One suspects Pasolini himself would have approved of casting Willem Dafoe to play himself, seeing as how the actor can count both Christ and “Antichrist” among his screen credits. But it’s doubtful whether he would have found much else to admire about “Pasolini,” Abel Ferrara’s confused collage of the poet-provocateur’s final days, despite Ferrara’s conceptually audacious intent to mirror the form of his unfinished, fragmented magnum opus, “Petrolio.” Even the stunt casting loses some of its sheen once the other actors open their mouths, since Ferrara surrounds Dafoe with a mostly Italian cast, relegating this fest-bait offering to ultra-niche status.
Though his influence on Hollywood was relatively negligible compared with that of his compatriots, Pier Paolo Pasolini remains (in this critic’s estimation) the most important filmmaker Italy ever produced — a visionary who was only just beginning to test the boundaries of cinema when his life was brutally cut short. Debate still rages as to whether Pasolini, whose body was found crushed by the tires of his own car on a beach outside Rome in late 1975, was killed by a gay hustler or was perhaps the target of a larger plot.
That question has inspired at least three other films — “Nerolio,” “Pasolini: An Italian Crime” and “Whoever Says the Truth Shall Die” — though the answer seems to be of only negligible concern to Ferrara, who told Italian press in March, “I know who killed him,” but here seems more interested in his artistic and intellectual legacy than in dwelling on the particulars of his death. (An industry friend who knew Pasolini well offered this critic an intriguing alternate theory, suggesting that the helmer had a self-destructive streak and sought out punishment and perhaps his own death.)
As far as Ferrara is concerned, however, “Pasolini” is neither a murder mystery nor a thriller, but an avant-garde homage to a literary genius who recognized cinema’s potential to take his work beyond the boundaries of language, refusing to kowtow to the prevailing rules of good form, good acting or good taste in the process. “Narrative art, as you all know, is dead, and we are in a period of mourning,” he proclaims.
So why hold Ferrara’s films to these old standards? While it’s right to acknowledge that, a mere century into cinema’s existence, the medium remains in a sort of creative infancy, as the majority of its practitioners (acting out of business rather than purely artistic concerns) subscribe to certain generic patterns, Ferrara finds himself imitating rather than innovating as well.
“Pasolini” is ersatz Pasolini, the sort of knockoff an ad campaign widely seen around the Venice Film Festival (where the pic is competing for the Golden Lion) is beseeching tourists not to buy: “Fakes kill your style,” it says. And yet, Ferrara’s film features an imposing lookalike (Dafoe, complete with the poet’s hollow cheeks and haunted eyes) dressed up in thick-framed sunglasses (Persol?) and designer shirts (Agnes B?), sitting behind the wheel of his Alfa Romeo GT Veloce like it’s all one silky-cool TV commercial — lensed in rich, dark colors and laced with pop and opera songs that merely enhance the effect. It’s the radical Marxist artist reinvented as capitalist poster boy, as conceptually incongruous as a frat boy in a Che Guevara T-shirt. (If you want to see Dafoe sell products, check out his Jim Beam ad instead. But if he convinces you to consume some of Pasolini’s oeuvre, then mission accomplished.)
As for the content of the scenes themselves, one must be relatively well versed in Pasolini’s life already to untangle the significance of what’s being presented. We see Pasolini writing the letter to fellow novelist Alberto Moravia that later helped editors try to make sense of his pastiche-like novel “Petrolio” — an obvious reference point for the film’s abstract, nonlinear structure, as well as the source of several adapted scenes featuring the “Carlo” character (Roberto Zibetti).
This semi-autobiographical doppelganger (of whom two competing versions exist in the novel) can be seen cruising the dump heaps of Rome in search of carnal pleasure. In a deliberately explicit scene, Ferrara shows him on his knees amid the garbage, fellating a much younger tough guy (not unlike the hustler who later bludgeons Pasolini to death). It’s scandalous, but regrettably unsexy — a straight man’s vision of gay eros, a la William Friedkin’s “Cruising,” as opposed to the transgressive arousal featured in Pasolini’s films (most notably “Salo,” which he’s just completing when the pic opens).
Still, it’s not fair to require audiences to know Pasolini’s “Petrolio” — virtually unreadable in its incomplete form — nor to assume that we understand the significance of domestic scenes, like the dinner party in which “Salo” actress Laura Betti visits Pasolini and his mother (played, with a wink — and a wince, as she tries to express herself in English — by “Accatone” actress Adriana Asti). On the other hand, it’s a rare and welcome delight to see Ferrara mount three scenes from “Porno-Teo-Kolossal,” the film Pasolini intended to make next, casting the director’s frequent collaborator Ninetto Davoli as Epifanio, who travels to the gay city of Sodom, arriving for the Feast of Fertility, when gays and lesbians host a giant orgy in which to keep the species alive before returning to their same-sex ways.
There can be no doubt as to the research Ferrara and screenwriter Maurizio Braucci put into the project, introducing (and occasionally repeating) choice soundbites and concepts, though the bizarre multilingual format (in which Italian is sometimes heard but not translated) is not just distracting, but off-putting. Why not get English-speaking actors to perform the other roles, rather than asking Italians to fumble with difficult lines? It’s distracting to hear an Italian journalist interviewing Pasolini in a language neither of them spoke, though the answer, spoken twice, is meant to explain everything: “Mine is not a tale, it is a parable. The meaning of this parable is the relation of an author to the form he creates.” Presumably, to understand Pasolini is to excavate him from the twisted miasma Ferrara has created in his image.