Willem Dafoe in ‘Pasolini’ (Courtesy of Kino Lorber)

It’s easy to be of two minds about the great Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. Arguably his country’s most important twentieth-century intellectual, he’s known for idiosyncratic and transcendent—even revelatory—classics like Mamma Roma (about a prostitute attempting to enter the middle class) and Il vangelo secondo Matteo (a moving adaptation of the Gospel of Matthew, shot on location in southern Italy and simmering with Marxist undertones). The humanitarian thrust of Pasolini’s artistic vision, his project of building a more compassionate, communitarian world, can be enthralling.

But there’s the other, darker Pasolini: the notorious libertine and sexual predator, whose well-known connections with the underground world of male prostitution in Rome likely led to his death (he was found brutally murdered on a beach in Ostia in 1975). Is it possible to reconcile these two versions of the artist—or at least resist the reflex to compartmentalize Pasolini’s work from his life? Abel Ferrara’s brilliant biopic, simply titled Pasolini, gives fans a good reason to try.

Ferrara’s film, which debuted at Venice in 2014 and began a limited commercial run in New York last month, is remarkably sober and nonjudgmental. It gently sidesteps the debates over Pasolini’s legacy, instead sketching a candid portrait of a working artist with whom Ferrara is clearly fascinated. There is, after all, a real kinship between the two filmmakers. Just as they share a reputation for rebellion, both are likewise drawn to a highly personal, anti-institutional strain of Catholicism, where grace abounds in squalor and scandal: Ferrara’s most famous film, 1992’s Bad Lieutenant, follows a corrupt New York City cop searching for redemption, while Pasolini’s 1961 Accattone invests the violent life of a Roman pimp with an aura of sacrality. Pasolini is thus a labor of love and a tribute to its subject, but it’s decidedly not a hagiography, neither lionizing Pasolini’s virtues nor condemning his vices. Instead of a conventional biopic, it unfolds as a provisional, impressionistic mosaic of scenes, disconnected and only partially completed. A bit bewildering on first viewing, Ferrara’s essayistic approach nevertheless has the welcome effect of clearing the air, inviting us to look with fresh eyes at Pasolini and his art.

Paradoxically, Ferrara gives Pasolini an expansive feel by setting his story within strict narrative limits. He’s certainly aware of the sweeping arc of Pasolini’s career—his early dialect poetry in Friulian, his move to Rome and his narrative fiction, his rise to international prominence as an auteurist director and cultural critic, and his trials for censorship in Italy—but here we witness just the final twenty-four hours of Pasolini’s life. (Pasolini had once written that the meaning of a life only becomes clear once it’s over.) 

The real action, Ferrara suggests, takes place inside Pasolini’s mind.

The plot is calm, ordinary, and routine. Pasolini wakes up in his comfortable Roman apartment, showers and dresses, reads the paper (actually, several) over breakfast, works on a novel, has lunch with his mother and a few friends. He then gives an interview, works on a script, and has dinner in a Roman trattoria. All the iconic material details of his life, from his stylish bell-bottom jeans, to his sleek Alfa Romeo, to his workaday Olivetti typewriter, are faithfully recreated. So too is the boisterous Rome of the 1970s, during the so-called anni di piombo, or “years of lead,” when extremists on both the left and right carried out regular kidnappings and terrorist attacks with near impunity. But apart from Pasolini’s violent death at the end, such drama lies mainly on the margins of the film, as Ferrara prefers to evoke and allude to, rather than drill down on, the controversies in which Pasolini found himself enmeshed.

The real action, Ferrara suggests, takes place inside Pasolini’s mind. Shots of him typing in his book-lined study or holding his head in his hands dissolve into elaborate recreations of scenes from two unfinished works. We first see one from Petrolio, an uncomfortably graphic, unfinished novel that blends classical myth, medieval allegory, and contemporary political intrigue with over-the-top sexuality. It’s provocative, even shocking, as the protagonist Carlo sexually gratifies a chain of anonymous men on the shadowy periphery of Rome. Ferrara balances this difficult viewing with lighter scenes from the more whimsical Porno-Teo-Kolossal, an unmade film that tracks a father and son as they follow a shooting star to the literal end of the universe in search of a purported messiah. (They end up sitting at the top of a stairway in space, with Earth far off in the distance.) In both cases, Ferrara layers such scenes with encyclopedic references to Pasolini’s works (shots of the African desert recall stills from Edipo Re, and the soundtrack is taken from Il vangelo secondo Matteo), recreating the look and feel of Pasolini’s signature style. Yet even as he does so, Ferrara shows restraint, closing the digressions abruptly and returning to the regularity of Pasolini’s daily regimen.

Just as Ferrara retains tight control over the film’s structure, he also makes deliberate, artful use of casting, thereby rendering the historical Pasolini uncannily present in a way that most biopics don’t. Pasolini himself is portrayed by Willem Dafoe, who not only resembles him physically (especially his broad forehead, hollow cheeks, and thin lips), but also reminds us of the suffering Christ, to whom Pasolini frequently compared himself. (Dafoe memorably played Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s 1988 Last Temptation of Christ.) The Italian actress Adriana Asti, who appeared in Accattone and herself made a documentary about Pasolini’s death, plays his mother.

Most important of all, though, is the participation of Italian actor Ninetto Davoli, Pasolini’s one-time lover and a veteran of many of his films. He plays Epifanio (it means “epiphany”), a role in Porno-Teo-Kolossal conceived specifically for Davoli by Pasolini just before his death. Speaking in rapid-fire Roman dialect, often without subtitles, Davoli’s playful, improvisational presence is what Pasolini, in his essays on film theory, would have called an im-segno; that is, an “image-sign,” which bears an intimate, direct relationship with reality. Davoli’s appearance in Ferrara’s film is a representation, but it’s also more: like a sacramental sign, for Pasolini an im-segno quite literally is the same presence it signifies. By casting Davoli, a real person who really knew Pasolini, Ferrara comes as close as he can to having Pasolini himself appear in the film. He reminds us that the film’s cast has been, in this sense, directly marked by the singular presence of Pasolini.

Still, the mark Pasolini left on people wasn’t always positive, or lifegiving. So much of his art is inspired by and rooted in his contact with the Roman sottoproletariato, or “sub-proletariat”—the poor, unemployed class of young men subsisting at the literal margins of the Italian capital. Living in makeshift shacks and making ends meet through irregular manual labor, petty theft, and prostitution, they’re the so-called ragazzi di vita (the literal translation is “boys of life,” but it’d be more accurate to call them “street kids” or “hustlers”) in whom Pasolini saw an uncorrupted ideal of human purity. It was their pre-rational consciousness—an archaic spirit untainted by capitalism and its attendant bourgeois moralism—that Pasolini believed was Italy’s one last hope in the face of a homogenizing, dehumanizing modernity. But if Pasolini looked to the ragazzi di vita as his literary and cinematic muses, he also abused them, regularly soliciting them for sex, even young men in their teens.

In the decades since Pasolini’s death, most critics and scholars have overlooked his transgressions. See, for example, the thirtieth anniversary edition of Roman Poems, published by City Lights in 2005 and translated by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, with an introduction by the Italian novelist Alberto Moravia. The cover features a photo of Pasolini flanked by two smiling boys, while inside we find another series of photos. In one, he gazes at a group of young men playing soccer; on the facing page, he holds hands with a small boy. Such a presentation now appears shockingly naïve, perhaps even complicit with Pasolini’s predation. So what are we to do? Can we still engage with Pasolini in good faith, or do we need to reconsider?

Ferrara confronts the issue of Pasolini’s abusive sexuality head-on, investing his death with explicitly Christian symbolism. In the lead-up to Pasolini’s murder, Ferrara stages two separate and consecutive “last suppers.” In one, Pasolini is portrayed as Christ, warmly enjoying a meal with a young Ninetto Davoli (here played not by Davoli himself but by the well-known Italian actor Riccardo Scamarcio) and his family. He lovingly holds Davoli’s infant son as he chats cordially with Davoli’s wife. Things darken in the next scene, though, when Pasolini picks up a young man and drives him to an empty restaurant along the highway outside Rome.

Willem Dafoe in Pasolini (Courtesy of Kino Lorber)

This second dinner unfolds slowly and painfully, as an agitated Pasolini asks the young man (Pino Pelosi, the seventeen-year-old man who would later confess to his murder, only to recant decades later) a series of questions designed to guarantee his silence and sexual compliance. (What do you think of the police? Do you have a girlfriend? What do you do with her?) Pasolini doesn’t eat, instead greedily and lustily watching Pelosi’s mouth as he devours a plate of pasta. Here Pasolini holds a single hand to his own forehead—an iconic image of Pasolini that Ferrara invests with a new meaning: self-contempt and moral disgust.

These two dinners condition our double response to the explicit and violent scene that follows. After having sex with Pelosi on a beach, Pasolini is mercilessly beaten by a gang of young men as they shout homophobic slurs. Dafoe’s helpless grimaces recall Christ’s passion, arousing our sympathy, but there’s also a certain justice to the group’s violence—Pasolini had been sexually abusing Pelosi, and they’ve put a sudden stop to it. Thus when Pelosi retreats to Pasolini’s car, gets behind the wheel, and runs him over, we can’t quite condemn him. The chief lament for his death belongs not to us but to his mother, whom Ferrara shoots with Marian pathos, howling in pain at the loss of her “Pieruti.”

In a sense, by making Pasolini, Ferrara stages a kind of resurrection of the filmmaker and his oeuvre. But he doesn’t thereby offer him absolution. Asked in an interview about Pasolini’s abusive behavior, Ferrara offers a compassionate yet measured response, filled with empathy born of his own struggle with substance abuse: “It would be presumptuous of me to make a value judgement on [Pasolini’s] lifestyle. I can make it on mine. Mine was at zero. But I’m not gonna make it on him.” In the end, he leaves such judgment to us. As an artist Pasolini has much to recommend him, and our jaded, cynical world would surely benefit from a retrieval of his “epico-religious” view of human life. Indeed, many of the causes Pasolini championed were just, his criticisms acute, his vision beautiful. Il vangelo secondo Matteo remains the most compelling portrait of Christ I’ve ever seen on film. But that doesn’t let Pasolini off the hook. We can’t forget his offenses, so intimately tied to his art. One simply doesn’t exist without the other. It’s a paradox we’d do well to remember.

Griffin Oleynick is an associate editor at Commonweal.

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