Film of the week: Pasolini

Abel Ferrara collages the last day (give or take) and lost works of Italian cinema poet Pier Paolo Pasolini in his own inimitable way.

from our October 2014 issue

Last day on earth: Willem Dafoe in the title role of Abel Ferrara’s fictional reconstruction of the last 24 hours of Pasolini’s life

Last day on earth: Willem Dafoe in the title role of Abel Ferrara’s fictional reconstruction of the last 24 hours of Pasolini’s life

In what initially appears to be a fairly banal moment in Abel Ferrara’s new film, the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, as incarnated by Willem Dafoe, begins leafing through the newspaper. We notice particular headlines and stories concerning violent incidents, murders, the corruption of police and politicians. Then images flash up to illustrate these items: a gun fired in a street, dead bodies, fleeing cars…

But whose images are these? Are they unfolding in Pasolini’s mind, or are they more truly Ferrara’s, ‘taking off’ (in a manner Pasolini himself once theorised as the ‘cinema of poetry’) from a depicted character’s subjectivity, in order to lead us to an ambiguous and vacillating plane of representation?

Certainly, the Ferrara style is unmistakable, here as everywhere in Pasolini: the ever-wandering camera that racks focus at will (but nonetheless never fails to pick up what is essential in any scene); a constant use of slow dissolves between scenes and locations, sometimes in tandem with slow motion; dreamy passages of nocturnal driving… But there is energy and lucidity here: after the disappointment of 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011) and the embarrassingly amateurish career nadir of Welcome to New York (2014), Pasolini marks a welcome revitalisation of Ferrara’s creative juices, not seen in such full flow since Go Go Tales (2007).

In the face of an almost impossibly daunting subject – since there are so many scholars, fans and specialists, each zealously guarding their own image and interpretation of Pasolini – Ferrara returns to the mosaic approach that he perfected in Mary (2005): a collage, intermingling various types of material in furiously compressed form.

Pasolini (2014)

Pasolini (2014)

At the same time, Ferrara and co-writer Maurizio Braucci (also a collaborator with Matteo Garrone) wisely impose a constraining control factor on this material, a relatively straightforward, overarching structure: roughly, the last 24 hours of Pasolini’s life, with brief additions from a few days either side of the fatal date of 2 November 1975. Painstaking research led to this ‘final day’ chronology – aligning the film, in Ferrara’s mind, with the preparatory work and observation of reality in his recent documentary work.

The special, artistic payoff of this reconstruction, however, is also unmistakable. Alongside all those moments (of the kind usually so heavily underlined in biopics) where Pasolini appears to be forecasting his own tragic death (“You do not even know who, in this very moment, is thinking about killing you”), there are just as many scenes that are entirely undramatic and touching in their homeliness: Pasolini interacting with his beloved mother Susanna (Adriana Asti, former actor for Pasolini and Bertolucci, now in her eighties) and his friends; or on a makeshift soccer field, energetically kicking the ball around with a bunch of young guys. Ferrara also includes – countering another occlusion rife among biopics of creative people – scenes of his hero humbly labouring at his typewriter or reading; this art does not simply spring, fully blown, from his head on to the page or screen.

And yet, another essential aspect of Ferrara’s cinema is also given free rein here, within the script’s predetermined structure: the tendency to generate mental imagery, in the form of novelistic fiction or cinema, as a psychic projection from deep within a person’s complex, inner self – another manifestation of Pasolini’s cinema of poetry concept. Relatively lengthy sections of the movie are devoted to Ferrara’s materialisation of passages from two of Pasolini’s unfinished works: the novel Petrolio (‘Oil’) and the screenplay Porno-Teo-Kolossal – a cynical but magical fable that would have countered the crushing bleakness of Salò. A highlight of Ferrara’s version of the screenplay is an immense casting coup: where Pasolini’s former ‘eternal child’ Ninetto Davoli was once to play the secondary role in this scenario, now, in his mid-sixties, he becomes the wide-eyed hero Epifanio.

Ferrara’s realisation of Pasolini’s unfinished Porno-Teo-Kolossal

Ferrara’s realisation of Pasolini’s unfinished Porno-Teo-Kolossal

These re-enactments produce a welcome détournement, a meandering in Pasolini’s tightly linear structure. They also allow effects of interweaving and slippage between the different levels of the collage: Pasolini’s words, in a letter to Alberto Moravia, then become those of a sage-like storyteller inside the fiction of Petrolio, addressed to its “repugnant” central character – yet so much the author’s alter ego – Carlo (Roberto Zibetti), which then triggers another, dreamlike tale-within-the-tale…

Despite Ferrara’s insistence that he and his key crew are devout students of Pasolini’s cinema, he applies the lessons of this apprenticeship freely, without mimicry. Ferrara no more tries to ape Pasolini’s filmic style (with its disconcerting discontinuities and jarring facial close-ups) than Dafoe tries to imitate the real Pasolini. The project is honest: Dafoe does not try, for the most part, to speak Italian; and Ferrara eschews the riot of allusions to Pasolini’s classics (Accattone, Medea, etc) that would have easily suggested themselves. Only the selection of pre-existing music tracks – Tony Joe White and The Staple Singers alongside Bach, Rossini and a Croatian folk tune – seem to tip the hat to the Master; but then again, haven’t Ferrara’s films always displayed eclectic musical taste, effortlessly crossing high and low cultural realms?

Ferrara also explores the type of narrative atmosphere that has appealed to him at least since the magisterial King of New York (1990): full of what anthropologists call ‘thick description’, with naturalistic details evoking subsidiary stories and undercurrents left floating, unexplained. Although Braucci insists this is not a project for ‘insider’ viewers with an already comprehensive knowledge, many names are fleetingly dropped – such as (Miklós) Jancsó or Eduardo (De Filippo) – and little intrigues are flagged but not unfolded, such as the evident tension between Pasolini’s gregarious friend Laura Betti (Maria de Medeiros) and his cousin Nico Naldini (Valerio Mastandrea).

Pasolini’s former star Ninetto Davoli as Epifanio

Pasolini’s former star Ninetto Davoli as Epifanio

More obscure still, even for those viewers with some familiarity with Pasolini, is the implicit connection drawn between the subject matter of Petrolio – the 1962 death of Enrico Mattei and its relation to the ENI oil corporation (already dramatised in Francesco Rosi’s 1972 The Mattei Affair) – and one popular hypothesis about the ultra-rightwing culprits behind the director’s murder, involving intermediaries from the Sicilian Mafia. It is this link that helps us understand Ferrara’s creepy scene (derived from Petrolio) of a Masonic-style lodge of wealthy, powerful guys exchanging whispered confidences.

By the same token, it is striking to what extent Ferrara – despite his carny-style boasting of “I know who really did it!” in a recent interview – explicitly avoids virtually every conspiracy theory surrounding Pasolini’s death. He depicts an uncomfortable gay encounter between Pasolini and Pino Pelosi (Damiano Tamilia) and a gang of violent youths who descend on the pair, as well as Pino fatally driving a car over Pasolini’s unconscious body (whether deliberately or not the film leaves an open question). But any possible wider connections, motivations or set-ups, long a matter of feverish speculation, are left largely unprobed. Intriguingly, among Ferrara’s publicised initial intentions for the project was the inclusion, as part of this ‘last day’, of Pasolini’s negotiations with thieves who had stolen some reels of Salò’s negative – an incident that figures prominently, for instance, in Sergio Citti’s ideas about his mentor’s death.

This absence of overt political conspiracy will doubtless be a disappointment to some viewers of Pasolini. But politics resurfaces at another, more general level, closely tied to statements from Pasolini’s final, re-enacted interview. In his vision of ‘the situation’ of the modern Western world in 1975, consumerist culture (and this is a critique with which Ferrara profoundly identifies) has created a pervasive atmosphere of violence; people’s frustrated desires lead to a chain of “having, owning and destroying”. Pasolini, in this sense, embodies the harsh wisdom of the artist’s final journalistic articles: as he warns his self-satisfied interviewer, “Hell is rising, and it’s coming at you” – or, as his suggested headline for the piece states even more pithily, “We are all in danger.”


In the March 2013 issue of Sight & Sound

– available as a back issue or through a subscription to our digital archive

Divine reality

A new retrospective of the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini and the rerelease of his powerful and mysterious 1964 retelling of the life of Jesus, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, provide an opportunity to rediscover this most misunderstood and controversial of filmmakers. By Hannah McGill.

+ The inexpressible

If the filmmaker and author Pier Paolo Pasolini had never existed, what would we have missed? By Mark Cousins.


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