Tuesday 1 September 2015, by
Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini opens in the dark: the Italian director is interviewed in French, in sunglasses, in a smoky room, in 1975, about Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, which is the last film he will make. Pier Paolo Pasolini appears suave and patient with the questions (‘Sex is political?’ ‘Naturalmente’). His face is deeply serious, furrowed, and unsmiling, with just a ripple of knowingness running across his chiselled jaw. Willem Dafoe, brilliantly cast in the title role, is a perfect picture of gravitas.
Pasolini’s life is briefly but masterfully illuminated by Ferrara before it is snuffed out. The film follows the last hours of his life before he is murdered, the night after the interview takes place, for being gay or a socialist, or both (the verdict has always been contested). At the time of his death Pasolini was not only preparing Salò for release, but writing a novel, planning his next film, and thinking a lot about radical politics. Ferrara’s biopic is a fictional montage which takes us far beyond Pasolini’s last hours, and is as much about Pasolini’s imagined worlds as about the one he lived and died in. Scenes from life (the apartment he shared with his mother, the streets of Rome at night) are spliced with filmic fragments which could be snippets from the novel, scenes from unmade films, parts of articles, dreams or memories. In one early scene he draws the earth surrounded by other planets, a storyboard which later comes to life as a big papier-mache globe spinning in a studio. If the earth becomes a kitsch play-thing, it’s because Pasolini is trying to understand it and imagine it to be better.
We’re introduced to Pasolini’s socialist radicalism in another interview, this one with La Stampa on the evening he died, and used in the film verbatim. If you had a magic wand that could make everything you’re fighting against disappear, the interviewer says, would you use it? He implies that without the struggle (as well, I guess, as the structures he purports to want to dismantle) Pasolini would lose everything: his art, his intellectual activity, and maybe even the shiny furniture of his Rome apartment. Pasolini replies that not only would he use the magic wand, but that it exists. It’s the hammer which, if struck enough times, brings down a house. What will he be left with? “I will be left with everything. Indeed, I will be left with myself.” If Ferrara’s film seems full, I think this is the effect he’s going for - Pasolini hitting that hammer again and again and again to create change and to get closer to the self (successfully or not).
Moving from Pasolini’s sombre ‘European intellectual’ personality to the sweeter, richer world of his creative output, we find ourselves in a real and dirty fantasy land, utopian in its way. We’re suddenly in an unfinished Pasolini film, partially of Abel Ferrara’s own invention, where the real Pier Paolo’s former lover and regular star Ninetto Davoli plays Epifanio, now no sex symbol but just as jolly as ever. In Epifanio’s crumbling Rome apartment, the music is loud and joyful as he makes coffee, pisses, and has a booming conversation with his buxom wife who is at least one, maybe several, rooms away. Epifanio and a young friend (named Ninetto, played by a Davoli-esque Riccardo Scamarcio) follow a Messianic star to Sodom, where they are abundantly smiled and winked at, and see its lesbian and gay citizens make a subversion out of straightness in a fantastical ritual to procreate. This is the exuberant heart of Ferrara’s film and, it seems, of Pasolini’s life: it’s all about making the magic happen. There is certainly a wide gulf between the innocence of these characters and Pasolini’s own troubling attitudes and actions, but it seems his life ends in a vacuum of the imagination, at the hands of people unable to accept a vision of another world. We’re lucky to have a window on Pasolini’s vision through his films and writing, and have Ferrara to thank for reminding us to look.
Dir. Abel Ferrara, 2014
Pasolini opens in the UK on 11 September 2015 at the ICA, HOME Manchester, QFT Belfast and selected cinemas UK-wide, and launching on BFI Player. At BFI Southbank, Ciné Lumière and other West End sites from 18 September.