Half a richly textured, engrossing biopic theorizing about the last few days of a notorious Italian provocateur’s life, half an unutterably tedious reenactment of the writings he was working on at the time of his death, Abel Ferrara’s “Pasolini” is a frustrating film, despite vast stretches of compelling storytelling. The moments we spend with Pier Paolo Pasolini —being interviewed, talking to his mother, dining with friends and then picking up the young hustler who would be complicit in his violent death— are very well-rendered for such a talky, overtly intellectual and potentially inaccessible subject. A whole film of that would have been most welcome and based on the evidence here rather brilliant, even if most details of Pasolini’s murder are unknown.
But Ferrara overplays his hand by trying to breathe life into Pasolini’s final novel and screenplay with airless recreations of what was on the page. Whether because these works were not good to begin with or because Ferrara for all his admiration cannot access Pasolini’s true intent, these sections come across as stagy and pretentious, a leaden attempt to foreshadow an end that the man could not possibly have known was coming. Aided by an excellent, understated and thoroughly convincing performance from Willem Dafoe, Ferrara proves himself fully equal to the difficult task of imagining Pasolini. But imagining Pasolini’s imagination eludes him.
Providing an impressionistic account of his movements and thinking in the last 48 hours of his life, the film begins with Pasolini (Dafoe) being interviewed, one of two such scenes, both of which are surprisingly absorbing for such potentially undynamic material. He is asked about sex, politics, militancy and morality, and responds articulately, with a quick, fierce intelligence. Later we learn that he is just back from a trip to Stockholm, he has finished a draft of a novel and is excited about completing his current screenplay. A small group gathers for lunch at home with his mother, including Italian actress Laura Betti (Maria de Medeiros in a small but lively role). Pasolini writes, corresponds via letter with colleagues and friends, and has dinner with Ninetto Davoli (Ricardo Scarmacio) who had been his lover and companion and who starred in several of his films. It all seems trivial, which it should —these were supposed to be days like any other— but the excellent characterization, design and photography (by Stefano Falivene) make it all much more resonant.
And much of what Pasolini says, in words taken from real interviews, is genuinely fascinating. We are all educated, Pasolini states in an anti-establishment rant, to be “gladiators who have, possess and destroy.” The newspapers he reads are full of slaughter and turmoil. A riot is brewing on the street as he goes to a restaurant. All the young hustlers take covetous note of his fancy car. In this way, the sexual violence and cruelty shown in his films (“Salo” being his last) are implicitly related to his despairing, angry, quasi-anarchist world view, which itself is born of the turbulent world he sees around him. “Hell is rising toward you” he warns an interlocutor at one point.
This is heady, thought-provoking stuff, so it’s wrenching to dissolve into those unilluminating recreations of his writings. In particular, Ferrara shoots some scenes from his final screenplay, touchingly using the real Ninetto Davoli, now 65, who in this way gets to kind of add another Pasolini movie to his filmography. This story, however, is the film’s least successful flourish. A man sees a star that he believes will lead him to the Messiah, but it first brings him to Sodom (great excuse for a bacchanal scene) and then teases him to search for a paradise that he never reaches. He nonetheless finds acceptance because this quixotic journey has made him realize how much he loves the world he has left behind. It’s a rather syrupy sentiment, and it’s one we return to as Pasolini lies dying in the sand, having been beaten, run over and left for dead. It feels like a cheap attempt to lather on some comfort and resolution to what was a tragic, ugly death.
We have no doubt that Pasolini lived an expansive life, both in the world and in his mind (and Dafoe’s performance communicates that vigor), but the attempt to locate in that fact some solace for the tawdry violence of his death feels untruthful. That coddling aim, to smooth the ruffled brow of scandal and to make a senseless death somehow worthwhile, feels to us like it runs wildly counter to everything that Pasolini stood for in his own art. Practically the first thing we hear him say is that “there is nothing that is not political,” yet the political and social ramifications of his death, theorized here as the result of a hate crime in a society he believed was eating itself alive with corruption and consumerism, are abandoned in favor of some spiritual cold comfort.
Of course, there is an act of homage happening here, to a filmmaker with whom Ferrara, himself a controversial figure in filmmaking, clearly has a great deal of fellow-feeling. And we can understand the desire to imagine that in those final moments Pasolini might have been thinking thoughts of love and acceptance and beauty. But again, in trying to spell out what was going on his Pasolini’s mind, he does both his own and his idol’s talents a disservice. Ferrara tells us so much more about Pasolini —the filmmaker, the artist, the public figure, the philosopher— when he leaves it to us to imagine what the man was thinking. [B-]