Pier Paolo Pasolini, the writer and director of some of cinema’s most groundbreaking films, was persecuted more than any other Italian intellectual in the history of the republic. Systematically slandered by a radical-right press, he was brought to trial 33 times, accused of obscenity, plagiarism, and robbery. Yes, robbery.

Of all the accusations, this one may have been the most preposterous, or, in any case, the most unexpected. It also became the most frequently exploited by a reactionary 1960s-era Italy, which saw in Pasolini the incarnation of everything it would have liked to eliminate: freedom of thought, freedom to choose one’s own sexuality, and the persistent criticism of power.

On November 18, 1961, a man is driving along a coast road that leads from Sabaudia to Circeo, outside Rome. At a little after three, he stops at a gas station. He enters the gas-station bar and orders a Coke. He drinks the Coke, puts his empty glass down on the counter, and slowly pulls on a pair of black leather gloves. Having done this, he takes out a gun, carefully opens the chamber, removes a bullet from his pocket, and gets ready to load. A ray of sun drifts lazily into the bar, strikes the gun barrel, and reveals to the terrified barman another unusual detail: the bullet is made of gold.

The man now aims the gun at the barman and demands the receipts for the whole day. But the barman grabs a knife by the blade and hits the thief with the handle, and he flees.

A still from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1961 film, Accattone.

The next day, the barman sees the man reappear with a friend in front of the bar. This time he writes down the car’s license-plate number and quickly files a report at the local police station.

Evidently, the barman doesn’t have a television and doesn’t read the papers, because the man who he says tried to rob him has for several years been at the center of fierce polemics in the press. He has published, among other things, the novels Ragazzi di Vita (Boys Alive) and Una Vita Violenta (A Violent Life), which made their way into the darkest realms of male prostitution. His film Accattone has just opened in movie houses throughout Italy and is the subject of intense criticism from both Christian Democratic Italy and Communist Italy.

It seems that the gas pump has stood firm not only against the dissemination of news along the coast but also against the rumors circulating in the Roman underworld. Otherwise, the barman would have been aware that Pier Paolo Pasolini is a well-known personality, and has already been accused of theft and of spending nights under the moon on the Campidoglio, where the love of men is sold.

Maybe the barman is lying. Maybe he knows all of these things and is simply taking sides, like every other Italian, for or against Pasolini. At the police station, however, he swears that in the moment he didn’t recognize Pasolini; that he’s not looking for fame or money, or trying to inflict yet another blow on a man who has by now, at the age of 39, been made into a target.

Pasolini, right, with the Italian actress Anna Magnani on the set of his 1962 film, Mamma Roma.

The accusation forces Pasolini to leave the Pontine Coast, where, along with his friend Sergio Citti, he’s finishing the screenplay for another film, Mamma Roma, and hurry back to the city to let the police search his apartment on Via Carini.

Really, a golden bullet?, you might think. The judges couldn’t have believed such an improbable story. Well, they believed it.

No weapon turns up on Via Carini, but the barman’s description is too vivid to be ignored, the golden bullet a detail too surreal to have been invented. So Pasolini is tried for attempted armed robbery—and convicted. Then he is amnestied and finally acquitted, but only for lack of evidence: the gun didn’t turn up, and, except for the barman, no one was present at the scene.

On July 3, 1962, when the trial opens in Latina, outside Rome, Francesco Carnelutti, one of the defense lawyers, points out the unlikelihood of a 24-karat robbery attempt, especially by someone who has, by this point, had several successful books and movies.

Really, a golden bullet?, you might think. The judges couldn’t have believed such an improbable story. Well, they believed it.

Before the court, the lawyer asks the logical questions: Why would Pasolini have risked 20 years of prison for 2,000 lire, or a little more than $1—a laughable sum to him? Why would anyone grab a knife by the blade—and how would that person come out unscathed? And could it really be that the barman didn’t recognize Pasolini the moment he entered the bar?

Pasolini and the Italian actress Laura Betti at the Paris premiere of Accattone, in 1962.

But the interest of public opinion turns rapidly to a more urgent matter raised by the press: Why is the lawyer defending his client so zealously? Is it pure professional ethics? Or are he and Pasolini lovers?

While public opinion is consumed by these questions, the trial goes forward, and in the end Pasolini is convicted. Pasolini, the greatest Italian intellectual of the 20th century, is convicted for “threatening with a weapon,” an elusive weapon loaded with a mysterious golden bullet, in a public establishment, on a heavily traveled road, which anyone could have entered at any moment.

The trial ends with a jail sentence of 15 days, plus fines of 10,000 lire (five times the sum that Pasolini supposedly tried to extort) for illegal possession of a weapon, and 50,000 lire in damages to the father of the barman, who is still a minor at the time.

The sentence is brought before the Court of Appeals in Rome, which rejects the requests of both the defendant and the prosecutor but grants Pasolini amnesty. Next, in the Court of Cassation, Italy’s highest court, Pasolini’s other lawyer, Giuseppe Berlingieri, fights for a full acquittal, but gets only an acquittal for lack of evidence, leaving Pasolini with a nail planted in his flesh.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, the greatest Italian intellectual of the 20th century, is convicted for “threatening with a weapon,” an elusive weapon loaded with a mysterious golden bullet.

At that moment, he understands that he will wear the mantle of a thief—true or presumed—forever. There will always be doubt.

Mamma Roma finally comes out in September of that year, 1962. As always, Pasolini gets his fill of accusations, in particular, that the film is offensive to the common sense of decency and morality.

Inexplicably, the police don’t come after him this time around. So Pasolini decides to devote his unhoped-for energy, which is usually deployed to defend himself in courtrooms, to promoting his new film.

The day of the premiere, at the Quattro Fontane movie theater, he arrives hoping to win over audiences in the capital because the film was inspired by a well-known local news story—the death of the son of a Roman prostitute in the Regina Coeli prison.

A poster for Mamma Roma.

In the theater, Pasolini has just finished speaking when, from the side balconies, a group of neo-Fascist thugs descends into the audience and attacks him. Some of his closest friends, including Sergio Citti and Laura Betti, jump into the fray to defend him, but they’re beaten, too.

At that moment, Pasolini understands that he will wear the mantle of a thief—true or presumed—forever. There will always be doubt.

Compared with the Roman premiere of Accattone, however, things go better. At that showing, neo-Fascist groups had blocked the audience’s view by throwing ink onto the screen.

I could go on through the entire list of trials that Pasolini was involved in—33 in all. But there’s one other case, in particular, that bears revisiting: in 1969, a farmer in the province of Catania, in Sicily, accuses Pasolini of having caused the death of 50 of his sheep.

According to the farmer’s deposition, when Pasolini finished shooting the film Porcile (Pigsty), he released an unspecified number of dogs, which had been used as extras, into the wild. The dogs allegedly waited for nightfall and then raided the farmer’s sheep pens, slaughtering his flocks. The dogs must have been Pasolini’s, because there’s no way he could have brought them back with him to Rome. What would he do with all those dogs?

The Italian actor Ugo Tognazzi in a still from Pasolini’s 1969 film Porcile (Pigsty).

Pasolini was convinced that when ordinary people attacked him—as in the case of the barman in Circeo or the Catanian sheep farmer—it was because they were simple folk, barely educated, who ended up confusing him with the characters in his films and novels.

But this sort of innocent juxtaposition is rarely transformed into persecution or revenge. It wasn’t simplicity or cultural ignorance that accused Pasolini of the most unlikely and despicable crimes but the atmosphere of hatred that had been created around him—an atmosphere that wasn’t limited to slandering him, falsely accusing him, and wrongfully putting him on trial but went so far as to kill him.

In Italy, the scene of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s murder has been described so many times that when I think of that night of November 2, 1975, the rancid taste of the chicken that Pino Pelosi ate at the Biondo Tevere rises in my gut. The sound of the gearshift of the Alfa 2000 GT hums in my head as it glides along Via Cristoforo Colombo until it reaches the bare soccer field at the Idroscalo di Ostia. And every time I go back to that field, to the thoughts of all the mistakes that were made in gathering and analyzing the evidence there, I feel sick to my stomach.

At the root of it all—of his death as of the trials throughout his life—was the fact that Pasolini was gay. And so it doesn’t much matter whether Pelosi killed him alone or with others, or others killed him without Pelosi, or if the murder was political or the result of pure bestiality—questions that remain unanswered today.

The Italian politician Antonello Trombadori and actor Franco Citti carry Pasolini’s casket, 1975.

What matters is what happened before—the fact that every day produced new, fantastic stories about Pasolini, about pre-meditated genocides of sheep and attempted armed robberies. Such accusations are good for lighting a fire in winter, but lie after lie, burrowing into people’s minds, had dug a crater so deep that it was no coincidence if Pelosi, just after the arrest, stated what everyone wanted to hear: he had had to kill Pasolini because Pasolini had tried to sodomize him with a stick.

Many years later Pelosi retracted his statement, saying that none of it was true. But in the moment, his accusations were accepted as fact because people wanted to dismiss the murder as a settling of accounts between gays.

What has not yet been said is that Pier Paolo Pasolini was already dead when he arrived at the Idroscalo that night. He arrived worn out by the 33 blows of his trials. And the fact that out of 33, only 1, in the end, was fatal, isn’t chance—it’s statistics.

There are really only two types of intellectuals in this world: those who describe life by observing it, as if from behind a screen, and those who have to be crushed by it, because only when they’re on the mat, dying, can they describe it. Pasolini was the second type—he lived inside life. Writing, yes, reading, yes, analyzing, yes—but only from dawn to dusk, because, once the sun went down, his hand-to-hand combat with life began.

The well-defined muscles on his blood-smeared corpse, face-up on the field at the Idroscalo, are the most obvious sign of his daily fight.

NYRB Classics will release a new translation of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s first novel, Boys Alive, as well as the first American publication of his third novel, Theorem, on November 7

Roberto Saviano is an Italian journalist who has been living in exile since the publication of his first book, Gomorrah, a scathing account of organized crime in Naples. He is the author of several other books, including ZeroZeroZero, on the worldwide cocaine trade, and Piranhas: The Boy Bosses of Naples, a novel

Ann Goldstein is a New York–based editor and translator. She translated Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet into English, among many other works