By Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Abel Ferrara, U.S./Italy, Kino-Lorber
Pier Paolo Pasolini, dead for more than forty years, is still very much among us. “Pasolini is me/Accatone you’ll be,” Morrissey sang at the beginning of his 2006 single “You Have Killed Me”—for he shares the filmmaker’s preference for rough, working-class lads, a romantic predilection that, in Pasolini’s case, proved fatal. In July of this year, Verso books published PPP’s never-filmed screenplay for a project called St. Paul in an English translation, and now there is Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini, which imagines scenes from two other uncompleted Pasolini projects: a novel, Oil (Petrolio), and a screenplay, Porno-Teo-Kolossal.
Pasolini imagines—approximately—the last 24 hours in the life of the poet, essayist, actor, and filmmaker. It begins with a screening of his newly completed Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom on a visit to Stockholm, and a reproduction of his last filmed interview, with French reporter Philippe Bouvard. It ends with his death on a grotty patch of beach at Ostia, aged 53, and its immediate aftermath. The title role is played by Willem Dafoe, who at the time of filming was five years older than PPP would ever be, and who shares something of the director’s furrowed facial structure. He also embodies Pasolini’s pained intelligence, fingers pressed to his temple as though keeping something at bay. The one big hurdle here is that, while playing one of the major figures of postwar Italian culture, Dafoe is a Wisconsonian with a limited command of Italian. He and Ferrara overcome this problem by not addressing it at all, seemingly making up the linguistic rules as they go along. In the two scenes where he sits for interviews, Pasolini gives his answers in English. He only speaks at length in Italian in the film’s last half hour, during his assignation with Giuseppi “Pino the Frog” Pelosi (Damiano Tamilia), the seventeen-year-old prostitute who is to date the only person to have done time for Pasolini’s death, and who has since testified that there were other parties involved. It’s a strange but ultimately effective choice, for Pasolini aspired to be a transnational figure, and it’s only in his dealing with the boy that the cosmopolitan gives way to the provincial. Pasolini belongs to the world, but it’s Rome that killed him. (Rather more bafflingly, in the version of the film screened at the New York Film Festival, the English subtitling of Italian scenes was somewhat erratic.)
Abel Ferrara has always been more comfortable playing the role of the hood rat than the intellectual—more Pino the Frog than Pasolini—though how much of this act is a hustler’s foxiness is anyone’s guess. His line of BS is obviously effective, as he's traveled Europe with hat in hand to scrape together enough money for Pasolini, which he cowrote with Maurizio Braucci, and the result is recognizably an Abel Ferrara film. The script employs the countdown-to-judgment, death-trip structure that Ferrara has used a number of times before: Bad Lieutenant, ‘R Xmas, 4:44 Last Day on Earth. It’s tempting to attribute this to Ferrara’s Catholicism—the sense that a man is defined by the end of his life, the ritualistic counting down of the Stations of the Cross. Whatever the case, in following his own creative intuition, Ferrara has arrived at something near Pasolini’s own thinking, as per the statement from the latter’s ‘Observations on the Sequence Shot’: “It is only thanks to our death that our life serves to express ourselves.”
In showing Pasolini’s last hours, Ferrara places an unusual emphasis on the quiet, placid environment in which his subject worked, the bedrock of domesticity which anchored him though ultimately could not protect him. After a hushed approach to Rome on a red-eye flight from Stockholm, PPP is seen at home with his mother (Adriana Asti, once a confidante of Pasolini’s) and his cousin/personal assistant, Graziella (Giada Colagrande); receiving a visit from the actress Laura Betti (Maria de Medeiros); pecking away at his typewriter; over lunch, discussing plans for the forthcoming release of Salò with his publicist Nico Naldini (Valerio Mastandrea). He appears as a somewhat humorless master of the house, chiding Graziella for showing improper respect to the ailing poet Sandro Penna, though it’s unclear if his grave tone is responsible for the slight air of foreboding that hangs over the apartment. Muted and heavy with things unspoken, these scenes recall nothing so much as those of the director played by Harvey Keitel at home in his Brooklyn brownstone in Ferrara’s 1993 film Dangerous Game, for the Jekyll/Hyde life of the artist has long been one of Ferrara’s preoccupations. (He had once planned to make his Pasolini film in New York with Ms. 45 star and Bad Lieutenant screenwriter Zoë Tamerlis Lund, who died in 1999, as a gender-flipped PPP.)
The Pasolini we see is in essence trying as best he can to practice Flaubert’s dictum: “Be orderly and regular in your life, like a bourgeois, so that you can be wild and original in your work.” That work is the other half of Pasolini: As PPP pounds out pages of Petrolio at his desk, we see staged scenes of the novel-in-progress. (In fact more a string of mash notes than a novel, as it comes to us in the version published in English by Pantheon in 1997.) The protagonist, Carlo (Roberto Zibetti), is a left-wing Catholic belonging to the long-ruling Christian Democrat party with an executive position at a state-owned oil company. When not clinking glasses with the nation’s power brokers, Carlo can be found on a patch of waste ground in the tenements, sucking off proletariat teenagers by the dozen. “The protagonist of this novel is what he is,” says Dafoe in voiceover, reciting an unsent letter that Pasolini composed to the novelist Alberto Moravia on his last day, “and aside from the similarities of the story to mine, he is repugnant to me.”
Given what we’re shown of Petrolio, those “similarities” must be taken to mean a certain proclivity for swaggering young men of peasant stock in tight blue jeans. In his proximity to political power as well as his insatiable sexual appetite, Carlo is also not so dissimilar from the protagonist of Ferrara’s other film of 2014, the swinish Dominique Strauss-Kahn figure played by a huffing, puffing Gérard Depardieu in Welcome to New York, a work which may be taken as a grotesque twin to Pasolini the film—both stories of men undone by sex—much as Carlo is a grotesque twin of Pasolini the man. These doubling games are very much in the spirit of Pasolini: “Mine is not a tale, it is a parable,” Dafoe recites, “The meaning of this parable is the relation of an author to the form he creates.” The character of Carlo in Petrolio is a bifurcated, schizophrenic protagonist—his two halves are addressed as Carlo I and Carlo II, then Carlo and Karl—as is the divided Saul/Paul of his St. Paul screenplay. There is, moreover, an author-substitute character who appears in the filmed Petrolio, voicing some of Pasolini’s own lines before usurping Carlo’s tale with one of his own which is duly visualized, ending with an Alitalia crash in the Sudan and delirious images of the pink desert.
No less than his characters, Pasolini was a creature of paradoxes. Writing on a traveling PPP retrospective during its 2012 stop at the Museum of Modern Art for the New York Times, Dennis Lim neatly encapsulated him as “an artist and thinker who tried not to resolve his contradictions but rather to embody them fully.” Among these contradictions: he was a pious blasphemer, a Marxist Communist, and a Utopian predictor of cultural apocalypse. This last oxymoron is encapsulated at the moment in Pasolini when he suggests that a visiting journalist title a deeply pessimistic interview that he has just given “We Are All in Danger” right before the opening of the Staple Singers’ blissed-out “I’ll Take You There” floods the mix, continuing to play over images of PPP cruising the streets of Rome in his Alfa Romeo, doing a preliminary scan of the street hustlers from behind tinted glasses. (The text of the interview is taken from Pasolini’s meeting with the journalist Furio Colombo from La Stampa, the last interview that he would ever give.)
Ferrara, too, has his contradictions. His style is defined by a rough elegancy, highly finished camerawork, and ragged, impressionistic edits. Both qualities are abundantly evident in the first half of Welcome to New York, one long, barbaric bacchanalia, which is matched by another orgy scene in Pasolini. At a restaurant, after hours, Pasolini sits down with his muse and onetime lover, Ninetto Davoli (Riccardo Scamarcio), his wife, and his baby boy, who the director dandles and dotes over. (Don’t worry, this isn’t the orgy.) PPP begins to recount the story of his Porno-Teo-Kolossal, which is realized onscreen before us. In this second film-within-a-film, Scamarcio is Nunzio, the Sancho Panzo to Epifanio, a Quixote played by none other than the real Davoli, still possessed of a sweet, dimpled grin, his curly mane now snowy white, and looking disconcertingly like Chaplin in his middle-age. After Epifanio sees a star announcing the birth of the messiah, they follow it to the city of Sodom, where they arrive during the yearly feast, when the city’s lesbians and gays “come together to procreate the race.” Later the film returns to Epifanio and Scamarcio, whose story provides something of a prologue, with Davoli speaking something of a eulogy for his old friend.
Those of us whose memories stretch back beyond the latest round of thinkpieces may recall that Ferrara had some strong words for Werner Herzog when he heard tell that the German filmmaker, under the auspices of producer Edward Pressman, was going to make a sort-of sequel to his own Bad Lieutenant, and will therefore wonder how this influences his own approach to adapting another filmmaker’s work. The essential thing to note is that Ferrara does not attempt to film these Pasolini fragments in the style of Pasolini—the orgy in Sodom, for example, seems closer to one of those soft-porn knockoffs of PPP’s Trilogy of Life films that proliferated in the early seventies. In a manner of speaking, however, the very act of adaptation is a Pasolinian act. Here is the critic John Welle, quoted by St. Paul translator Elizabeth A. Castelli in her introduction to the Verso volume:
“From the early 1960s until his tragic murder, the majority of Pasolini’s ‘original’ works, including films, poetry, screenplays, and verse tragedies, are thinly disguised or explicit ‘remakes,’ ‘refractions,’ ‘manipulations,’ ‘adaptations’: in short, rewritings (in the literal sense of the word) of other texts—most of them classical and canonical, some of them his own.”
To adopt Pasolini and his creations into a Ferrara film—as Pasolini made St. Matthew, Sophocles, Euripides, Boccaccio, Chaucer, The Arabian Nights, and De Sade his own—is only fitting. In one sense, at least, Ferrara has literally adopted Pasolini’s style: Dafoe is wearing the dead man’s clothes. This recalls the story of Phil Karlson outfitting actor John McIntire in the clothes of assassinated Alabama Attorney General Albert Patterson, whom he was playing in Karlson’s The Phenix City Story (1955)—and Ferrara’s film shares a sense of plaintive outrage with Karlson’s, if nothing else.
The death of Pasolini has frequently been discussed as an apotheosis, an event from his own imagination made flesh, as though he were a Yukio Mishima–like character who had stage-directed his own extinction. For Ferrara, it is only a stupid and squalid tragedy—a man beset on the beach by toughs, brutalized, and extinguished. There is no sense of harmonic alignment of art and life here, as in Paul Schrader’s film about Mishima, only that of bloody waste. One almost wants to intercede, to cry out for help. As in all matters, Ferrara’s approach here is the simplest and most pragmatic. If Pasolini’s death resembled his fiction, Ferrara seems to say, it’s simply because his fiction was informed by what he witnessed in the streets, out there rubbing elbows and more with boys selling their asses for a new leather jacket.
This is neither the first nor last time that a filmmaker has raked through the sand of Ostia looking for answers. There are eleven imdb entries for Pasolini as a character since his death, and not less than three movies which specifically investigate the circumstances of his murder. (In Ferrara’s telling, Pasolini and Pino are beset by three other ruffians, with whom Pino may or may not be in cahoots.) The events depicted occurred on November 2, 1975. This means that Ferrara’s film had originally premiered a year shy of the 40th anniversary of his subject’s death—these arbitrary dates which, along with In Memoriam tributes, have become the only acceptable pretexts for engaging with cultural history. Ferrara obviously could care less about the timing, or about opening up his Pasolini to an audience who knows little or nothing about the subject. This is to be applauded, for Ferrara’s infidelity is the sincerest form of homage.