LONDON — Rome, November 1, 1975. The Italian writer and director Pier Paolo Pasolini is editing his latest film, the thorny and powerful Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom; working on articles and on his novel Petrolio (Oil); and grants an interview at his home.
The next day, his corpse will be found on a beach in Ostia, savagely beaten.
American director Abel Ferrara’s newest film documents the final 24 hours of Pasolini’s life in an intelligent way, without rhetoric or prudery. Starring Willem Dafoe as the main character, Pasolini was released in Italy and France last year, and only recently in the UK (there are no plans of distributing it in the US at the moment). In Pasolini’s home country, the film has been timidly received, with some critics claiming it’s too difficult for the average moviegoer, who isn’t necessarily knowledgeable about the intellectual’s life and work. In all honesty, doing some research before watching the movie might be useful, but not more than 10 minutes on the internet, while waiting for the film to start. Any expectations of finding in Pasolini an easy biopic in the Hollywood style are — thankfully — unfounded.
Ferrara’s look at the writer’s last day is anything but conventional. Shots of Pasolini’s quotidian activities are combined with imaginary sequences from Porno-Teo-Kolossal, the never-realized film whose screenplay he was working on until a few hours before his death, as well as scenes from the unfinished novel Petrolio, which was published in 1992.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is Dafoe’s performance. The actor convincingly interprets the unique blend of inaccessibility and resoluteness that was a main feature of Pasolini’s manner. Dafoe even moves like Pasolini. The physical resemblance becomes especially remarkable when the actor hides himself behind a pair of sunglasses, an iconic Pasolini look.
The film takes a different approach when it comes to language. Pasolini is mainly in English, but Dafoe is the only native English-speaking actor in the film; his New York inflection clashes with the sometime thick Italian accents of the other characters (a feature appreciable only in the original version; the Italian one is dubbed). This language collision becomes a key point in Ferrara’s treatment of his protagonist, especially since most of the Italian lines aren’t subtitled. The way Dafoe’s American English interacts with the Roman accents of the other actors suggest the circumstances of the real Pasolini living in Rome. The director came from northeast Italy, and the cadences and composure of his Italian must have contrasted quite strongly with the lively colors of Roman dialect. Dafoe’s linguistic isolation mirrors Pasolini’s personal and intellectual loneliness.
The dreamlike sequences taken from Porno-Teo-Kolossal — whose main character, according to Pasolini’s plan, should have been played by the Italian actor Eduardo De Filippo — feature the writer’s once lover and favorite actor Ninetto Davoli. To see Davoli’s simplicity and jolliness once again on screen is a pleasure for cinephiles. Just a boy in The Gospel According to St. Matthew and The Decameron, the actor has become a mature man with dazzling white hair. These imaginary scenes, which stick to their source material quite accurately, add a surreal turn to Ferrara’s work and are perfectly in line with the tone of Pasolini’s own films.
The honesty of Ferrara’s filmmaking helps smooth over the sometimes obscure changes in scene. And at times it’s the very conflict between images that enhances the film’s power. For instance, a dark scene in which Carlo — the main character of Petrolio — has oral sex with 20 men in a field at night is contrasted perfectly with Pasolini’s mother waking up her teenage son in the morning. The maternal care she expresses in a caress couldn’t be further from the ritual repetitiveness of Carlo’s sexual encounters. Yet the two are equally important in trying to better understand Pasolini.
Forty years after Pasolini’s death, the circumstances of it have yet to be resolved. His murder has been subject to endless speculation, and there are still those who remain convinced of a political conspiracy behind it. The film presents the murder as a premeditated robbery that degenerates into homophobic violence. As Ferrara stated, this is just a conjecture, but it feels like a probable conclusion.
The last scene — which alone makes the entire film worth watching — opens with a moving sequence showing Pasolini’s body left on the beach, while the voice of Maria Callas, the director’s close friend and confidant in real life, sings an aria from Rossini.
Leaving the cinema, I recalled some beautiful lines by Alberto Moravia, commenting on his friend and fellow writer’s death, written a few days after the murder:
His end was at the same time similar to his work, and unlike him. Similar because he had already described in his work, its squalid and excruciating modalities, dissimilar because he was not one of his characters, but a central figure in our culture, a poet who had marked an era, a brilliant director, a inexhaustible essayist.
Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini is now playing in select theaters around the UK.