One of Abel Ferrara's finest achievements, which means it's also one of the finest achievements of modern American filmmaking
Taking place over the course of a single day – the final of the titular filmmaker, Pier Paolo Pasolini, theorist, poet, novelist and philosopher’s life – Abel Ferrara’s latest movie takes a radical approach to capture a radical subject: it takes the form of a patchwork, combining scenes of Pasolini’s domestic life with fragments of the unrealised projects he was working on at the time of his death. As with most of Ferrara’s late-period features, it doesn’t cohere into a unified narrative, but instead freely riffs on a few central ideas. It juxtaposes the mundanity of the artist’s personal life with the animated, often grotesque exhilaration of his imagination and, to me, in its discursive, stream-of-consciousness style and formal authority, it reaches the level of colossal masterwork. In terms of tone and tenor, if Welcome to New York was Ferrara’s Salo, Pasolini is closer to Decarmon or The Arabian Nights.
Debunking the common assumption made by biopics that an artist’s inner life can be mapped purely through their external actions, Ferrara devotes equal attention to his internal creative process as well as the cultural landscape he was immersed in. This kaleidoscopic conceit is vital to his conception of how an artist should be re-created through cinema – this was a man who didn’t want to be separated from his creations, whose personal life was purposefully free of drama so he could allow his mind to run wild within this grounding of domesticity. It’s an intensely interiorized film about an intensely introverted man. Most biopics about brilliant artists (especially those misunderstood in their own time, as Pasolini was) are eager to paint their subject as a near-mythic genius fated for greatness from the beginning, every action and piece of dialogue weighted with importance. Ferrara’s approach is the exact opposite, stressing the placid ordinariness of Pasolini’s daily experience, which gently off-sets his reputation as a gleefully transgressive provocateur. Ferrara emphasises the painstaking bureaucratic processes through which Pasolini’s works were moulded – sitting at the typewriter struggling over re-writes, taking quotidian notes from his editor, arranging dinner parties. Being considered an icon in retrospect didn’t free him from having to pay the rent at the time.
There’s an apocalyptic tone sustained throughout, not only because Pasolini’s death is looming, but because the post-industrial capitalistic structures Pasolini warned of increasingly towards the end of his career have intensified in terms of power and menace in the years in between then and now. Ferrara is, of course, too intelligent a filmmaker, too self-conscious about his own place within an artistic context (when Pasolini claims that “narrative, as you well know, is dead. We’re mourning it”, he’s pretty much echoing Ferrara’s ethos) to make a period piece without using it as an opportunity to refract his chosen period through a modern lens.
Pasolini’s Italy is transformed into a typically Ferrara-esque consumerist hellscape, stuffed with elegant yet imposing architectural structures, with human figures being abstracted by reflections, ambient light, foregrounded buildings – almost a predecessor to the fictional metropolis of New Rose Hotel. These post-human systems subjugate individuals to the logic of the market, and these individuals, through a combination of apathy and desperation, begin to think only within these systems. Pasolini’s richness of abstract and creative thought is treated as a rare and valuable resource, an act of resistance in itself, even though it relegates him to a life of marginalization.
The similarities Ferrara draws between himself and his subject don’t stop there: both are simultaneously minimalists and maximalists; both believe that the very notion of a unified cinematic language is itself fascistic, both evoke intense emotion purely through geometry, colour, lines, shadows; both construct socio-political critiques through materialist means; compositions are simultaneously painterly and lyrical; edits are subtly associative and very compressed; multi-planar compositions initially seem relatively plain on the surface but are actually heavily charged with iconographic and emotional weight. Appropriately, this is Ferrara’s most narratively oblique since New Rose Hotel: as in that film, so much is left off-screen; what’s focused on is the microscopic details, the minutiae of facial movements, the textures of space. There’s a concrete plot, but it’s largely left for us to infer, rather than being explicitly laid out.
Ferrara’s use of high aperture tends to simultaneously flatten backgrounds while compressing foregrounds, placing the characters in opposition to their visual space, which is usually organized cleanly into geometric shapes. Across these planes, dynamics of power and class are communicated. When a stream of characters, early into the film, receive a blowjob from a stockbroker on a football field, the chiaroscuro lighting obscures faces and genitals with vertical shadows, figures half shrouded in darkness. We’re plunged into their feelings of disconnect, self-loathing and chronic boredom, steeped in a deadening air of automatism. It’s sex as mechanical compulsion, stripped of an erotic dimension. It’s a also a reminder of how the language of what once was transgressive is inevitably absorbed and neutralised by the abstract forces of big finance for no reason other than the system’s own self-perpetuation.
This is the sort of economic, politically-charged expressionism one associates with Murnau and Straub-Huillet, to whom Ferrara is frequently – and rightfully – compared. And Ferrara, ever the oddball optimist, later searches through history and artistic tradition to find an out, which he achieves through his staging of an orgy from Pasolini’s unrealized final screenplay Porno-Teo-Kolassal, which is composed like a Renaissance painting. Here, sex is portrayed as something not hedonistic but nurturing and sanctified. As in New Rose Hotel, this is a very optimistic redemption-by-way-of-aesthetics, which is the only way Ferrara can perceive of an opposition to the societal forces he disdains.
Willem Defoe crafts a performance that’s reverent without simply idealizing the figure. He’s intensely intelligent, but also has an insecure and self-questioning streak. At one point, following an interview, he asks the journalist if he himself can transcribe and make amends to his answers later, explaining that he’s “better at writing than speaking”. He’s drawn to transgressive thrills and base pleasures – these impulses fuel his creative process while eventually leading to his death.
Pasolini doesn’t literally change anything with words, how could he? He’s opposing systems which have existed for centuries, simply morphing into new, modified forms. Post-industrial capitalism is the new feudalism. Yet, through masochistically wallowing in fantasies, he achieves immortality in immaterial terms. He’s little more than a plaything in a world dominated by the logic of capital, but manages to construct his own abstract spaces in which he can become master. Individual, internalised experience is the only way to ward off these inhuman influences. Pasolini views himself more as a myth rather than a person, and even after he as a flesh-and-blood being is destroyed his ideas continue to endure. He dies as a silhouette, a figure removed of consciousness, targeted because he is reduced by his attackers to a simple body. His deceased body is framed from far above, an unusual case of a God’s eye perspective in Ferrara’s cinema. He becomes a martyr.
Pasolini (2014), directed by Abel Ferrara, is released in the UK on DVD and Blu-ray by BFI Distribution. Certificate 18.