Abel Ferrara has come not to bury Pier Paolo Pasolini — writer, critic, activist, provocateur, communist, hedonist, out-and-proud homosexual and, last but not least, filmmaker — but to praise him. And, crucially, to commemorate the Italian director via a biopic that somehow doesn’t fall prey to the pitfalls that usually accompany hagiographic cinematic shrines. Focusing on the last 24 hours of Pasolini’s life, Ferrara’s tribute to the late Renaissance man of 20th century Rome is part hero worship, part recreation of a true-crime tragedy and completely of a piece with its creator’s obsessions over art, movies, the spiritual and the sordid. It’s the sort of movie you could see Pasolini himself digging, though he might have added more carnality and anti-consumerist rhetoric.
Oh, there is sex, notably in a scene regarding a novel Pasolini is writing and involving its hero, modeled after the author, blowing a well-endowed street kid in a park. (Compared to that highly explicit encounter, a fictional “celebratory feast” orgy sequence later in the movie practically feels quaint.) And you will hear the filmmaker, who’s not so much played by Willem Dafoe as being channeled through the actor, drop science about the bourgeois and a social system that trains people “to have, possess and destroy.” He’ll strike the iconic Pasolini pose — contemplative, handsome, hand to bowed head, cool shades on — at least twice. Mostly, however, we watch Dafoe’s “Pierutti,” as his family calls him, put the finishing touches on his masterpiece Salò, being interviewed, read the paper, exchange ideas with fellow intellectuals, eat, type and cruise for rough trade. It’s more of observational portrait then a there-goeth-the-great-man — distant but not necessarily detached and, given that it comes from the man who gave us Bad Lieutenant, restrained rather than excessive.
You can tell Ferrara admires Pasolini, as both a filmmaker who pushed envelopes and as a man who lived life according to his own rules — there’s a detectable spirit-animal influence in the former’s work. He’s cast Italian actress Adriana Asti, who was in Pasolini’s Accatone, as the filmmaker’s mother; Ninetto Davoli, a one-time lover and longtime friend of the director, plays a movie star performing scenes in what would have been Pier Paolo’s next project. (The fact that the real Davoli is doing all of this against an actor playing a younger version of himself only adds another reflection to this meta hall of mirrors.) There are visions taken from his unfinished book Petrolio, which leads to a story-within-a-story about a plane crash, and other occasional detours into Pasolini’s imagination, set to Bach compositions and Maria Callas-sung arias. Just when things start to get too phantasmagoric, the movie cuts to the intellectual playing soccer with street kids. So much of this feels like an attempt to tell his story in a visual palette and with a vocabulary that stems from someone who gave us both tweaked neo-realism and those gloriously messy “Trilogy of Life” literary adaptations.
We know where this will end, of course, which doesn’t make it any easier to watch Pasolini pick up Pino Pelosi (Damiano Tamilia) and keep his date with destiny in Ostia. That’s where, having driven with the young man to a beach after buying him dinner, he would be confronted and taunted by three men, then assaulted and eventually run over by his own Alfa Romeo. Ferrara shoots the scene mostly in darkness and with a lack of sensationalism; the matter-of-factness of how’s its presented only makes it that more chilling. Conspiracies about Mafia hit men and political payback surrounding the murder are M.I.A. In Ferrara’s eyes, this was simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And after spending an hour with Dafoe so beautifully showing you the passion of this searching, subversive artist — an actorly anima that helps glide over some admittedly slow, somber-to-a-fault parts here and there — to be left simply with the pain of his passing feels like a gut-punch. “The end simply does not exist,” Davoli’s heaven-bound character says, as the movie inside Pasolini’s head and the one we’re watching both runs their course. It does, of course, but courtesy of this look back in anger (and wonder), the Fine credit on his story feels like it’s been delayed just a little bit more. Pasolini is indeed gone. But Pasolini, like the filmmaker’s work itself, ensures he is anything but forgotten.