Willem Dafoe bears an uncanny resemblance to Pier Paolo Pasolini, so casting him as the poet, filmmaker, essayist and political agitator, who remains a controversial cultural figure in Italy almost 40 years after his brutal murder, was a brilliant stroke. But Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini is otherwise a film that’s more interesting in theory than achievement. It was a given that this meeting of two iconoclastic directors would yield something far more unfettered and instinctive than conventional bio-drama. But the result borders on incoherence, providing few startling insights for aficionados and minimal illumination for the uninitiated.
“Narrative art, as you well know, is dead,” proclaims Pasolini in one of several letters heard in voiceover. “We are in a period of mourning.” He explains that an author’s relationship to the form he creates is more important than his relationship to narrative.
Earlier, in a letter to Alberto Moravia, he prepares his fellow writer and friend to read the manuscript of an unorthodox, massively ambitious novel-in-progress, the incomplete text of which would be posthumously published as Petrolio. Pasolini wonders if his chosen form — a mix of essay, journalism, criticism, personal letters and poetry — will have the clarity to express what he hopes to convey about a protagonist bearing strong similarities to himself.
Ferrara and screenwriter Maurizio Braucci appear to have wondered the same. They adopt that rejection of structured narrative and pursuit of formal experimentation in a brave but scattershot attempt to match style with subject.
The film assembles a collage of fragments — some brief, some extended — from the final day of the artist’s life in 1975. Just back from a trip to Sweden, Pasolini is in the midst of strategizing a way around the censors on his scandalous final film, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, supporting his view that sex is political. Accused in an interview of having abandoned his militancy, he claims to be more political than ever.
Later, we sit in as journalist Furio Colombo (Francesco Siciliano) conducts what would be Pasolini’s final interview, published in La Stampa under the title, “We Are All in Danger.” He speaks about the national institutional failure of education, politics, culture and media, about the collapse of an entire social system.
Pressed to expand on his uncompromising anti-establishmentarianism, Pasolini reflects that everyone’s a victim and everyone’s guilty in a violent life built on principles of acquisition and destruction. Those views distanced him even from much of the intellectual left during his lifetime, and many observers of post-Berlusconi Italian society would argue that Pasolini’s bleak outlook on the direction the country was headed has proven prophetic.
This material may connect with Italian audiences directly touched by that debate, but it’s likely to remain academic and uninvolving to most everyone else. Despite setting up Pasolini’s perception of having personally paid the price for his outspokenness, Ferrara doesn’t buy into the many conspiracy theories that have circulated for years around the artist’s death.
Unlike anything else in this film, that tragedy unfolds in straight-ahead dramatic fashion. Cruising for rough trade in his Alfa Romeo, Pasolini picks up a street hustler (Damiano Tamilia), buys him dinner and drives him to the beach at Ostia on the outskirts of Rome for sex. His death is depicted as a spontaneous hate crime when a group of homophobic thugs catch them together. Unsurprisingly, these are the most impactful scenes of the film. (This account differs from the one presented in Marco Tullio Giordana’s 1995 film Pasolini, an Italian Crime, in which the victim’s sexual partner, Pino Pelosi, was solely responsible for his death.)
Elsewhere, there’s a seeming randomness to Ferrara’s coverage: dramatized scenes lifted from Petrolio of sexually explicit gay cruising, a party attended by the political elite or a surrealistic plane crash; tender moments of Pier Paolo at home with his devoted mother (Adriana Asti); a convivial gathering around the dinner table of friends and family like his cousin and secretary Graziella (Giada Cologrande) and the actress Laura Betti (Maria de Medeiros); a last supper with his former lover and lifelong friend Ninetto Davoli (Riccardo Scamarcio). The problem is that there’s too rarely a sense of these moments deepening our understanding of the subject.
The longest and most arcane interlude is a bizarre dramatized rendering of Pasolini’s idea for his long-gestating future film project, an allegorical odyssey of the ideological search for truth, titled Porno-Teo-Kolossal. The real Davoli plays Epifanio, who undertakes a pilgrimage together with Ninetto through Utopia, Sodom and Gomorrah — stopping by an orgy during which gay men and lesbians couple for procreation purposes, accompanied by fireworks — as they follow a comet believed to signal the birth of the Messiah.
The visual style here mimics Pasolini’s films effectively enough, and the production and costume design re-create the mid-’70s without any kitschy overkill.
Ferrara’s film adheres very loosely to a three-part structure, its kaleidoscopic elements colliding and overlapping in an adventurous attempt to create an idiosyncratic portrait of the man, his mind and his work. But Pasolini will be both a chore and a bore for anyone not already versed in this singular artist’s history, given how few concessions the director and Braucci provide.
Dafoe’s compellingly internalized performance notwithstanding, the fatal flaw for many will be the awkward linguistic jumble. People address Pasolini in Italian and he responds with a few words in the same language before lapsing into English. That happens in the Colombo interview as well as the family scenes, with the actors stumbling through mouthfuls of heavily accented English dialogue that doesn’t come naturally to them. Pasolini’s voiceovers are mostly in Italian, read by Luca Lionello.
All this adds an unfortunate layer of Euro-pudding artificiality over Ferrara’s audacious and unquestionably respectful approach, suggesting the film might end up working better, at least for local audiences, when dubbed into Italian.
Production companies: Capricci, Urania Pictures, Tarantula, Dublin Films, Arte France Cinema
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Ninetto Davoli, Riccardo Scarmacio, Valerio Mastandrea, Adriana Asti, Maria de Medeiros, Roberto Zibetti, Andrea Bosca, Giada Colagrande, Damiano Tamilia, Francesco Siciliano, Luca Lionello, Salvatore Ruocco
Director: Abel Ferrara
Screenwriters: Maurizio Braucci, based on an idea by Abel Ferrara and Nicola Tranquillino
Producers: Thierry Lounas, Conchita Airoldi, Joseph Rouschop
Executive producers: Costanza Coldagelli, Camille Chandellier
Director of photography: Stefano Falivene
Production designer: Igor Gabriel
Costume designer: Rossano Marchi
Editor: Fabio Nunziata
Sales: Funny Balloons
No rating, 84 minutes