In what initially appears to be a fairly
banal moment in Pasolini,
the great Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, as
incarnated by Willem Dafoe, begins leafing through the newspaper. We notice particular
headlines and stories concerning violent incidents, murders, the corruption of
police and politicians. Then images flash up to illustrate these items: a gun
fired in a street, dead bodies, fleeing cars … But whose images are these? Are
they unfolding in Pasolini’s mind (he wrote often
about this experience of the everyday horrors he found in the newspaper,
presented as indifferent reportage), or are they more truly Abel Ferrara’s,
‘taking off’ (in a manner Pasolini himself once
theorised as the cinema of poetry)
from a depicted character’s subjectivity, in order to take us to an ambiguous
and vacillating plane of representation?
Certainly, the Ferrara style is
unmistakeable, here as everywhere in Pasolini: the ever-wandering camera that racks focus at will
(but, nonetheless, never fails to pick up what is essential in any scene); a
constant use of slow dissolves between scenes and locations, sometimes in
tandem with slow motion; dreamy passages of nocturnal driving … But there is energy
and lucidity here: after the disappointment of 4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011) and the embarrassingly amateurish
career nadir of Welcome to New York (2014), Pasolini marks a welcome revitalisation of Ferrara’s creative juices, not seen in such full
flow since Go Go Tales (2007).
In the face of an almost impossibly
daunting and demanding subject – since there are so many scholars, fans and
specialists, each zealously guarding their own image and interpretation of Pasolini – Ferrara returns to the mosaic approach that he
perfected in Mary (2005): a collage,
intermingling various types of material in furiously compressed form (only 76
minutes long, before the final credits roll).
At the same time, Ferrara and co-writer
Maurizio Braucci (also a collaborator with Matteo Garrone) wisely impose a constraining
control-factor on this material, a relatively straightforward, overarching
structure: roughly, the last 24 hours of Pasolini’s life,
with brief additions from a few days either side of the fatal date of November
2, 1975. Painstaking research led to this final-day chronology – aligning the
film, in Ferrara’s mind, with his recent documentary work.
The special, artistic pay-off of this
reconstruction, however, is unmistakeable: alongside all those moments, usually
so heavily underlined in biopics, where Pasolini appears to be forecasting his own, tragic death
(“You do not even know who, in this very moment, is thinking about killing
you”), there are just as many scenes that are entirely undramatic and touching
in their homeliness: Pasolini interacting with his
beloved mother, Susanna (Adriana Asti, former actor for Pasolini and Bertolucci, now in her 80s), and his friends; or
on a makeshift soccer field, energetically kicking the ball around with a bunch
of young guys. Ferrara is also sure to include – countering another occlusion
rife among biopics of creative people – scenes of his hero humbly labouring at
his typewriter, or reading; this art does not simply spring, fully blown, from
his head onto the page or screen.
And yet, another essential aspect of
Ferrara’s cinema, strongly emphasised in Nicole Brenez’s 2007 book on the director, is also given free reign here, within the script’s
predetermined structure: the tendency to multiply mental imagery, fiction or cinema as a psychic projection from deep
within a person’s complex, inner self – another manifestation of the cinema-of-poetry
Relatively lengthy sections of the movie
are devoted to Ferrara’s materialisation of passages from two unfinished works:
the novel Petrolio (Oil), and the screenplay Porno-Teo-Kolossal – a cynical but magical fable (originally
written with the great comedian Totò in mind) that
would have countered the crushing bleakness of Salò. A highlight of Ferrara’s
version of this screenplay is an immense casting coup: where Pasolini’s former ‘eternal child’ star Ninetto Davoli was once to play the secondary role in this
scenario, now, in his mid 60s, he becomes the wide-eyed hero, Epifanio.
These re-enactments produce a welcome détournement, a
meandering in Pasolini’s tightly linear structure. They also allow effects of interweaving and slippage
between the different levels of the collage: Pasolini’s words, in a letter to Alberto Moravia, then become those of a sage-like
storyteller inside the fiction of Petrolio, addressed to its “repugnant” central character (yet
so much the author’s alter ego), Carlo (Roberto Zibetti), which then triggers another, dreamlike
Despite Ferrara’s insistence that he and
his key crew are devout students of Pasolini’s cinema, he applies the lessons of this apprenticeship freely, without mimicry. Ferrara
no more tries to ape Pasolini’s filmic style (with its
disconcerting discontinuities and jarring facial close-ups) than Dafoe tries to
imitate the real Pasolini. The project is honest: Dafoe
does not try, for the most part, to speak Italian; and Ferrara eschews the riot
of allusions to Pasolini’s classics (Accattone, Medea, etc) that
would have easily suggested themselves.
Only the selection of pre-existing music
tracks – Tony Joe White and The Staple Singers alongside Bach, Rossini, and a
Croatian folk tune – seem to tip the hat to the Master. But, then again,
haven’t Ferrara’s films always displayed eclectic musical taste, effortlessly
crossing high and low cultural realms?
Ferrara also explores the type of
narrative atmosphere that has appealed to him at least since the magisterial King of New York (1990): full of what
anthropologists call thick description,
naturalistic details evoking subsidiary stories or undercurrents are left
floating, unexplained. Although Braucci insists this
is not a project merely for insider viewers with an already comprehensive
knowledge, many names are fleetingly dropped – like (Miklós) Jancsó or Eduardo (di Filippo) – and little intrigues flagged but not unfolded,
such as the evident tension between Pasolini’s gregarious friend Laura Betti (Maria de Medeiros) and
his cousin, Nico Naldini (Valerio Mastandrea).
More obscure still, even for those
spectators with some familiarity with Pasolini, is
the implicit connection drawn between the subject matter of Petrolio – the 1962 death of Enrico Mattei and its relation to
the ENI oil corporation (already dramatised in Francesco Rosi’s 1972 The Mattei Affair) – and one popular hypothesis about the ultra-right-wing culprits
behind the director’s murder, involving intermediaries from the Sicilian Mafia.
It is this link which helps us understand Ferrara’s creepy scene (derived from Petrolio) of a
Masonic-style lodge of wealthy, powerful guys exchanging whispered confidences.
By the same token, it is striking to
what extent Ferrara – despite his carney-style boasting in interviews of “I
know who really did it and why!” – explicitly avoids
virtually every conspiracy theory surrounding Pasolini’s death. He depicts an uncomfortable gay encounter between Pasolini and Pino Pelosi (Damiano Tamilia), and a gang of violent youths who descend upon the
pair, as well as the car fatally driven (by Pino)
over Pasolini’s unconscious body (deliberately or
not, the film leaves as an open question). But any possible wider connections,
motivations or set-ups, long a matter of feverish speculation, are left largely unprobed.
Intriguingly, among Ferrara’s publicised
initial intentions for the project was the inclusion, as part of this last day,
of Pasolini’s negotiations with thieves who had
stolen some reels of Salò’s negative – an incident which figures
prominently, for instance, in Sergio Citti’s ideas
about his mentor’s death.
This absence of overt political
conspiracy will doubtless be a disappointment to some viewers of Pasolini. But
politics resurfaces at another, more general level, closely tied to statements
from Pasolini’s final, re-enacted interview, with Furio Colombo of La Stampa. In Pasolini’s vision
of “the situation” of the modern, Western world in 1975, consumerist culture
(and this is a critique with which Ferrara profoundly identifies) has created a
pervasive atmosphere of violence; people’s frustrated desires lead to a chain
of “having, owning and destroying”.
Pasolini, in this sense, embodies the harsh wisdom of the
artist’s final journalistic articles: as he warns his self-satisfied
interviewer, “Hell is rising, and it’s coming at you” – or, as his suggested
headline for the piece states even more pithily, “We are all in danger”.
© Adrian Martin August 2015.