Director: Abel Ferrara
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Riccardo Scamarcio, Ninetto Davoli
Running Time: 86 minutes
Synopsis: Controversial Italian film-maker, Pasolini works on a number of projects, all the while unaware that doom awaits him on a beach outside Rome.
You’d be hard pushed to think of a performance where Willem Dafoe isn’t mesmerising to watch, and this is certainly the case in Pasolini. Abel Ferrara’s 2014 drama follows the final hours of the notorious Italian director, poet, philosopher and Marxist’s life, ending with his vicious murder in the small seaside town of Ostia in 1975.
Dafoe certainly looks the part as Pier Paolo Pasolini, exerting both an understated control and sense of panache. He’s all angular cheekbones and thick black-rimmed specs, impeccably dressed in well-tailored and, no doubt, expensive suits. He spends time cruising in his probably equally expensive Alfa Romeo, sometimes picking young men up from dark street corners. In interviews, Dafoe often quotes Pasolini verbatim while he explores the auteur’s ideas about politics and art. It’s a wholly believable performance.
Stylistically, the film looks spot on too: muted hues, ‘70s mise-en-scene—in fact it mimics Italian cinema of this period. We follow Pasolini through the domestic and work-related events leading up to his death—a dinner party, an interview about his artistic beliefs and apparent de-politicisation, editing his last complete film, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. These are often the kind of mundane things which only take on resonance for the viewer as we know how it all ends.
Pasolini himself once famously said that to scandalise is a right and to be scandalised is a pleasure, however Ferrara steers well clear of too much scandal in the depiction of the director’s death. Anyone with a passing interest has probably gleaned all the internet has to offer on the details of that November night when he picked up a street hustler and was later found beaten-up and run over by his own car. However, Ferrara deftly side-steps all the conspiracy theories (was it an organised hit? did the hustler do it? or was he coerced?), instead plumping for a thoroughly unpleasant and violent homophobic gang attack. It’s a nasty, brutal and pointless ending to a life.
But Pasolini is a film of two parts. Ferrara also stages extracts from Pasolini’s unfinished work—it’s kind of a glimpse into the creative process, as imagined by Ferrara. He uses Ninetto Davoli in the starring role as the older man seeking the Messiah but finding Sodom instead. Cue scenes to rival a Bacchanalia. Of course, this is incredibly self-referential and playful; Ferrara copies the style of Pasolini and even uses actors the director favoured (Davoli featured in a number of Pasolini’s films and was his on/off lover). It’s obviously a homage, but at the same time this kind of cinema can alienate audiences. There’s also no traditional narrative structure to the film. Instead it works more like a montage, with scenes of past and present, and of Ferrara’s imagining of Pasolini’s never completed work all spliced together. Unfortunately for those unfamiliar with the director’s back-catalogue, many of the in-references and sudden switches to a fantasied screenplay may be lost in translation.
I wanted to like Pasolini more than I actually did. While Dafoe and the staging are both compelling, the film works best as a kind of foot-note to the director’s output and will surely appeal mainly to Pasolini aficionados. For those more unfamiliar with the director’s scandalous and challenging work, it holds more style over substance.