In the independent film Pasolini, director Abel Ferrara chronicles the intellectual excavations, brutal fictions, and tragic pleasures of the Italian director’s last days.
By John Lavitt
Hollywood, CA (The Hollywood Times) 6/3/19 – “Well, I think to scandalize is a right, to be scandalized is a pleasure, and those who refuse to be scandalized are moralists… If my expression is alienated, so what! At least, I’m expressing myself as free as possible.”
— Willem Dafoe as Pasolini
Finally released for limited public screenings, Pasolini (2014) is an independent film that highlights the meaning of independence. In director Abel Ferrara’s multi-dimensional, post-modernist rendering of the fifty-year-old filmmaker and writer’s final hours on November 2, 1975, fiction and reality, memories and dreams tango side-by-side. In one of his finest and most restrained performances, Willem Dafoe captures the intellectual complexity and tortured soul of this Italian genius. The actor embodies the man by embracing his passion, his alienation, and his revolutionary refusal to compromise.
As Dafoe expresses in the Kino Lorber press kit, “We imagine his state of mind on the last day of his life… The performance was not an imitation or interpretation of who he was, but more a record of me inhabiting the actions and thoughts of a man that happened to be Pier Paolo Pasolini.” Thus, screenwriter Maurizio Braucci employs his sources to flesh out the final days and uncover the real struggles.
Following in the narrative footsteps of Pablo Larraín’s Neruda, Pasolini shifts without warning or explanation between the real and the fictional with memories often as the filter between the two realms. The story explores the vast gulfs between what an artist creates, imagines, and envisions in his head when compared to the quiet banality of daily life. Sipping tea with his mother and his sister, Pasolini’s final days are portrayed as calm and even domesticated. Later, in the middle-aged cocoon of his automobile, the conventional cruising of young men by the gay director in the streets of Rome feels sweet and utterly harmless at first.
At the same time, the intellectual excavations of Pasolini cannot be denied. Confronting the latent hypocrisy and inherent dangers of capitalism, Pasolini declares in multiple interviews that his shocking films and artistic expression are both his crowbar and his virtue. He protects his virtue, his revolutionary integrity with the crowbar as his assassin against falsehoods. As Pasolini, Dafoe says with complete certainty, true revolution is possible because “pounding away on the same nail can bring down a house.”
Since Pasolini understood that his art took place not in the theater of the world but within the theater of his mind, he refused to compromise. His last film, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, linked fascism and sadism. Set in the last years of WWII in Italy, the dark tale centers on a group of fascists as they subject nine adolescent boys and girls to 120 days of physical, mental, and sexual torture. Viewers need to be aware that excerpts from Salò as Pasolini edits his final work combined with additional footage of orgies in Pasolini’s visions of Sodom are graphic and intense.
Salò premiered at the Paris Film Festival three weeks after Pasolini was murdered in Rome. Extreme and controversial, it was banned in Italy, the United States, and across the world. Many people believe to this day that Pasolini’s death was connected to the film and his revolutionary proclamations, a Mafia-style revenge killing that is brutal in the film and was even more brutal in reality.
In a final interview, performed by Willem Dafoe with a self-possessed gravity and paraphrased here, Pasolini knows he is walking a razor’s edge of undeniable danger, “I have been to hell, and I know things that disturb other people’s dreams. Let me tell you, warn you; hell is rising towards you. It’s true that it comes under many different banners and behind many different masks. We are all victims, and we are all guilty.”
Such a razor’s edge of uncompromising expression is what attracted Abel Ferrara to tell this story. In the director’s career, his most influential films, including Bad Lieutenant and Dangerous Game, interrogate the connection between guilt and victimhood. Not commercial and not obvious, it took many years for Ferrara to complete Pasolini, but he knew he must: “We’re coming from a point of a lot of respect… He’s really essential viewing for me, from the first time I saw him. His death, in 1975, was a very outrageous moment, all the bullshit surrounding him, the killing, when it comes down to it, we probably were gearing up to make this movie from the moment we heard he was dead.”
In the 21st century, so much is compromised on the altar of the all-mighty dollar, including the presidency and the integrity of the United States. In such dark times, both uncompromising films and revolutionary art are needed. With the help of Abel Ferrara and Willem Dafoe, the virtuous crowbar that the passionate artist used to reveal the materialistic hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie is resurrected in Pasolini
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