Pasolini, with Willem Dafoe, offers an unconventional biopic – review

Willem Dafoe brings a magnanimity to the role of the late poet Pier Paolo Pasolini. © Capricci Films, CC BY

Abel Ferrara made some of the best films of the 1980s. Fear City (1984) is a deliriously sleazy depiction of New York City in the aftermath of its bankruptcy scare. Ms 45 (1981) (aka Angel of Vengeance), following the revenge killing spree of a deaf mute, twice raped, is one of the more striking exploitation films of the period.

His best-known films, Bad Lieutenant (1992) and King of New York (1990), are likewise gruelling explorations of the seedy urban underbelly of NYC.

His recent film, Pasolini (2014) – an elegiac ode to the controversial Italian poet, essayist and filmmaker, Pier Paolo Pasolini – is based on completely different subject matter, and yet the images and topics haunting his earlier films are still here.

There is the grim, nightmarish quality of the city at night; there is the romantically-fringed main character defined through his work; there is Ferrara’s willingness to challenge the viewer with confronting images.

Pasolini, rather than attempting to retell the life story of its subject, simply presents a day in his life – his last day, leading up to his murder at Ostia.

Willem Dafoe as Pasolini. © Capricci Films

We follow Pasolini (played by Willem Dafoe) from interview to interview, hearing his political views; we look over his shoulder as he taps away at his typewriter; we sit with him as he has lunch with his mother and friends; we have dinner with him, and then pick up a young male prostitute from the streets of Rome with him.

We shudder with him as he is beaten to death by a gang of homophobic youths.

Pasolini’s Rome is readily transformed into Ferrara’s New York. The city, a major character in the film, appears murky, crepuscular, slightly menacing. Scenes of Dafoe, American accent unchanged, eating spaghetti with a restauranteur, seem to be straight from a wise guy film. (While making notes I found myself writing “in Italian restaurant” – something of a tautology, given the film’s set in Rome!)

Layered within the chronological “last day” narrative is Ferrara’s envisioning of Pasolini’s words and stories, including his ideas for a grand film to follow the controversial Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), his final film released a short time after his death, still banned in several countries.

The different levels of narrative weave in and out of each other – Pasolini as subject of Ferrara’s film, Pasolini’s typewritten speech, voiced over the top of Ferrara’s visions; Pasolini’s final film idea, as written in a letter, enacted for the viewer.

This film will probably be of more interest to viewers with some knowledge of Italian politics in the 1970s – the clashes between the red brigades and the fascists, the autonomistas, and so on – along with Pasolini’s films. Nevertheless, it is a pleasure listening to Pasolini’s beautiful words, brought to life by Ferrara. As the interviewer says to Pasolini mid-way through the film:

Your language has the effect of sunlight filtering through the dust.

In the current age, in which the left seem to be only interested in identity politics, Pasolini’s words are, furthermore, inspiring for their commitment and clarity.

“Also in democracy, the holy game of kings continues,” he taps into his typewriter at one stage. To the interviewer, he declares:

You and your schools, your television, your complacent newspapers. You are the great preservers of this appalling tradition that is based on the idea of possessing and destroying …

I ask you to look around and see the tragedy […] That there are no more human beings – there are only machines colliding with each other.

Pasolini’s words are accompanied by elegant, at times beautiful, images. The colours are warm, and the darkness of the film – much of it is steeped in shadow – is sumptuous, inviting rather than alienating.

The film is shot on celluloid rather than digitally, and this seems to add a texture and depth to the images often absent in contemporary cinema.

© Capricci Films

Willem Dafoe brings a magnanimity to the title role, as well as a fragility, that clearly reflects Ferrara’s admiration of Pasolini. Indeed, Ferrara’s director’s statement, in the press kit accompanying the film, is written as a poem to Pasolini:

In search of the death of the last poet

only to find the killer inside me

Sharpening his tools of ignorance on the

memories of never forgotten acts of

kindness in words and deeds,

ideas impossible to comprehend.

In a school in Casarsa sit at my teacher’s feet

yearning then hearing the music of the waves

that wash the feet of the messiah on the beach at Idroscalo,

those who weave their spell in silver are forever bound to the lithe body

of Giotto constantly in search of the creation of the winning goal

forever offside forever in the lead of the faithful of which I am one.

It is as a kind of poem that the film must be seen – open-ended, impressionistic, evocative rather than hermeneutically locked-off.

Ferrara previously attempted to explore the imbrication of art, sexuality and being in Dangerous Game (1993), but that film was overly self-indulgent (as films starring Madonna often seem to be). Pasolini is a much more nuanced study of the relationship between art, politics, and social life than Dangerous Game.

This is by no means a conventional biopic – a refreshing change from the usual self-validating, uplifting success-story tripe that dominates the genre, at least in its Hollywood incarnations (Walk the Line (2005), Jobs (2013), etc.). And yet the whole thing comes across, at times, as unfocused, unfinished, perhaps too elliptical.

Given that the infinitely contingent nature of experience is one of the thematic threads of the film, this is probably intentional (but no less dissatisfying for being so). As the protagonist of Pasolini’s film-idea says:

The end does not exist. Let’s wait. Something will happen.


Pasolini was shown as part of the Sydney Film Festival. Details here.