Not many cinephiles had the same level of anticipation as I did for Abel Ferrara’s latest film on the final 24 hours in the life of Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini. I say this because over four years ago I happened to be in Ferrara’s presence (at an intimate Q&A at Anthology Film Archives) when he announced that he was going to make this, so it’s kind of cool to finally see it come to life after hearing about it in it’s infancy stage so long ago. I’m not even that big a fan of Pasolini’s work to be honest (although I do recognize his iconic status and I can hold a conversation about his movies beyond how disturbing Salo is).
I also bumped in to Pasolini star Willem Dafoe at the movies earlier this year just days after blogging about the first set of stills that emerged from the film…
For years I’ve been a huge cheerleader for biopics/true stories that only cover a short specific time period, rather than an entire life span. It’s too much to try and cover someones life & accomplishments in +/- two hours. When Ferrara first spoke about doing this, he was very vague. “I’m doin’ a movie on Pasolini next” he said to us, which did sound intriguing. Pasolini was an interesting character (he was openly gay during a time when it was still considered a lot more “controversial” to be openly gay, and his strong left-leaning political views got him in to trouble from time to time) and the circumstances surrounding his death (he was run over with his own car) are pretty shady to this day. Some believe he was killed because he made the controversial film; Salo (a pretty disturbing movie, based on a book, concerning religious figures who torture young children), while others think his death had to do with his ties to the communist party (none of these theories are speculated or hinted at in this film). But once I discovered Ferrara was only going to focus on his last 24 hours I was super stoked. Not only do I dislike most biopics that cover someones entire life, but I also dislike films that always focus on the same three or four people (again – how many more movies can directors honestly make on Muhammad Ali and/or Bob Dylan?).
It makes sense that Abel Ferrara would do a movie on Pasolini. Both filmmakers were/are tortured artists to a certain degree; they both have roots in Italian culture (Pasolini being from Italy while Ferrara is Italian American with a body of work that often explores both Italian & Italian-American culture). Catholicism also plays a major role in their work.
This isn’t the first time Abel has done a film about “the tortured director” either. Dangerous Game & Mary, where Harvey Keitel & Mathew Modine play eccentric directors/semi-autobiographical on-screen personas of Ferrara respectively, explored a lot of the same themes as Pasolini. Unfortunately, Pasolini just isn’t as good as the aforementioned films. This was yet another case of me setting my expectations way too high for something that turned out to be just “ok” (if you’re expectations aren’t that high to begin with, you’ll probably enjoy this a little more than I did).
Please understand that this movie is by no means “bad”. It just could have been a lot better. Pasolini is definitely this years’ The Place Beyond The Pines in that it’s a good disappointing movie. It’s still fresh in my mind and I’m a little clouded by the unexpected disappointment of it all so it’s hard to focus on the good qualities like: Pasolini’s death scene and certain isolated shots of Rome that look absolutely beautiful. I also liked that there wasn’t a big supporting cast and that the movie was pretty short and didn’t try to be some three hour long epic (Pasolini clocks in at around 80-something minutes). It’s like Ferrara ignored the few super lengthy modern biopics/true stories that actually worked (Ali, Malcolm X, etc) and he just did his own thing, which is something that “mavericks” like Ferrara often do. Pasolini is also the furthest thing from his more popular/known films like The King Of New York or Ms. 45 which people still almost exclusively mention over his rather large body of work that explores almost every genre ranging from science fiction to melodrama and everything in between.
But there’s just as many problematic things to pick at with Pasolini: the storytelling is a little sloppy, some parts are just weirdly chaotic, certain scenes are overly sexualized when they don’t need to be and the use of subtitles is inconsistent at best. I mean seriously – it’s as if Abel Ferrara assumed at random points that everyone watching the movie suddenly understood Italian and the film went on for minutes at a time without any subtitles so I had no idea what was being said between the supporting actors. I say supporting actors because Willem Dafoe never really needed any subtitles as he spoke English in his normal American voice throughout the large majority of the film (Pier Pasolini was an Italian who spoke Italian as his first language if you haven’t picked up on that). I guess I should have expected this. I wouldn’t think Willem Dafoe would learn fluent Italian for this one role, but I find it funny how everyone else in this move was Italian yet the main actor (who was portraying an Italian person) sounded American. We gave Kevin Costner shit for not speaking in an English accent for that Robin Hood movie when everyone else did (even Christian Slater) yet Willem Dafoe essentially does the same thing and no one seems to have a problem with it. I love Dafoe to death and he was really good in this (I’m tired of seeing him always play some supporting role in a movie that’s beneath him) but maybe it would have made more sense to cast an Italian actor. Unfortunately there are no Italian actors who could draw or get financing like Dafoe.
But that gripe is minor when compared to the other issues I listed (everyone from Polanski to Bertolucci has used multilingual casts in the same fashion so I guess it’s not that big of a deal). I still recommend that anyone who loves the non-traditional/gangster work of Abel Ferrara (or Pasolini) see this. Just don’t expect to be blown away…
This article originally appeared on Pinnland Empire in its full length. Check out Pinnland Empire for more great essays from Marcus Pinn.