September 24, 2015 § Leave a comment
Pasolini begins with Bach’s St Matthew Passion on the soundtrack, sublimely recalling The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964), a film that embodied Pasolini’s complicated Marxist humanism (it was condemned by the Vatican until last year, then pronounced ‘the best work about Jesus in the history of cinema’). Here that music is a potent element in a monochrome scene of transgressive gay sex that might suggest a dream or a film within a film. The music that ends Abel Ferrara’s testament to Pasolini’s final day in November 1975 is by Rossini: as he lies dying on the beach at Ostia, brutally murdered, we hear Rosina’s cavatina ‘Una voce poco fa’ from The Barber of Seville, sung by Callas, repeated several times without ever arriving at the quickened tempo of its joyous finale. Both the Bach and the Rossini, we understand, have long accompanied Pasolini. They are part of his deep consciousness, now extinguished.
The strength of Ferrara’s commitment to conveying a sense of Pasolini’s intellectual, imaginative and erotic being on that day is beyond doubt. Sometimes it goes awry, most notably in its attempt to give cinematic life to Porno-Teo-Kolossal, (the last film project, remaining only on paper) in ‘fantasy’ scenes that nowhere approach the sensual beauty or the mythic, fabular qualities of the master’s work. But Ferrara certainly does see Pasolini as his master, the director from whom he learned most, and the overall result has its own intensity. When I saw it, nearly two weeks ago, I was struck by its shortcomings, yet the film has stayed with me and what I remember is the depth of its focus in setting out to construct something very difficult: the inner world and sensibility of an artist of great significance in Italian culture, who wrote novels and poems and engaged fiercely with politics as well as making great films; and to show us something of the world he inhabited as it existed in those years.
Ferrara makes no concessions to an audience outside Italy, to those unfamiliar with the murky labyrinth of that country’s politics in the 1970s, of corrupt politicians with Mafia associations, of widespread skulduggery, and a (quite legal) Fascist party that gave cover to its thugs. At his desk, Pasolini scans newspaper articles whose headlines speak of bombings and shootings, threats and political panics, and there is no subtitled translation. I remember sitting on trains delayed by bomb warnings – all part of the atmosphere many saw as a ‘strategy of tension’ deployed by the government to maintain a climate of anxiety and scapegoat the left. It’s accordingly not surprising that Pasolini’s murder was rumoured to be a political assassination, rumours to which Ferrara gives no support. It’s not the killing he’s interested in – although we’re not spared its ghastliness – it’s the life annihilated by it, and what that life contained.
The film is resonant with live echoes of Pasolini’s work and his relationships, the domestic scenes a subtle balance of warmth and tension. Indeed, Pasolini’s family of friends, relatives and actors is in a sense reconstituted by the film’s casting and the doublings within it that emphasise bonds of kinship and friendship. His adoring (and adored) mother is played by Adriana Asti, with whom he worked on Accattone (1961); acting in the fantasy scenes is Ninetto Davoli, Pasolini’s former lover, who appeared in a string of his films including The Decameron (1970) and The Canterbury Tales (1971), while elsewhere in this film Davoli himself becomes a character, played by a much younger actor – we see him arrive with his wife to join Pasolini in a restaurant, for a dinner that will be the latter’s final meal. And when we hear Callas sing we might remember that she starred in his Medea (1970). The choice of Giada Colagrande for the role of Pasolini’s cousin and day-to-day assistant, Graziella, extends this mesh of connections. In real life she is married to Willem Dafoe, who plays Pasolini.
Dafoe sometimes speaks in Italian, but for more sustained stretches of dialogue he switches to English and his fellow (Italian) actors sometimes speak briefly in English too. This was a way round the American actor’s limited fluency, Ferrara has explained, but it works, producing an effect of simultaneous closeness and distance, heightening our awareness of the character as actor – in a film which creates a dense layering of actors and characters – while at the same time avoiding the artificiality of seeing a Hollywood star dubbed into Italian (Sadly, this interesting linguistic parallelism won’t be reflected in Italy, where dubbing is deep-rooted). In English, Pasolini cuts short his final interview with a journalist, promising to send some written answers to the questions since he can more easily explain his ideas that way than with speech.
We see Pasolini at his typewriter, we see the sky outside the window, we see the quick game of football he joins in with local youths, the objects that surround him, over which the camera moves with slow care: an ordinary set of singularities absorbed as the landscape of the living man. While the film follows the actions and movements of his day, from drinking the morning coffee that’s brought by Graziella to his late-night pickup of a rent boy and the drive to Ostia, it also aims to show his mind at work, to intimate thought and feeling as he writes and reads. Pasolini is far from being perfect, but it truly honours its subject and that is an admirable achievement.