Abel Ferrara eulogizes fellow scandalizer Pier Paolo Pasolini in a suitably grimy tone poem featuring Willem Dafoe.
At the beginning of Abel Ferrara’s 2014 film Pasolini, Pier Paolo Pasolini tells an interviewer, “To scandalize is a right, to be scandalized is a pleasure, and those who refuse the pleasure to be scandalized are moralists.” A center of controversy throughout his career, and the creator behind one of the most shocking films ever made, Salo: Or 120 Days of Sodom, Pasolini certainly exercised his right to scandalize.
He was a singular filmmaker and intellectual of the mid-twentieth century; his radical politics and homosexuality made him a bête noire to the moralists of his day, and he remains a compelling figure almost 45 years after his brutal murder. It’s fitting, then, that another controversial filmmaker, Abel Ferrara (director of provocative films like Ms. 45 and King of New York), chose to memorialize a fellow scandalizer.
Pasolini eschews the standard tropes of the biopic, opting to create a tone poem rather than an overarching narrative. Taking place following the filming of Salo Pasolini’s death, Ferrara stitches together a portrait of the auteur through vignettes of his life with friends and family, interviews to reporters, and dramatizations of his writing. The film presents Pasolini (played by Willem Dafoe) as a fully formed artist and intellectual. There is no arc, nor is there struggle: we are shown Pasolini’s paradigm rather than his story. The use of vignettes tied around a frame narrative is reminiscent of Pasolini’s later films like his Trilogy of Life and Salo.
Ferrara crafts Pasolini’s character not just through Dafoe’s reptilian performance, but the film’s lighting as well (. Dafoe is uncannily similar in appearance to Pasolini while sounding nothing like him. Visually, Dafoe is at his least Dafoe-esque, he is calm and reserved and melts into his performance of the brooding auteur. However, Dafoe doesn’t affect any accent or attempt to mold his vocal performance to match Pasolini’s higher register. The combination is slightly jarring, at once giving a convincing performance of “realness” while also drawing attention to the fact this is a performance.
The performance choice seems keenly aware of Pasolini’s philosophical interests. The filmmaker listed post-structuralist Roland Barthes in his “bibliography” for Salo, a thinker who explored the relationship between the signifier and signified of the sign. Calling attention to the fact we are watching Dafoe portray Pasolini, rather than actually viewing Pasolini, is a subtle nod to the intellectual climate in which Pasolini worked.
Ferrara’s use of lighting works as visual shorthand for the various facets of Pasolini’s personality. In scenes of Pasolini’s domestic life, the lighting is bright and even. We see a genial man at ease with his family and friends. When the film focuses on Pasolini as a public figure/artist, or on his sexuality, Ferrara leans heavily on chiaroscuro to highlight the duality of Pasolini’s public and private personas. The public persona, the side exposed to the light of public scrutiny, is Pasolini as a fiercely political Marxist. He rages against consumerism and the political structures of 70’s Italy.
In contrast, Pasolini’s sexuality is visually dominated by darkness. He’s bathed in shadow as he cruises down Rome’s street, scoping out young men, and in the public parks where he tricks. Despite Pasolini declaring that sex is politics in an opening scene, Ferrara keeps the two relatively distant. Most frustratingly, Pasolini’s murder is portrayed as a simple act of homophobia: three young hooligans find Pasolini with a hustler and kill him when he won’t give them money. Pasolini’s death is still a subject of debate, with many believing that it was a politically motivated hit.
Calling attention to the fact we are watching Defoe portray Pasolini, rather than actually viewing Pasolini, is a subtle nod to the intellectual climate in which Pasolini worked.
At an hour and twenty minutes, Ferrara doesn’t overstay his welcome on such a loosely plotted film. Despite little action taking place, the scenes feel well paced, with little overall dragging. Ferrara isn’t afraid to let Pasolini speak for himself in in-depth interviews and monologues. The camera also moves languidly across beautiful long shots, and Rome’s empty streets highlight Pasolini’s apparent isolation. The aforementioned lighting and cinematography (courtesy of DP Stefano Falivene) give what is essentially a one-man show a visual vitality that keeps the film from feeling like an extended soliloquy.
Pasolini isn’t likely to introduce the wider public to the acclaimed filmmaker. For those who are already fans, or enjoy more arthouse fare, however, this biopic breaks the normal mold. Ferrara’s filmmaking and Dafoe’s performance proffer a surprisingly deep character study on the auteur that feels extremely appropriate for the subject. While you may not be scandalized, you just might be intrigued by the story of a director’s last days.
Pasolini kicks off a run at the Gene Siskel Film Center starting Friday, June 21st; get tickets here.