Reverence is an anomaly in Abel Ferrara’s full-throated, often vicious filmography, but Pasolini is so sedate and inactive that it might not initially seem so awestruck. The film seems content simply to watch Pier Paolo Pasolini (Willem Dafoe) at work in the final day of his life as the master filmmaker discusses ideas for his novel, Petrolio, and sits down at a typewriter to develop another one of its chapters. He reviews post-production footage of Sálo and gives minor notes to the editor. Biopics ascribe titanic importance to a subject’s every gesture, but Ferrara stresses the reality of creation, of its ordinary activities that nonetheless give an artist a sense of fulfillment.
There’s something refreshing about this approach, a conscious refusal to play by the iconographic rules that make biographical features such unwitting self-parodies. By grounding the Italian artist’s work in the quotidian, the film stresses Pasolini’s connection to people, to friends and family, never soapboxing about his controversial material, but gently illustrating the moral base underneath his nihilistic art. Furthermore, nothing about the film forecasts Pasolini’s grisly murder, even the elegant late passage of the director picking up a young prostitute and treating the boy to a nice meal before taking him to a beach for sex. Never has a heterosexual director filmed a cruising sequence with less squeamishness or morbid fascination, instead viewing it matter-of-factly as a means for men to hook up. And for all the conspiracies surrounding Pasolini’s murder, this film’s designation of senseless homophobia as the cause of death is fitting. Many believe the artist was murdered by a system that feared him; Ferrara suggests, in a much more realistic and direct way, that those people were, in a sense, correct.
This is a far cry from Ferrara’s originally stated intentions with the film, to tackle Pasolini’s death via a Rashomon-esque depiction of multiple interpretations that would investigate some of the loftier theories about the artist’s demise. But the explanation given in the final version befits the film’s broader rejection of the usual pitfalls of confining someone’s real life to a three-act structure. One of the most dispiriting aspects of films about figures who died too soon is how their narratives frame these untimely deaths as a matter of portended fate. Pasolini, on the other hand, views the great Italian filmmaker’s murder as a gruesome interruption of a life yet to be fully lived, as evidenced by a simple but moving final shot of Pasolini’s day planner. It’s a lament for what the world was denied by his death as much as a celebration for what he left behind.
Nevertheless, Ferrara does devote a significant portion of the film’s slim running time to valorizing Pasolini’s art. Intriguingly, he does so not by recreating either the productions or finished products of the director’s completed work, but by interpreting the existing passages of the incomplete Petrolio as a film within the film. Ferrara shoots these sequences with a mixture of trashiness and formalism, framing gargantuan displays of hedonism with such precision that a Roman orgy looks like a neoclassical painting in celebration of bacchanalia. Such scenes replicate the thematic and moral aims of Pasolini’s films without simply copying them note for note. Ferrara even casts Pasolini’s one-time lover and devoted companion Ninetto Davoli as the protagonist of these sequences, and the time and respect given to his expressive, obsolete acting method is itself an appreciative throwback to Pasolini’s style and facility with actors. There are no pat explanations of Pasolini’s art, even in an early interview scene where Pasolini lays out his philosophy (and perhaps Ferrara’s own) to a hostile reporter. Instead, the film humbly illustrates the contrast between the artist’s imagination and the concrete world in which he lived and worked. Working in the most white elephantine of genres, Ferrara has produced one of its few termitic entries.