At the end, Pier Paolo Pasolini dies. The destiny of the revolutionary Italian filmmaker is no secret. There is nothing during Pasolini, the biographical drama directed by American director Abel Ferrara, that indicates this fatal destiny will be altered. This is not a revisionist story. Pasolini died a tragic and mysterious death. And although Ferrara opts for portraying one of the many theories about Pasolini’s murder, the event remains as cloudy as a nebula in the eye.
As a feature, Pasolini feels a bit like a hazy experience, albeit an interesting one. Ferrara’s film is part visual homage, part intellectual assessment. It seems too unconventional to be classified as a traditional artist biopic, but it’s less risky than a more experimental approach, such as the portrait of Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’s excellent I’m Not There.
The Italian maestro is worthily played by Willem Dafoe, who is almost hidden under the director’s typical thick glasses and dark hair. In the last decade of his career, Dafoe has always constructed a magnetic aura around his acting, and this performance is no exception. Dafoe’s portrait is one of credence and contemplation, despite his lines being spoken in English with an Italian accent in some scenes and full Italian in others. It’s a strange linguistic leap of faith that spectators have to accept about Ferrara’s vision of Pasolini’s life, but one that’s not necessarily that important. The story, written by the Italian scriptwriter Maurizio Braucci, chronicles Pasolini’s last day. There’s his life, his literature and his cinema.
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Pasolini is initially shown giving the final touches on his latest film, 120 Days of Sodom, and later returning to his mother’s home in Rome, where he will spend his last hours doing an interview, working on a book and a future film, as well as hanging with family and friends. The everyday situations are carried by Dafoe with melancholy and bliss, as Ferrara visually recreates scenes from a novel and Porno-Teo-Kolossal, the film Pasolini never got to make. These intersections are entertaining in juxtaposition with the more obscure countdown to the tragedy, but they are injected in a confused way that doesn’t fully generate the ethereal feeling Ferrara seems to aim for. Art is recreating art by imagining new art and creative voices get lost in the crowd. In Ferrara’s defense, however, taking this exploratory route feels welcoming in a time when biopics about artists only play the greatest hits of the subjects’ careers.
Furthermore, Ferrara continues to excel as a creator of gravelly atmospheres that often use architecture and textures in their favor. Pasolini has plenty of slow tilts showcasing the character’s postures and clothes, a smart way to recreate the time period without many expenses. There’s also an austere and beautiful imagining of 1970s Rome, which became the sanctuary for evil in a conflicted society that the film blames for the death of the author. Crimes abound in the streets where Pasolini rumbles looking to fulfill his sexual desires, and young lost boys are seeing standing on walls with graffiti of Lou Reed on them, marking the change of era between Pasolini’s cinematic revolution and the New Hollywood that he would not get to know.
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Pasolini’s hunger was a monumental one, feeding his cinema with influences of art, literature and music. Perhaps the greatest sin of this biography is to burden the figure with almost only great phrases. There is no doubt the poet was quite eloquent, but depriving his figure of more naturalistic conversations only helps to fuel myths while forgetting about the person. Pasolini’s ideas on the political power of cinema is strengthened by his interactions with journalists, but they can seem a bit superficial. By the final act, Ferrara has presented both the man and the legend, but can’t seem to decide which version he wants the audience to remember.
It took five years for Pasolini to reach the eyes of spectators after its debut at the Venice Film Festival in 2014, and its nature seems to justify why. Relaunched without too much fuzz by the distributor Kino Lorber, Pasolini turns out to be a rich yet forgettable chapter in Ferrara’s filmography.
Pablo Staricco Cadenazzi (@pstaricco) is a France-based Uruguayan journalist, film critic and member of FIPRESCI. He worked as a staff member for the newspapers El País and El Observador, and he is currently part of the the movie podcast Santas Listas (from @polentapodcast) and the comics publisher Pantano Editorial.