Director Abel Ferrara and star Willem Dafoe take on the fascinating and controversial life and art of Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini in a new eponymous biopic, making its U.S. premiere this week at the New York Film Festival.
For viewers unfamiliar with the remarkable career of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the late Italian filmmaker, poet, novelist, and cultural theorist, Pasolini, Abel Ferrara’s new biopic, will probably prove nearly incomprehensible. In the voluminous literature devoted to dissecting Pasolini’s corpus, the word “contradiction” continually surfaces. A Marxist whose fascination with Christianity enabled him to make The Gospel According to St. Matthew, one of film history’s most convincing Biblical epics, and a well-heeled intellectual who celebrated (some say fetishized) the criminal underclass of his beloved “subproletariat,” Pasolini still intrigues literary scholars and film buffs because of his contradictions, not in spite of them. Ferrara’s supremely well intentioned, although hopelessly muddled, film does little, alas, to provide a historical or biographical framework for his hero’s myriad contradictions.
A gay director on the cusp of the era of gay liberation, Pasolini acted out his affection for the subproletariat by engaging in sex with so-called “rough trade.” His murder, apparently by a street hustler in 1975 (although the details remain elusive to this day and the crime has generated numerous conspiracy theories in Italy) provides the culminating moments of Ferrara’s awkward cinematic canonization. Ferrara’s decision to avoid a plodding cradle-to-grave treatment of his protagonist’s life is admirable—even though his efforts to illuminate Pasolini’s life by focusing on crucial moments during his last days ultimately backfires.
At the film’s outset, Pasolini, (Willem Dafoe) is trying to avoid the censors from tampering with Salò, a macabre critique of fascism filtered through the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom that would turn out to be his final film. There are also perfunctory references to Petrolio, Pasolini’s final manuscript, his correspondence with fellow writer Alberto Moravia, and his aversion towards consumer society. Unfortunately, the social and political context needed to explain the significance of these disconnected rants is sadly absent. While Ferrara includes a snippet of salacious footage from Salò, the affinities Pasolini noted, however paradoxically, between fascism and consumerism are not clarified. In fact, although Pasolini’s disdain for modernity is a consistent theme throughout his work, Ferrara’s character merely seems like a chicly dressed Roman spouting platitudes.
Yet, despite the trappings of a bourgeois life, Pasolini was no limousine leftist. Shortly before his death, he called for leading members of the Christian Democratic Party to be put on trial for crimes against the state. This sort of polemicizing led many of his friends and colleagues (including actress Laura Betti, who comes off as a frivolous ditz in the film) to believe that his death was not the result of an unfortunate random encounter and might well have been sanctioned by the powers that be. Needless to say, none of these controversies are explored in Pasolini.
One of Ferrara’s most audacious maneuvers is to segue from biographical interludes to reenactments of several scenes from Porno-Teo-Kolossal, an unfinished Pasolini script which offers a parodic vision of the “city of Sodom.” It’s also a pleasure to see Ninetto Davoli, Pasolini’s favorite actor as well as his companion for many years, resurface as the central character of Epifanio in this film within a film. It’s regrettable, though, that Ferrara’s heavy-handed directorial style remains on display in these sequences, a marked contrast to the subtle touch that Pasolini himself would have no doubt brought to this material.
There’s also a cynical clumsiness endemic to a film that allows Willem Dafoe to deploy his standard American twang while the rest of the actors speak Italian. Some of Ferrara’s vocal partisans, who insist that the mercurial director is a major auteur, might defend this choice as a canny alienation effect. Those with a less blinkered view will dismiss the movie’s linguistic porridge as simple ineptitude.
Perhaps the larger point is that filmmakers are usually very ill equipped to deal with the lives of writers and intellectuals. Ferrara’s most successful films are off-kilter genre movies, which feature sudden spasms of violence. The sensationalistic aspects of Pasolini’s life are brought to the forefront in this dispiriting biopic. His career as a major thinker and political provocateur is given short shrift.