasolini intended to shoot but in the event never did); and, finally, Las Meninas (1656), which advertises in mise en abîme the film in which it appears, Che cosa sono le nuvole?.[3] Foucault’s Les Mots et les choses (1966), which opens with a discussion of Las Meninas and addresses the question of representation in the modern age, appeared in Italian translation as Le parole e le cose in 1967, the year when the film was shot.[4] And, of course, the question of representation is crucial in Shakespeare’s Othello, where the Moor falls prey to Iago’s mischievous, deceitful ‘shows’ of reality.



A very special puppet theatre, where marionettes are also humans  and actors, is the chosen stage for the performance of the play, the means through which Pasolini preserves and even enhances the metatheatrical dimension of the Shakespearean tragedy. Some of the actors, being already well known to the Italian public at the time, almost appeared as self-referential character actors in the film.[5] The cultural reference for this version of the play is that of pupi siciliani or Opera dei Pupi, the theatre of marionettes which established itself in Southern Italy and especially in Sicily between the second half of the nineteenth and the first of the twentieth century. The pupi was a popular form of entertainment with stories mainly adapted from the Carolingian cycle; in its combination of the epic and the popular it well reflects the Pasolinian idea of art and culture, as well as the film itself in its rendition of the ‘classic’ Shakespeare.

In Che cosa sono le nuvole? the actors-puppets are animated through – and, one could add, also constrained by – strings manipulated by the puppeteer, who is also a character in the film. The audience to the puppet show also appear in the film: the poor and under-privileged classes, to whom Pasolini felt a lifelong attachment, are the public who will soon become part of the performance they are watching. The dramatic climax is reached when Otello slaps Desdemona’s face and the audience storm onto the small stage to defend the ‘woman’ and attack the Moor, thus repeating Otello’s mistakes in their own mis-taking of theatrical events for real life.

Indeed, in mistaking themselves, who are but spectators to a show, for witnesses with a right to act against a wrong, it is as if the audience in Pasolini’s film performed, in an excessive form, what Las Meninas only suggested; in jumping onto the stage it is as if they entered not only the physical space of representation, but representation qua representation – in which, being characters in a film, they anyhow already are – thus acting out the giddy effect that, in Velázquez’s artwork, the painter’s gaze – or rather, in Foucault’s terms, the ‘compelling line’ that goes from the artist’s eyes to the place that is also occupied by the observer of the picture – has on the onlookers.[6] In the re-mediation of a play rendered as a ‘puppet’ show and shot as a film, Pasolini offers a popularizing version of the sophisticated play of gazes and lines of flight as created in Las Meninas and read by the French philosopher.[7]

The audience assault the ‘puppets’ and in the fight Otello and Jago are torn apart and become waste to be finally collected by the dustman. During the frightening journey on the garbage truck that will take them to an unknown place, the two puppets utter inaudible, Munch-like screams, while the dustman sings his song again, almost as a comment on the fate occurred to ‘Otello’ and ‘Jago’ (now definitively figures where the Shakespearean characters and the actors-puppets are overlapped, to the point that no differentiation between the two is possible).[8] When the two marionettes finally find themselves in the open air, thrown on the dump, they see the clouds hovering in the sky and become oblivious of the site they are in. The clouds provoke a joyous wonder in Otello – a feature that has characterised him since his ‘birth’[9] –  who asks Jago about them. Jago knows the names of things: already in a scene that occurs before this one and when they are still in the theatre, he helps Otello identify what and where ‘truth’ is;[10] and, at the very beginning of Otello’s short life, in a similar fashion he and the Brabantio puppet-actor explain to him the reason for his joy at, and the meaning of, ‘being born’. This time, however, Jago cannot explain what the clouds are:

Otello: Iiiiih, and what are those?

Jago: Those… are… they are the clouds.

Otello: And what are the clouds?

Jago: Mah!?! [meaning ‘Who knows?’][11]

This is cinema, and the verbal question posed by the title finds a visual answer in the end, almost as if words could not explain anything, ‘explanation’ being too prosaic for the wonder of it all. At this point, the power of words is almost restored to its pre-classical condition as envisaged by Foucault and others, and  the correspondence between word and thing is in place again: a cloud is a ‘cloud’…

The ending of the film stresses that Jago’s and Otello’s fates are knotted together. If Otello’s painted black visage has its counterpart in Jago’s equally made-up green face and red tongue – already a sign, this, that they belong in the same realm – in their ‘afterlife’ the two must share one and the same destiny. Their common fate takes them beyond the life they have rehearsed on stage. Otello’s expression of wonder at the first ‘encounter’ with the clouds testifies to the beauty of his existence in the beautiful, infinite world; he feels himself part of a universe he was unaware of when he was ‘alive’ within the theatre. The tragic ending of two ‘puppets’, assaulted and destroyed by their own public as they were staging the tragedy of a four-century-old literary character, thus overcomes tragedy.[12]


The dialogues

Otello speaks alternatively in Italian and in Roman dialect. The popular, iconic comic actors chosen by Pasolini for the film have each a distinctive regional accent, so that Totò’s Neapolitan intonation, Franco Franchi’s Sicilian one and Ninetto Davoli’s Roman dialect become distinctive features of the film. Pasolini himself wrote some poetry in the Friuli dialect of his childhood and he defended the Italian dialects as the last outposts against consumerism and what he called ‘development without progress’. Below are some excerpts from the film dialogues followed by my translations.[13] Otello’s cues are prevalently in Roman dialect.


Being born

Otello: Come so’ contento. […] Perché so’ così contento?

Brabanzio: Perché sei nato!

Otello: E perché? che vuor di’ che so’ nato?

Jago: Vuol dire che ci sei.

Otello: Aaahhh!


Otello: How happy I am! […] Why am I so happy?

Brabanzio: Because you are born!

Otello: And what does it mean that I am born?

Jago: It means that you are.[14]

Otello: Aaahhh!



‘We are in a dream…’, or, La vida es sueño

Otello: Ma perché dovemo esser così diversi da come se credemo, perché?

Jago: Eh, figlio mio, noi siamo in un sogno dentro un sogno.


Otello: But why must we be so different from what we think we are, why?

Jago: Eh, my son, we are in a dream within a dream.



The truth, or what Othello knew

Otello: […] ma perché devo crede’ le cose che me dice Jago, perché so’ così stupido!

Puppeteer: Forse perché, in realtà, sei tu che vuoi ammazzare Desdemona.

Otello: Come? Io vojo ammazza’ a Desdemona? E perché?

Puppeteer: Forse perché a Desdemona piace essere ammazzata.

Otello: Ah sì, è così?

Puppeteer: Forse è così.

Otello: Ma qual è la verità? E’ quello che penso io de me, quello che pensa la gente, o quello che pensa quello là lì dentro…

Jago: Eh… Cosa senti dentro di te? Concentrati bene, cosa senti, eh?

Otello: Sì, sì… si sente quarcosa che c’è…

Jago: Beh… Quella è la verità… Ma ssssst, non bisogna nominarla, perché appena la nomini non c’è più…


Otello: But why am I to believe whatever Jago tells me, why am I so stupid!

Puppeteer: Maybe it is because, in fact, it is you who want to kill Desdemona.

Otello: What? I want to kill Desdemona? Why?

Puppeteer: Maybe because Desdemona likes to be killed.

Otello: Ah, is that so?

Puppeteer: Maybe that is how it is.

Otello: But which one is the truth? Is it what I think of myself, or what people think, or what that one over there [referred to the puppeteer] thinks about me?

Jago: Eh… What do you feel inside? Concentrate. What do you feel, eh?

Otello: Yes, yes, I feel there’s something there…

Jago: Well… That is the truth… But shhh, it is not to be named, because, as soon as you name it, it disappears…



‘Che cosa sono le nuvole?’

Otello: Iiiiih, e che so’ quelle?

Jago: Quelle… sono… sono le nuvole.

Otello: E che so’ ’ste nuvole?

Jago: Mah!?!

Otello: Quanto so’ belle, quanto so’ belle… ah… quanto so’ belle!

Jago: Ah, straziante meravigliosa bellezza del creato.


Otello: Iiiiih, and what are those?

Jago: Those… are… they are the clouds.

Otello: And what are the clouds?

Jago: Mah!?! [meaning ‘who knows?’]

Otello: How beautiful they are, how beautiful… ah… how beautiful they are!

Jago: Ah, heartrending marvellous beauty of creation!

[1] All quotations from the play are from William Shakespeare, Othello, Arden Shakespeare Third Series, edited by E. A. J. Honigmann, Walton-on-Thames, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd, 1996. Since the nineteenth century, Italian translations have rendered ‘fond love’ as alternatively ‘folle amore’ or ‘tenero amore’. In a twentieth-century translation that would have been available to Pasolini, Emilio Cecchi and Suso Cecchi D’Amico translated ‘fond love’ as ‘folle amore’ (Otello, in Shakespeare, Teatro, Vol. III, a cura di Mario Praz, Firenze, Sansoni, 1964, p. 160). The Italian expression turns ‘fondness’ into ‘folly’, as it can also refer to an excessive, literally mad or crazy (‘folle’) love, and the translators who have adopted it somehow make Othello’s remark anticipate the tragic outcome of his feeling, but leave out the sense of true and deep affection implied in ‘fond love’. Italian scholar Carlo Pagetti therefore prefers ‘tenero amore’ in his recent version of the play (Shakespeare, Otello, a cura di C. Pagetti, Torino, Einaudi, 2013, p. 193).

[2] One more reference to yet another painting by Velázquez is found towards the end of the film, when the dustman returns to the backyard of the puppet theatre to collect more waste; when the bin lorry leaves, with Modugno driving it and shot in close up, a reproduction of the Toilet of Venus (also known as ‘The Rokeby Venus’, 1647-51) can be seen on the wall of the cabin, behind the driver’s seat.

[3] In intention, the four films were to be the realisation of the project ‘Che cos’è il cinema?’ (‘What is cinema?’), which was never completed because of the death of Totò, who was to appear in all four films.

[4] For a discussion of the relation between Velázquez’s painting as discussed by Foucault and Pasolini’s film as adaptation of Othello, see Sonia Massai, ‘Subjection and Redemption in Pasolini’s Othello’, in S. Massai, ed., World-Wide Shakespeares: Local Appropriations in Film and Performance, London and New York, Routledge, 2005, 95-103.

[5] On the metatheatrical dimension of the film see also Massai, ‘Subjection and Redemption in Pasolini’s Othello’.

[6] ‘From the eyes of the painter to what he is observing there runs a compelling line that we, the onlookers, have no power of evading: it runs through the real picture and emerges from its surface to join the place from which we see the painter observing us; this dotted line reaches out to us ineluctably, and links us to the representation of the picture.’ Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, London, Tavistock/Routledge, 1970, 4.

[7] Pasolini had his own idea of what popularizing theatre might mean and involve, as one finds in, for example, his ‘Manifesto for a New Theatre’, first published in Italian in the same year when Capriccio all’italiana was released. There Pasolini argues against the two forms of theatre that have traditionally opposed each other and which may be recognized in the definitions ‘traditional’ and ‘avant-gard’, or in similar definitions, which both need to be overcome by a new theatre or ‘teatro di parola’ (‘Word Theatre’), as he names it. There he also expresses his suspicion towards ‘all the efforts to develop “people’s theatre” that seeks to reach the working class directly’, as if the latter had specific and exclusive expectations which were to be met by the theatre that addressed itself to that class. The new theatre is for all, bourgeoisie and working class alike; it only requires that its audience be ready to listen to it, regardless of the class it may belong to. Without engaging here in a discussion of the possible relationship between the Manifesto and the film (there is a passage in the Manifesto where Shakespeare is mentioned as theatre that, together with all the modern tradition, is skipped over by the new theatre, which is said to instead openly acknowledge the Athenian democratic theatre as its model), the following passage seems nevertheless relevant here: ‘Word Theatre seeks its “theatrical space” not in the environment but inside the mind. Technically, this “theatrical space” will be frontal; texts and actors directly facing the audience. Absolute cultural parity between these two interlocutors, who will look each other in the eyes, is the guarantee of true stage democracy’ (see Pier Paolo Pasolini, ‘Manifesto for a New Theatre’ [‘Manifesto per un nuovo teatro’, 1968], trans. Thomas Simpson, PAJ 29.1, 2007, 137; emphasis in the text). Pasolini sees the relation of equality between what goes on and who is on stage and the audience in terms of gazes; Velázquez’s Las Meninas, with its baroque play on vision, explores precisely that.

[8] This is indeed a characteristic of the theatre of marionettes or pupi, with each pupo always representing the same character, although the stories represented in each performance may change.

[9] See the translation of the relevant dialogues from the film below. In the script, the ‘stage directions’ also associate ‘wonder’ with Otello. See Che cosa sono le nuvole?, in Walter Siti and Franco Zabagli, eds, Pasolini. Per il cinema, 2 vols, Milano, Mondadori, 2001, 959.

[10] See below for a translation of the dialogue.

[11] From the film dialogues. My translation.

[12] The latter is intended in a wider sense than the ‘tragedy of Othello’ or the story told in the form of tragedy. The tragedy that the film overcomes in the redemptive finale, or at least allows us to forget about, is really the existential condition of being ‘human puppets’, a condition that cannot not be read as also referring to the ‘human condition’ as a whole.

[13] The full text of the script for the film is in Siti and Zabagli, eds, Pier Paolo Pasolini: Per il cinema, 935-964. At times it differs in conspicuous ways from the actual dialogues of the film. The excerpts reproduced here are from the dialogues as recited in the film.

[14] ‘[C]i sei’ would literally be ‘you are there/here’, but the deictic role of ‘here/there’ is not to be intended as exclusively referred to the contingent context. The German Dasein may come to mind and be superimposed here.

Che cosa sono le nuvole? (What are the clouds?)


What are the clouds? Clip 1

The dialogue between Otello and the puppeteer. Otello and Jago on ‘truth’ The full video of the film is at

The dialogue between Otello and the puppeteer. Otello and Jago on ‘truth’

The full video of the film is at less

What are the clouds? Clip 2

The finale with the dialogue between Otello and Jago on ‘clouds’. The full video of the film is at

The finale with the dialogue between Otello and Jago on ‘clouds’.

The full video of the film is at less

Che cosa sono le nuvole? (What are the clouds?) : Full Video

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