It’s not difficult to understand why a director with a back catalogue like Abel Ferrara’s would have an attraction to fellow director Pier Paolo Pasolini. As Ferrara has said, ‘I was a student of his, of his films’, and both share a filmic vision that encompasses and embraces political/cultural transgression and social marginality. Both have chosen to walk their own path and remain as independent as possible with regard to ‘the industry’ and both are culturally engaged. Ferrara, a maker of films with a decidedly pessimistic point of view whose oeuvre has addressed rape, revenge, corrupt cops, serial killing artists, tyrannical directors, vampirism as addiction, drug trafficking, apocalyptic scenarios and sexual assault at a high political level has developed a cinematic menu that Pasolini would no doubt relish. So it is with some disappointment that Ferrara’s take on Pasolini screened in Toronto could only be met with a lacklustre response by me and the rest of the press.
Ferrara and co-writer Maurizo Braucci have chosen to eschew the usual tropes and conventions of the biopic – a narrative arc that usually takes the audience on a journey through the trials and triumphs, comprising the subject’s key life moments and clarifying just who he was and why we should be interested – by setting the entire film during Pasolini’s last hours on 2 November 1975. It was a time when the director was simultaneously dealing with the moral backlash resulting from his film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, working on his unorthodox metafictional novel Petrolio as well as his screenplay for Porno – Teo – Kolossal, giving his last ever press interviews before he was brutally murdered (or assassinated) on that fatal day – in an irony Pasolini would no doubt have savoured – the Day of the Dead in Mexico. So much territory is covered and condensed into such a small time frame that audiences who are not previously acquainted with Pasolini and his importance to 20th-century Italian culture might find it hard to engage with the film.
Pasolini is not so much an evocation or re-enactment as a poetic and impressionistic view of the man, and this structure proves to be a little too elliptical and confounding. Willem Dafoe, who bears a striking resemblance to Pasolini and is an actor who satisfyingly takes chances and seems to revel in extreme roles, has a good stab at the role but when Pasolini’s pronouncements on poetics, politics and culture come out of Dafoe’s American-accented mouth, credibility is undermined. Though Dafoe tries hard with his spoken Italian in certain scenes (the film bounces in and out of English/Italian) this compromise for English-speaking audiences weakens the film considerably (there is apparently an all-Italian version for the home market). Personally, I would have preferred subtitles.
Dafoe in an interview stated: ‘I didn’t “play” him. I just tried to be his flesh, his voice, his presence in the last days of his life… Like with Jesus: I wasn’t playing THE Jesus, I was playing a Jesus… we set out to make a portrait.’ The issue here is that this ‘portrait’ is fragmentary and revealed in various non-sequential vignettes: great for the arthouse crowd but probably anathema to any general audiences, and it can be assumed that Ferrara and team are hoping for a wider audience than some of his previous films got. The ‘facts’ of Pasolini the man in Pasolini the movie are revealed through conversations, voice-overs, random thoughts, gay cruising and lunch with his beloved mother.
Indulgently perhaps, a major sequence of a film within a film occurs wherein a once-a-year sexual orgy between gay men and lesbians takes place, a lovingly imagined scene from the screenplay of Porno – Teo – Kolossal – which was of course never made. In spite of being well-imagined and shot in a Pasolini sort of way, this inclusion/intervention by Ferrara seems to either be a misguided homage or a bit of a conceit for him to want to film. Is he saying that he and Pasolini are cinematic soulmates? If so, I am afraid to say that the directors here are mismatched. There are other cinematic accounts of Pasolini – Ebbo Demant directed the documentary Das Mitleid ist gestorben (1978) about Pasolini and Stefao Battaglia made Re: Pasolini (2005) – and my regretful feeling about this new effort was that – however sincere, unsentimental and heartfelt – Abel Ferrara was not really the director to make a film version of the phenomenon that was Pier Paolo Pasolini.
James B. Evans