Written by Maurizio Braucci
Directed by Abel Ferrara
The art and the artist are undoubtedly strange bedfellows, and while there is a vast ocean to explore in terms of this relationship, the tempestuousness rarely ever seems to get its time on screen. This is no different for Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini – a biopic about the last days of Pier Paolo Pasolini – where several times the idea is talked about, even spoken about with the same kind of verve that one would use to discuss the lurid sexual details that are illustrated on-screen, but that push and pull is not actually articulated on-screen. Pasolini was certainly a complex man, a Jack-of-all-trades in the art world, and Ferrara does an excellent job talking about this – his role in politics, his poetry, his novels, and, of course, his films – but the director spends little time showing us that influence. The biopic of an artist, I believe, begs the question of that relationship and that influence. “It’s either I kill myself or I do it,” he says about making movies. Though the film is certainly honorific, it’s not completely explorative.
To be completely crass, the best example of this might be Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, a film which is as honorific as it is skeptical about its subject. Painting the many faces of Bob Dylan through various means, it deconstructs the very form of the biopic: an impossibility of a portrait that Pasolini, on the other hand, nevertheless attempts despite the fact that it double dips and tries the same method of investigating the different facets of Pasolini’s life. But, again, it’s primarily talked about, through interviews that, while serving as (what I presume) is an accurate representation of the famed auteur, leave one wanting more.
We see scenes from Pasolini’s never filmed Porno-Teo-Kolossal, which looks like, to my understanding, a hybrid of Salo’s provocation and The Trilogy of Life’s philosophizing. And while the relationship between these scenes (and that of a book Pasolini never published) and the actual person are rather tangential, their connective tissue rather thin, they are nonetheless interesting to experience. One wonders, WWPD?
Many statements are made by Pasolini in the film, like “Narrative art is dead” and, as aforementioned, a desire to explore the “relationship between the form and the creator”. “There’s nothing that’s not political,” he says during an interview that opens the film as scenes from his final film Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom play. Again, it isn’t that I disagree with Pasolini — on the contrary I heartily agree — but the political underlyings of his work seem to be at a distance from the audience. Maybe it’s Ferrara’s way to push viewers to find Pasolini’s work by themselves, but beyond a short montage on the Milan bombings and an assassination, and a montage regarding some of Pasolini’s own politics writings, the legacy of that work feels faint. Maybe to be disingenuous, it almost feels as if one is expected to already know and love Pasolini. The audience might just have to have already seen The Trilogy of Life and read A Violent Life or “Passion and Ideology”. Pasolini, to some degree, tries to have it both ways: it wants to act as an introduction to Maestro Pier Paolo Pasolini, but it wants an audience who already knows him.
At the very least, Willem Dafoe looks the part and plays Pasolini with, I suppose, as much aplomb as one could. Though, playing an enigmatic artist in such a subtle manner, his performance registers in quiet waves: Ferrara spends much of the film in close-up on Dafoe’s face, allowing the audience to examine all the etches, wrinkles, creases, and crevices in his skin. It’s hard, though, to discern the passion that the character Pasolini advocates: it appears in some scenes, such as in a later interview, but there’s a relaxed effortlessness. It might merely be Dafoe’s style, as his version of ‘full throttle’ in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist was not dissimilar. Yet, one can tell in crucial moments in the film that there’s always something bubbling inside his head, something explosive.
The film is admirable, though, for its specificity. Though its endeavor to eschew normal biopic structure and trajectory is only somewhat successful, its bid to key in on the final days of the director’s life is needed and welcome. In this way, the film inhabits a nice duality: at once sprawling and yet focused, making those final days feel like ages (in a good way). His queerness feels only superficially looked at until the film’s final moments, but I appreciate that his life isn’t ‘de-gayed’, so to speak.
Whilst dancing around some of Pasolini’s central passions and themes, the film, in trying to be so much, is able to accomplish rather little in comparison to its ambitions. There’s a little bit of an absurdist quality, which is clever and certainly amusing, but by seemingly tossing aside the intimacy between art and artist, Pasolini feels lackluster.
– Kyle Turner