Venice 2014: Abel Ferrara’s ‘Pasolini’ is unexpectedly timid

Even though everyone expected the combination of Pasolini and Ferrara would be an explosive one, this selective biopic places more emphasis on atmosphere rather than the power of events.

Pier Paolo Pasolini was a director known for his internal conflicts, his political views and for his attitude to sex, which was ahead of his time. He was a multi-faceted artist whose career illustrated all the wisdom and commotion of the 60’s and 70’s. He is now the subject of the new film by Abel Ferrara, who – even at his worst, like in ‘Welcome to New York’ – never takes his view away from violent passion, intensity and darkness, decadence and death. For this reason, it’s all the more shocking that Ferrara’s portrait of Pasolini is his most introverted, gentle and anodyne film, even though the subject had offered itself for innumerable different readings.

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We first catch glimpse of the director while shooting ‘Salò’. He is already famous and acclaimed as one of the greatest living artists. The film begins with scenes of interviews he gives different media. He declares that more than ever, his actions and art are political. And it’s a good thing he mentions it, since the film never again delves into this aspect of his personality and work. Pasolini is in the process of preparing two new films. He writes them, shares and revises them. These two films come alive on the screen, each one covering particular facets of his personality and drive things forward.

The fragmentary scenes that connect reality to his storytelling, only touch on the surface of his life, as if alter egos. The film doesn’t reveal any new information about his life, nor does it wish to dive deeper. His activism doesn’t manage to make its way into the film; sex, cruising and latent masochism are described, but without passion or becoming too risqué.

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Even though the film’s languages (English and Italian) are awkwardly interchanged, Willem Dafoe in the main role knows exactly what he wants to do and does it exceptionally well. It is through his performance, that Ferrara’s desire becomes apparent. His intention isn’t to direct a painless portrait of Pasolini, but rather to trap elements of his spirit and era, his mind’s journeys and the melancholy nature of his ceaseless battles, in a film that may not have much meaning, but definitely has a certain sense and aesthetic qualities; in its excellent scenography and costumes, its lyrical cinematography – moving between sepia tones of the 70’s and guilt ridden nights – for an altogether different reading of the master.

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However, Ferrara’s ‘Pasolini’ can be considered unsuccessful in that, in its attempt to depict the magnitude of its subject, it doesn’t really focus on anything. It doesn’t manage to rise to the challenge of providing a satisfactory reading of a personality as complex as Pasolini’s. But just as you consider rejecting this as a weak, boring, superficial or indifferent film, you concede its partial success of managing to communicate the artistic and mental ‘texture’ of an artist that never found his peace, that was so ahead of his time, he wasn’t even fully understood by his fans and peers. This harsh distress grabs hold of you while taking it all in and doesn’t let go easily, leaving you to read between the lines for the complete picture.

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