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 concept.
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 tale-within-the-tale …
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”.
some Pasolini: Oedipus Rex
© Adrian Martin August 2015.