fri 21/06/2024

Pasolini | reviews, news & interviews



Abel Ferrara’s elliptical take on the last days of the great Italian director

Cerebral action: Willem Dafoe as Pier Paolo Pasolini

It’s somehow unsettling that, while the physical resemblance between Willem Dafoe and Italian writer and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini is remarkable to the point of being almost uncanny, Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini almost consciously avoids elucidating the character of its hero in any traditional sense.

This is as far away from the usual biopic format as can be. Ferrara’s previous film Welcome to New York may also have hedged certain details on its (purported) subject, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, but that was for completely different reasons. If the French financier-politician and the influential Italian public intellectual may seem an unlikely duo, Ferrara has pointed out that both were risk-takers: Pasolini in his general militancy and the artistic directions he took – we see him here preparing to fight censorship of his last film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom – as well as in a personal life that led up to his being killed on a beach at Ostia outside Rome on the night of 2 November 1975.

Dafoe even wears a pair of the director’s own heavy glasses

The controversy surrounding that murder remains actual in Italy today, namely whether Pasolini died at the hands of the pick-up he’d brought there for sex, or whether his death was connected to some wider political conspiracy. (The beginning of that final journey, pictured below.) Ferrara has since retracted an earlier comment in which he said that he knew exactly who had killed Pasolini – the director said he was misquoted – and provides his own version of the events of that final night, one which, however, doesn’t significantly expand on or alter previous assumptions.

We get an elliptical presentation of the last days of Pasolini’s life, especially its final hours. Ferrara and his screenwriter Maurizio Braucci obviously researched their subject in great detail, speaking to many who knew him, and received the full collaboration of surviving family and friends. In this often cerebral film, Dafoe gives a very finely tooled performance and even wears a pair of the director’s own heavy glasses (main picture), while some of Pasolini’s actors star in Ferrara's film.

The details of this everyday life are closely charted, from the apartment Pasolini shared with his mother Susanna (Adriana Asti, from his early film Accattone, a subtle presence here until a final-scene outpouring of grief), to his interaction with his cousin Graziella, who acted as his secretary, and friends like Salo actress Laura Betti (Maria de Medeiros), who drops in for a family meal in which professional issues inevitably also arise.

Pasolini’s final interview is here too, with a correspondent from La Stampa, in which he rearticulated his attacks on the values of his times, complacency prime among them: it was titled “We’re All in Danger”. The fact that both sides speak in English in that conversation (when neither spoke that language, apparently) is one of the more out-of-place judgments in a film in which language is rather mixed-up: Dafoe speaks largely in somewhat clipped English, with other characters sometimes communicating in Italian (not always subtitled).  

Set against that grounding in the quotidian are dramatic fragments adapted from an unfinished piece of fiction Pasolini left behind (“novel” would be stretching it), Petrolio, and episodes from the draft script for what would have been his next film, Porno-Teo-Kolossal. They’re based on details known principally to scholars and aficionados of the director’s work, and we have to take them on trust. Petrolio brings together varied elements loosely drawing on Pasolini’s own life (he wrote to Alberto Moravia of its protagonist, “aside from the similarities of the story to mine, he is repugnant to me”): scenes of sexual profligacy intercut with the political and cultural salons of Rome, combined with a narrative journey into a desert unknown, with echoes of the exotic worlds into which Pasolini’s own films increasingly moved.

There’s something much closer to home, though also fabular, about Porno-Teo-Kolossal, which has an old man, Epifanio, following the star (literally) to the homosexual city of Sodom, where lesbians and gays live in separate worlds, coming together only for an annual day of fertility, a bacchanal also close to other elements in Pasolini’s work (pictured above). It’s a long scene, effectively free-standing, and the personal touch is strong: Pasolini’s frequent collaborator (and former lover) Ninetto Davoli plays the aged Epifanio, escorted on his journey by Riccardo Scamarcio as the real-life, young Ninetto, with whom Pasolini has a final meeting in a Rome tavern before the final journey that takes him to his death.

Even the brief colours of that bacchanal seem rather muted, and Pasolini is generally a sombrely tinted, even dark film, shot with a kind of non-emotive precision by Stefano Falivene. “Narrative art, as you all know, is dead,” we hear Pasolini proclaim at one stage, and Ferrara has certainly taken that adage to heart, leaving his film to grow on the viewer incrementally. When, rarely, he introduces music, it takes us to a different, somehow more elemental level. There’s Bach behind some beautifully atmospheric shots of Rome early on, while the long closing scenes play out majestically to Rossini’s “Una voce poco fa”, in the rendition, of course, of Callas.

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Pasolini

Scenes of sexual profligacy intercut with the political and cultural salons of Rome


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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