Abel Ferrara’s ‘Pasolini’ Doesn’t Solve the Mystery of Its Subject’s Death — But It Doesn’t Have To

Art’s best and darkest provocateurs have a certain unexpected vulnerability about them. It comes, I think, from their honesty about the human condition — from the risk inherent in standing up and saying, “Yes, I do think it’s as bad as all that,” even if the statement is hidden in poetry or fantasy or metaphor. Even if it means commercial suicide. There’s an earnestness to doing this, and a subtle indictment of the billions of us laboring under illusions (or trying to forget the reality) of how things are. Smarm is a kind of armor; even snark is a way of using humor to defuse horror. Boundary-busting artists from Jean Genet to Lars von Trier to Catherine Breillat to, most recently, Emma Sulkowicz don’t hide behind either. In their bleakness, they lay themselves bare.

It’s in depicting how vulnerability mingles with bravery in artists like its subject that Pasolini, Abel Ferrara’s film about the radical Italian director and writer Pier Paolo Pasolini, is most successful. Premiering in the US next week as part of the 52nd New York Film Festival, the movie dramatizes the final day of the filmmaker’s life, ending with his mysterious death on a beach outside Rome. Ferrara, a lesser but often thoroughly enjoyable provocateur who’s best known for spectacles like King of New York and the original Bad Lieutenant, has hyped his film by bragging, “I know who killed Pasolini.”

In truth, if you’re looking for a mystery or a thriller or a shocking revelation about how its protagonist died, Pasolini is going to disappoint you. Neither Ferrara’s theory nor what’s implied by a certain sly shot at the film’s very end will be new to anyone who’s done much reading on the messy, decades-spanning murder case (which has also been explored on film, most notably in the 1995 Italian documentary Who Killed Pasolini?). More importantly, though, Ferrara’s reconstruction of that scene is beside the point. Pasolini may not be the film we were promised, but it turns out to be something better: a thought-provoking — if not quite masterful — cinematic portrait of an artist whose visionary oeuvre remains poorly understood.

The film opens on Pasolini (Willem Dafoe, who bears a startling resemblance to the filmmaker) editing his final work, the notorious Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, and giving an interview to a French reporter. “To scandalize is a right, and to be scandalized is a pleasure,” he says. “Those who refuse to be scandalized are moralists.” These are the words of a provocateur, yet Pasolini utters them with a soft-spoken earnestness that’s disarming. The man behind Salò doesn’t come across as a libertine, but rather as someone with an urgent message to convey.

The film’s first ten minutes or so take place in darkness, which will return soon enough. Grays and blacks dominate Pasolini‘s color palette, even in most daytime scenes. The first burst of light comes when Pasolini’s mother (Adriana Asti) wakes him up with a kiss on the final morning of his life. He is unfailingly gentle and sweet with her, the delicacy of their relationship a sharp contrast to the thoughtless vulgarity of the actress Laura Betti (Maria de Medeiros), whose lunchtime remarks about how Soviet actresses “put hemorrhoid cream on their pussies to hide the wrinkles” seem to upset the old woman.

The day passes slowly. Pasolini tells his assistant about a book she must read. He plays soccer with some neighborhood boys, and his eyes and mouth open in a fleeting expression of innocent joy. He gives another politely inflammatory interview (this time to La Stampa), articulating the two extremes we observe in him: “I’m an assassin and a good man,” he says. “We’re all victims, and we’re all guilty,” he says, a realization that Salò forcibly extracts from the viewer.

When the journalist leaves, the camera lingers on a solemn, silent Pasolini. It’s one of too many deliberately overlong shots in the movie. Ferrara is not known for his subtlety or restraint, and these moments often feel like clumsy attempts to imitate his subject’s elegant juxtapositions of high and low: grand, sweeping shots of quotidian or horrific landscapes; earthy scenes made epic through an opera score. Too often, Ferrara aims for artful slowness but settles for boring lethargy instead. When these interludes do work, it’s thanks largely to Dafoe. He’s inhabited so many sadists over the years, but he knows how to make his Pasolini something different: thoughtful, troubled, inspired, intense, goodhearted. It’s all there in the lines on his face.

Where Ferrara shines is in his vivid recreations of the by-all-accounts-bonkers creative projects Pasolini was working on at the time of his death. As he bangs out his novel, Petrolio, at his typewriter, we follow Pasolini’s imagination to a tale of political intrigue that eventually features a brief yet indelible shot of a scorched skeleton in a flight attendant’s uniform. At night, he eats dinner with Ninetto Davoli (Riccardo Scamarcio) — the actor who had broken Pasolini’s heart years earlier — and regales him with an idea for a film that would have been called Porno-Teo-Kolossal. This affords Ferrara the opportunity to imagine his own, abbreviated version of that movie, one that’s both animated by lavish, absurd sex scenes and underpinned by Pasolini’s wistful, semi-religious thoughts about life in a desperately flawed world. He even gives super-fans an extra thrill by casting the real Ninetto Davoli as Epifanio, the tale’s elderly hero.

Pasolini’s predilection for young men — particularly straight ones, whose company he had to pay for — is a matter of historical record, as is the likelihood that his final liaison had something to do with his death. It’s no surprise that, after a day of high-minded conversations and serious work, he picks up a male prostitute. A Guardian reviewer recently described Pasolini’s personality as “compartmentalized,” for kissing his mother in the morning and running around with rough trade the same night. Personally, I don’t see what’s so inconsistent about making uncompromising art while putting compassion first in one’s personal relationships and yielding to libidinal urges. But to their credit, Dafoe and Ferrara don’t transform Pasolini into someone predatory or pathetic in these scenes. Instead, the extremes of his personality coexist in a way that’s far from incongruous. The courage of his work and the riskiness of his sexual proclivities are balanced with his thoughtfulness and sensitivity. Thanks to Dafoe, Pasolini’s brave vulnerability comes through in every frame.