Director Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant) focuses on Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, who battled censorship over his writings and films, such as Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, and was murdered on 2 November 1975. Pasolini follows the scandalous director (played by Willem Dafoe) on the last day in the life, as he spends time with his mother and friends, conducts an interview with a journalist and goes out at night in search of adventure.

A strange collage of a complex character

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Fimmaker, author, poet, leftist, shit-stirrer, and dedicated intellectual, Pier Paolo Pasolini was notorious in life and his premature end has been the subject of conjecture, conspiracy, even folklore. 

He confronted the Church and the State. He was openly gay but his challenge to values and conventions was a complex howl of passion and intellect that can’t be reduced to sexuality; after all here was a radical who despised  permissiveness and took the side of the police once in a student protest. Still, his murder at the hands of a rent boy has been read as a karmic reply to a life that seemed to exist solely to test borders and outrage sensibilities.

His great excremental art-splash Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom opened in Paris three weeks after he died. It is a cinematic response to de Sade. In it child are tortured, every depravity seems to be explored. It was banned, cut and condemned in many places (including Australia.)

The circumstances of Pasolini’s end are still subject to scrutiny with more than one documentary out to investigate its mysteries amongst them Marco Tullio Giordana's Pasolini: an Italian Crime (1995). It proposed that Pasolini’s killing may have been politically motivated.

But these are the facts: the record shows that Pasolini met his death on the night of 2 November 1975. He was found in what one writer called ‘a lonely wasteland’. The details are sordid. Pasolini picked up seventeen-year-old Pino Pelosi and offered him money for sex. Pasolini treated the boy to a meal before driving to a seaside town where they parked. Pelosi alleged that Pasolini threatened to insert a wooden stick into his rectum. Hours later Pelosi was arrested and Pasolini was found in the dirt, his body crushed. One ear was mutilated.

Abel Ferrara’s film Pasolini captures this life and death in a weird collage. It is not a procedural or straight-faced bio. It is not at all concerned in constructing some kind of alternate theory of Pasolini’s murder. Instead, it is a kind of quietly crazed fantasia of facts and human speculation to do with trying to articulate the filmmaker’s inner life. It is respectful (what would have Pasolini thought of that?), dignified, and even reverential with Ferrara and screenwriter, Maurizio Braucci using the filmmakers unfinished novel Petrolio as a formal jumping off point for the film’s fragmented character.

Which is to say we move freely between a fairly realist treatment of Pasolini’s last days – high brow interviews with earnest journos, dining with beloved mum, writing…and a low-rent realisation of Petrolio with its political sleaze of compromise and spectacle; orgies, seductions, oral sex and plane wrecks.

At times I didn’t know why or where I was in all in this, yet the film has a strangeness that is totalling riveting. It is not shocking or especially ugly or even intellectually challenging (how can it be when the characters so beautifully articulate their thoughts in a way that invites no more profound a response as ‘you betcha’!!)

So Ferrara hasn’t really made a Pasolini film of Pasolini (a daft premise if ever there was one) but it is full of incidental pleasures, intriguing notions and a wonderful, hard to articulate mystique. Here, the Rome of the ‘70s is a city of intellectuals, actors and chancers who argue, listen, and screw themselves silly. The look is a murky rust colour, like a cappuccino with the foam blown off. Ferrara’s camera alternates between a probing mobility and artful still life.

Of course chief amongst the films principal virtues is Willem Dafoe who plays Pasolini with the quiet dignity of an aristocrat straight out of some lost Visconti epic. I’ve never quite seen any actor impersonate deep thought as convincing as Dafoe does here. This is the key note to Ferrara’s strategy: a stark contrast between the quiet gentility of Pasolini’s day to day and a fevered imagination where the body and mind are locked in mortal combat both bent of freeing themselves from the tyranny of the other. I’m not sure whether that’s Pasolini. But it is this Pasolini.

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