Pier Paolo Pasolini’s last film was the infamous, and largely banned, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. The controversial 1975 picture sees four Italian libertines in the last throngs of Mussolini’s fascist wartime regime. They kidnap eighteen youthful, attractive men and woman whom they sexually abuse and torment. The degraded youths meet a horrific demise as they’re branded, hanged and scalped. The libertines take turns looking on voyeuristically as the hostages’ eyes and tongues are removed.
It’s safe to say Pier Paolo Pasolini wasn’t your average film director. An ardent communist, anticlerical activist, writer, intellect and gay man, Pasolini’s eccentric persona inspired many followers. One such admirer is Abel Ferrara, director of the biopic, Pasolini. The film is clearly a labor of love for him. Yet Pasolini only skims the vast ocean of its titular character’s life. The film itself is beautifully directed and darkly brooding around Willem Dafoe’s remarkable Pasolini impression, but remains evasive about its subject’s true motivations.
We’re introduced to Pasolini via a fragmented yet methodical montage of his complex world. The sequence features a voice over from Dafoe in his husky, purposely American accent, and is filled with clips of his debauched new release, Salò. In the brief seven minute collage, we learn much about Pasolini without actually knowing anything about who he is as a person. This storytelling paradox snowballs for all of Pasolini.
Ferrara never lets the audience savour the complexities of his main character. Watching the film is like attending the world’s most lavish buffet, except you’re blindfolded. And just before you get a meaty bite into Pasolini’s sexuality or why he vehemently opposes consumerism, someone hoists the plate away and replaces it with an equally rich dish that you’ll likewise never get to finish.
The film follows Pasolini’s last days. It’s only fitting, then, that Ferrara dedicates much of the imagery to recreating the director’s unfinished follow-ups to Salo, Petrolio (a novel) and Porno-Teo-Kolossal (a film). Sadly, these sequences are impossible to understand or extrapolate from. All these scenes are highly perplexing and charged with graphically sexual incidents.
One such grueling moment forces us to watch a darkly lit, nihilistic depiction of a man, who may or may not be Pasolini, give fellatio to young men in a park. While shocking, the thematic significance of Petrolio and Pasolini’s other works is lost in a miasma of decadence and unnerving sex scenes, leaving us non the wiser about Pasolini’s vision and ideology.
There is an uncanny resemblance between Pasolini and Dafoe, and the former is positively influenced by the latter’s warm familiarity. Lurking behind crimson glasses and permanently sunken shadows across his face, Dafoe strikes an imposing, yet enviously stylish figure. Most importantly, Dafoe makes Pasolini sympathetic and vulnerable.
At one point, the director confides in an inquisitive interviewer about his controversial lifestyle choices. The decision places him in danger. In that moment, there’s a genuine sense of prophetic fear in Dafoe’s face that sent a shiver down my spine.
Ferrara may have jumbled the narrative of Pasolini, but Stefano Falivene’s cinematography is fluid and powerful. He works with a sinister aesthetic that retains a constant sense of beauty. The film is gloomily lit with a sombre set of blacks, browns and a swampy green which cast a shadowy omen over proceedings.
Life is seldom as translucent as cinema often suggests and Falivene embraces this notion. Major scenes, including the almost pitch black finale, are obscured by a striking absence of light. Flailing limbs further obscure the field of view. Though Ferrara and Falivene litter the canvas with the surreal, Pasolini is richly detailed and embraces the fogginess of reality with its roving camera and concealed viewpoints.
Ferrara ventures outside traditional biopic procedure with Pasolini. Instead of a sweeping tale about its subject’s rise to fame, we’re shown an honest, curiously simple day in the late director’s life. Watching the movie is akin to receiving a pamphlet when you’re expecting an epic trilogy. Pasolini stands strong in its small scope with the help of its complex, intriguing and gruellingly graphic approach to visual communication – a set of adjectives almost worthy of the man himself.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can offer is that after watching Pasolini, I found myself compelled to investigate both its subject’s life and films. Ferrara doesn’t attempt to answer, or even address, much of Pasolini’s persona or life choices. In doing so, he strays away from certainties and assumptions, leaving Pasolini with an enigmatic air that honours rather than explains him.
At the end of Pasolini, we find a sequence from Porno-Teo-Kolossal where the protagonists futilely hiking endless steps in search of unreachable heaven. Unlike the doomed duo left to wait out eternity, Ferrara sensibly avoids the impossible task of tackling Pasolini in full. What narrative he does cover makes for an undercooked mar on the film, but Pasolini is nevertheless an enticing Dafoe-driven insight into one of cinema’s most distinctive characters.
Movie Verdict: Meh
A previous version of this article suggested that the recreations of Pasolini’s unfinished works came exclusively from Pasolini’s book, Petrolio. They in fact came from myriad sources, including the unfinished film, Porno-Teo-Kolossal.
This article is part of a series of articles covering the 2014 London Film Festival.