Director: Abel Ferrara
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Maria de Medeiros, Riccardo Smarcio, Ninetto Davoli
Kicking off my week at the BFI’s London Film Festival this year is Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini, a snapshot of the last day in the life of the eponymous influential Italian director, here played by Willem Dafoe. After what has been an uneven decade for Ferrara, this year has finally seen him do an about-face; his morality tale Welcome To New York saw some acclaim at Cannes and beyond, but Pasolini is a masterful work from start to finish.
Never one to disappoint, Dafoe is superlative casting as the enigmatic, provocative Italian filmmaker. Even as he nears 60 he is as lithe as ever, but his effortlessly cool, seductive (in the way only an Italian director from 1975 could be) exterior betrays a mind wracked with anger at society and an imagination teeming with ideas.
An openly gay filmmaker, and a Marxist, Pasolini would work on his novels, poems, and screenplays during the day and then go cruising at night. We open with a shot of him in his classic reflective pose as he watches a cut of what would be his last film, 120 Days of Sodom, and follow him as he navigates the various projects he has planned for the future, all of which we know will be cut short by his untimely, brutal murder.
To scandalise is a right and to be scandalised is a pleasure.
He lives a modest existence with his mother, frequently visited by actors, journalists, friends, one of which is Laura Betti, as played by Pulp Fiction’s Maria de Medeiros (a scene-stealer), who has the best line in a script which is challenging, witty and often brilliant.
These moments in the real world are punctuated by flights of fancy, as Ferrara brings to life some of Pasolini’s works that he never had the chance to film. These tonal shifts should be jarring, but instead are surprisingly entertaining diversions. Ferrara’s direction in these scenes, and indeed throughout, is beguiling and subtle, increasingly so when we return to Pasolini’s point of view. It shouldn’t work – but it does.
Perhaps Pasolini’s only real shortcoming is the constant shifting between English and Italian. The Italian actors speak it amongst themselves, but as soon as Dafoe arrives, everyone switches to English. He does, however, speak it fluently in the film’s most crucial scene.
Most poignantly, our Pasolini always seems to have a fatalistic cloud hanging overhead, as if to be aware of his oncoming demise. Ferrara’s film leaves us on a similarly abrupt note. After such a confident year, I hope he neither burn outs, nor fades away.