Evoking the last days of Pier Paolo Pasolini, Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini lets the controversial Italian filmmaker’s thoughts and ideas do the scandalising.
Last Daysby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Poet, playwright, filmmaker, journalist and philosopher – Pier Paolo Pasolini has proved an inspiration for filmmakers the world over since his death in 1975. And following his lurid portrait of the downfall of Dominique Strauss-Kahn in Welcome To New York, Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini follows the same vein of a transgressor under the squeeze. Only this time, rather than the collapse of Wall Street, it’s the murder of the Italian filmmaker that provides the dramatic drive behind Ferrara’s portrait. There’s intellectual conversation, sensational voyeurism and outrageous fantasy – what’s not to like?
It’s November 1975, and following the cinematic release of Salò, Or The 120 Days of Sodom, Pier Paolo Pasolini (Willem Dafoe) spends his days reading, writing, drinking coffee with his mother (Adriana Asti) and eating lunch with friend and actress Laura Betti (Maria de Medeiros) or being interviewed by Furio Colombo (Francesco Siciliano) of La Stampa, and his nights cruising the Roman streets and bars in his Alfa Romeo. He dines with his favourite actor Ninetto Davoli (Riccardo Scamarcio) to discuss his next film Epifanio starring Eduardo De Filippo (played by Ninetto Davoli), and picks up Pino (Damiano Tamilia) – a rent boy he drives to the coast.
“To scandalise is a right: to be scandalised is a pleasure.” It’s a motto that suits Pasolini, whose open homosexuality, often bawdy movies and salacious murder scandalised Rome, Italy and beyond. It’s not however a maxim that applies to Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini, which – apart from one stand-out fantasy sequence in which Epifanio (who believes a Messiah is among them and proves the Dante to Ninetto Davoli’s Virgil) descends into a murky den of iniquity where a fertility festival is being celebrated with men and women coming together to continue the species – isn’t particularly scandalous. Neither erotic nor particularly gory.
Instead, it’s a kaleidoscope of thought and endeavour, as we dip niftily into the current reflections of the 53-year-old artist, as he talks politics and discusses projects old and new, or hides his fierce intelligence under a bushel so as not to alarm his spaghetti-swilling trick. Ferrara, it seems, wants to scandalise us intellectually, interweaving ruminations on form and the sublime with spoken excerpts from Pasolini’s unfinished novel Petrolio. It’s a portrait of the artist – perhaps a kindred spirit for Ferrara (also of Italian blood and who caused his own scandals with grindhouse movies Driller Killer and Bad Lieutenant) and Willem Dafoe is surprisingly convincing as the prowling director, equally at home amidst Rome’s intellectual, bourgeois elite and in the spit-and-sawdust bars of Travestere.
Above all though, it’s in Igor Gabriel’s production design and Stefano Falivene’s cinematography that Pasolini really shines, recreating Seventies Rome with nothing more than a coffee cup and a dark street. And while Pasolini succeeds in inhabiting both the poet’s ivory tower and the simmering underworld, Pasolini reveals the fracture in Italian society that saw Pasolini’s open homosexuality punished, unable to escape the pervasive threat of violence that seethes just below the surface.
Unique, challenging and thought-provoking, Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini is a biopic like no other; its intellectually charged and provocative balance of narrative and portraiture just pushed off-kilter by fantasy film sequences (including a stairway to heaven) that look more like Powell and Pressburger than Pasolini. We might bemoan the film’s inability to titillate and scandalise as Pasolini did back then. But in a strange way, that’s also Pasolini‘s great triumph, turning the senseless killing of one of Italy’s brightest lights from scandal into tragedy.
Pasolini is released on 11th September 2015 in the UK