2019, NR, 84 min. Directed by Abel Ferrara. Starring Willem Dafoe, Ninetto Davoli, Riccardo Scamarcio, Valerio Mastandrea, Adriana Asti, Giada Colagrande, Maria de Medeiros, Roberto Zibetti.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 9, 2019
The Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini is the subject of this film by American director Abel Ferrara. Linked by their artistic heterodoxy, the two men are good foils for each other, enhancing viewers’ understanding of each filmmaker’s perspective on the intrinsic creative unity of the personal and the political. Pasolini and Ferrara, both renegade Catholics, have made movies that stretch the boundaries of their forms (for examples, see Pasolini’s The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and Medea, and Ferrara’s Ms .45 and King of New York) and others that have caused shock and scandal (i.e., Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom and Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant). It seems appropriate that Ferrara, who started making films right around the time Pasolini was murdered in 1975, feels an affinity with this forebear.
Despite a perfect pairing of sensibilities, do not come to Pasolini with expectations of seeing a biopic. This is not Pasolini 101, but rather an advanced course in the darkness that shades both men’s work. Pasolini covers the last hours of the artist’s life, a life that produced poetry, novels, and essays, in addition to films. Ferrara’s film is ruminative and fragmented, showing glimpses of his imagining of Pasolini’s last day. Pasolini is awakened by his mother (Asti), with whom he shares an apartment in Rome. He drinks coffee while perusing newspapers and consults with his assistant (Colagrande). He types furiously on his Olivetti while the imagined novelistic scenes play out onscreen. His friend Laura Betti (de Medeiros) joins them at home for lunch. Later he meets in restaurants with unidentified cohorts, once while dandling a baby on his knee. At night, he cruises the streets in his Alfa Romeo, looking to pick up hustlers. But even this description makes Pasolini sound more like a straightforward biography than the scattered reflection of one filmmaker on another.
Of course it helps tremendously that Willem Dafoe plays Pasolini. Just as he did with 2018’s At Eternity’s Gate, in which he embodied the artist Vincent van Gogh, Dafoe brilliantly captures the essence and a more-than-reasonable resemblance to the real figures. (Pasolini was made in 2014 but not theatrically distributed until now.) Mostly, he delivers his lines in English, but he also speaks occasionally (and curiously) in American-accented Italian. A bit of structure is added by opening the film with Pasolini answering questions for what was to become his final interview. “We’re all victims and we’re all guilty,” he observes. Ultimately, this may be the tie that binds Ferrara and Pasolini.