Willem Dafoe embodies the mannerisms of the legendary Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini so effortlessly that it is easy to forget that he is putting on a performance. Dafoe carries a swagger that not only matches Pasolini’s spirit, but also that of director Abel Ferrara. In many ways it is fitting that a filmmaker like Ferrara, who has garnered a reputation for playing by his own rules, would be the one to make a film about another notable bad boy of cinema.
Opting to focus primarily on the last day of Pasolini’s life, Ferrara’s Pasolini is a biopic that does not feel bound by the confines of the genre. The film provides a decent introduction into the provocateur who was a filmmaker, playwright, poet and philosopher to name a few. A man who refused to be defined by either his homosexuality or his agnostic beliefs, Pasolini was not afraid to explore the themes of human sexuality within his works. His controversial ideas surrounding sex and politics, often considered pornographic by those in the media, seem to culminate in his battle with the censors over his most notorious work Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.
Much of the film follows Pier Paolo Pasolini (Dafoe) as he shares his script ideas with friends; has lunch with his mother; and discusses his views on sex with a journalist while editing his latest film. Unlike other directors, who pepper their biopics with many key events of the subject’s life, Ferrara manages to find richness in the seemingly mundane moments. This includes not only taking time to envision what the famed artist’s final hours might have been like, but also the event that ultimately led to his mysterious death.
Since Pasolini does not follow the conventional plotting of the genre, it does not offer anything truly revelatory. While the surface level exploration is still fascinating in its own right, it would have been nice to see a man as talented as Ferrara truly sink his teeth into the subject matter. Of course, the trade off would be the omission of the Pasolini’s most riveting sections…the unfinished script.
Capturing the tone and almost tribal sexual energy of Pasolini’s style, Ferrara takes it upon himself to present his interpretation of a screenplay that the Italian director was working on at his time of death. Given the freedom to experiment with the unpublished material, Ferrara’s Pasolini is at its most captivating in the film within a film sequences. It is in these sections where Ferrara truly captures why Pasolini was such an important figure in not only cinema, but culture as a whole. While Pasolini is not the in-depth examination of the Italian director’s life fans may have hoped for, there is still much to enjoy in the film. Ferrara’s reconstruction of Pasolini’s unfinished script, coupled with the brisk pacing and Dafoe’s strong performance, provide a solid introduction to a legendary figure that left his cultural mark on the world.