This review will contain spoilers, particularly for readers unfamiliar with the life and death of Pasolini.
“Do you have a title? How about, ‘We’re All In Danger’?” Willem Dafoe as notorious filmmaker, poet, writer Pier Paolo Pasolini states to an interviewer at least half way through Abel Ferrara’s pseudo bio-pic on the noted figure. It’s a fitting line in an impressive sequence that’s part of a strange film that’s seemingly as unsure of its character as it is of its audience. Ferrara has never been a filmmaker to shy away from challenge and in making a film about the final hours of Pasolini’s life, he may have finally met his match and subsequently created his most dangerous work since Bad Lieutenant.
The succinctly titled Pasolini opens with the titular filmmaker putting the finishing touches on his final film, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom. Here we first see Dafoe in the requisite sunglasses and donning Pasolini’s florid demeanor. And it is here where Ferrara’s film most succeeds, allowing us to see the passionate, eccentric side of Pasolini rendered through a charismatic performance by Dafoe. Unfortunately, it is also where it will ultimately fail as well. Dafoe’s performance may be exceptional, but it is not enough to carry this feature (even one as lean as 86 minutes) and it needs to.
When I think of bio-pic, one of the last names that I’m thinking of being behind the camera is someone as brash as Abel Ferrara. And I’m typically a Ferrara apologist. I love the guy, warts, Go Go Tales, and all. But Ferrara isn’t the most sensitive of voices and despite working with material that isn’t exactly sensitive (let’s face it, Pasolini lived a life that might make Ferrara’s look tame) it all comes off as a bit reductive and sensationalist. In other words: if you want to see an extended, unsimulated blowjob sequence that might make James Deen blush, in a theater with a paying audience, this is the film for you. It’s safe to say that Ferrara may be looking at another MPAA dispute with this one, and what for? For all of its overt sensationalism – images from Salo aside – it never amounts to much. The details of Pasolini’s sexual life are not exactly unknown and the majority of the aggressively explicit content here doesn’t even involve him, but this – like pretty much anything Ferrara has done – is as much about the person behind the camera as it is about what’s going on in front of it.
The biggest laugh in the screening that I attended came during the opening credits. It opens as most international productions do, with quite a few company credits. But it soon turns into something bordering on parody, with “affiliation’s,” “supports,” and so on getting prominent display. It at once proves that the subject we are about to spend 86 minutes with is of great cultural significance and that the filmmaker behind it doesn’t have an easy time securing funding. It isn’t hard to find a parallel between Pasolini and Ferrara as filmmakers, in the opening moments Dafoe utters the line “…to scandalize is a right…” and I could easily hear something like that coming out of Ferrara during an interview. Both filmmakers came under fire for standards of content and both staunchly defend(ed) their work. And both – as abrasive as their content may be – remain confident, formalistic filmmakers with impressive bodies of work that defy the respected norms of their time. Which makes Ferrara being behind this both a blessing and a curse, for he is the perfect person to make this film and the worst. Few other filmmakers working today could likely relate to Pasolini as much as he, yet few other filmmakers working today would go out of their way to make this as alienating as it ends up being.
Pasolini ends with his much debated death by being run over with his own car, it’s a savage sequence and will likely spur as much conversation as various theories surrounding his untimely demise have. But the time spent to get to this point doesn’t give the viewer any time to get to know Pasolini; we hear him speak to press, watch him interact with loved ones, anxiously witness him befriend the hustler that will/may result in his death. And in between all of this, we learn of a story that he wishes to film and see moments of that acted out. There is no on screen text to offer a primer for unknowing viewers, nor is there any exposition to tell the story of how Pasolini got to his final day. It just all is. Ferrara thrusts us into the final – debated – hours of this man’s life and asks us to, if not care, understand. Dafoe makes a compelling enough case for us to, but in the end it isn’t worth the danger.