Cast: Willem Dafoe, Ninetto Davoli, Riccardo Scamarcio, Valerio Mastandrea, Adriana Asti, Maria De Medeiros
Director: Abel Ferrara
Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
The biggest surprise regarding Abel Ferrara’s film about the final days of master Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini (Willem Dafoe) is just how meditative it is. Given Ferrara’s track record with portraying the excess, grime, and shock of the human condition in films like Bad Lieutenant, The Addiction, and Welcome to New York, Pasolini is notable for treating its subject with a lack of exploitation. This is a measured portrait of an artist; focusing more on Pasolini the man than Pasolini the director, though Ferrara understands there’s actually no distinction between the two. Pasolini’s work came from his soul, body, and mind, but the actual process of creation was often mundane. This is one of the great triumph’s of Ferrara’s film; it views the artistic process as ordinary and never devolves into worshipful biopic clichés.
Pasolini isn’t structured like a traditional biopic (there are no flashbacks or “greatest hits” demo reels here), and in terms of the filmmaker’s actual output, very little is broached. There are a few scenes of Pasolini putting the finishing editing touches on Sálo and then subsequently responding to controversy surrounding the finished film, but Ferrera seems more interested in the natural rhythms of the director’s daily life. Pasolini’s interactions with family members and friends have a loosely naturalistic feeling, with the domestic details being what matters, not whether they are driving the plot.
In one moment, Pasolini is putting on a record during a family dinner to lighten the mood, and in the next, he’s responding to hostile reporters regarding his political views or cruising the streets for young male prostitutes. Of course, we know that Pasolini was viciously murdered after a night of cruising, but Ferrera never uses his subject’s sexual predilections as fodder for lurid sensationalism. Instead, Pasolini’s death comes suddenly; emphasizing the tragedy of a life cut short before his time. Rather than using his death as a plot device in terms of foreshadowing, Ferrera eschews pat moralizing to land on a more sobering note.
Truthfully, Ferrera doesn’t completely abandon Pasolini’s cinematic preoccupations, but he gets at them in a more interesting way than most biopics. Large sections of the film are dedicated to visual interpretations of Pasolini’s unfinished novel “Petrolio”, which are filmed with a mixture of Pasolini’s hand-held style and Ferrera’s own trashy aesthetic. A special nod is given directly by casting Pasolini’s former collaborator and lover Ninetto Davoli at the center of these sequences, with visual cues involving orgies and stilted performances further extending the homage. However, at no point does one get the impression that Ferrera is simply copying Pasolini’s stylistic flourishes.
Obviously, Pasolini would not work as well as it does without Dafoe, who holds the center of the entire production with a subdued, layered performance. Speaking fluent Italian and looking very much like the iconoclastic filmmaker, the actor goes beyond mimicry to inhabit the presence of the man. Ferrera wisely shoots many scenes in closeup, resting on Dafoe’s weary face as he jots ideas in his notebook or scans the darkened alleyways for companionship. There is never a moment where Dafoe is not fully believable in the role, and he refuses to play Pasolini’s final moments for maudlin sentiment. Like the film surrounding him, the performance is surprisingly nimble in navigating various modes without ever standing on a soapbox.
Some may view Pasolini as a disappointment since it doesn’t offer the traditional catharsis found in most movies of this kind. But then again, Pasolini was never a traditional artist, and his work always seemed removed from mainstream acceptance. Ferrera acknowledges this truth by making a film which honors Pasolini’s legacy without ever bowing to commercial sensibilities, which feels exactly right. Artists working within the same troubled society as us ultimately provides more hope than the typical addiction/recovery/rebirth narrative we often get saddled with. In that sense, Ferrera’s deeply felt film proclaims what we’ve known about Pasolini all along; genuine art is dangerous.