Dafoe and Ferrara Chart the Scandalous Final Day of the Iconoclastic Director.



It’s the final night on Earth for the controversial director of Salo: 120 Days of Sodom, The Gospel According to St. Matthew and the unconventionally eroticized “Trilogy of Life” (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights).  A brutally premature death to be sure, though, per to the tonal premonitions of this fictionalized true-life accounting, not necessarily unforeseen.  Fatalistic dread looms in every creeping second of iconoclastic director Abel Ferrara’s long-in-coming short-spanning biopic of his role model iconoclastic Italian director, Pier Paolo Pasolini.  Though Ferrara is a two-fisted gravel & art straight talent from the Bronx and Pasolini was a gay Italian radical, both meet at the rarified crossroads of “dangerous” and “uncompromising”.

Perhaps in part for that reason, it’s hard to know what to do with Ferrara’s Pasolini, a nonconventional biopic for the already well informed.  Arriving to the film having not done one’s homework is something of an impressionistic undertaking.  Even for one such as myself, coming at it with a passing pre-existing familiarity with both Pasolini and Ferrara, this one is not without challenge.

Willem Dafoe, firmly operating in the precarious realm of international edge of which he’s no stranger (re: his considerably more extreme work with Lars Von Trier, or even 2011’s 4:44 Last Day in Earth and his considerable other collaborations with Ferrara), plays the late filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini.  With thick dark-rimmed glasses and a personable enough-demeanor, he is seen giving interviews, buckling down with his novel-in-progress, and later, cruising at night for the company of teenage boys.  At home, Ferrara’s Pasolini strikes one as a repressed control freak barely on this side of Phantom Thread’s Reynolds Woodcock.  Through a thin veneer of altruistic thank yous, the man’s obsessiveness within his dwelling is apparent if not blatant.  Outside though, he was known to gravitate to radicals and even violent revolutionaries.  Somewhere in between was his art: fiercely scandalous, uncompromising, confrontational, sometimes grotesque, but always rooted in the tableau of high culture.  

Dafoe as Pasolini.

As lauded to earlier, Pasolini is dark, dark, dark in terms of cinematography and outlook. (A voiced theme: “We’re all in danger”.)  There’s a walls-closing-in bleakness about it; not new territory for Ferrara.  (This Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents this most effectively).  Between this aspect and Dafoe’s unsaintly brusk, the movie does what it can to keep itself roped off accordingly.  Only upon the tragic 1975 murder of Pasolini does a tide of emotion hit.  So unaccustomed is the territory, we don’t quite know what to do with it.

Ferrara, in telling this long-brewing tale of one of his most potent filmmaking influences, takes a thoroughly unconventional approach.  Screenwriter Maurizio Braucci knits together the final-hours reality of Pasolini with dramatized portions of his final novel as well as one of his later unproduced screenplays.  It’s almost as fascinating as it is impenetrable. 

In a fascinating bit of semi-meta casting, former Pasolini star Ninetto Davoli is again a Pasolini star, playing a part in one of the actualized works.  (Furthering Ferrara’s film down this road, Davoli is played by younger actor Riccardo Scamarcio, of John Wick: Chapter 2 fame).  In that framework, the still radiant and soft Davoli plays a naive seeker who follows a supernatural (and frankly hokey looking) star in the sky anticipating the messiah but instead finding a mass orgy in the town square.  More to the point, it’s a ritualistic procreation event between gay men and lesbian women.  Indeed, the star in the sky look down where they got laid.  Collectively, it’s another angle into the uncompromisingly brazen mind of the title entity.  

Ninetto Davoli (right) vows to find his way.

One cannot speak to the accessibility of a thing if it’s not there.  But, come on.  This is a movie about Pier Paolo Pasolini by Abel Ferrara starring Willem Dafoe.  Anyone expecting any kind of conventionally accessible experience has come to the most wrong place.

The Kino Lorber Blu-ray contains a twenty-one-minute chat with Pasolini’s director/co-writer and its star.  Though intriguing and even refreshingly blunt, the interview uncovers moments of what could be interpreted as central conceptual disparity within the project.  Just minutes after Ferrara has gone on a tear about the unwavering authenticity of the film’s details and happenings, Dafoe articulates how this film is their Pasolini, a work removed from strict history and reality.  And, Ferrara does not disagree.

Far more clarifying is the essay by film historian Brad Stevens that is printed in the full-color booklet that comes packaged in the Blu-ray case.  His knowledge and enthusiasm is almost enough to make this critic watch the film again.  Almost.  Perhaps first some more unseen Pasolini.  Then, and likely only then, is a Pasolini revisit worthwhile.