Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini may not be the finest film playing at Toronto this year, but this wholly unconventional biopic manages to stick in the brain like few I’ve seen so far. Taking for its subject only the last day of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s life, the film should, by normal generic conventions, be nothing more than foreshadowing for Pasolini’s grisly murder. Instead, it’s almost defiantly banal, focused on the simple tasks of making art, such as reviewing rushes, typing and revising copy, and workshopping ideas with peers and loved ones. In terms of commitment and research and all the other method trappings that turn real lives into showboating for actors, Willem Dafoe brings little more than his slight resemblance to Pasolini, an extraordinarily freeing decision that, in classic Ferrara style, deliberately foregrounds the actor’s own identity along with the character’s, making plain the work of acting just as the film itself looks at the other elements of artistic production.
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t contain the reverential attitude of most biopics. Ferrara obviously feels a deep kinship with this maverick, who embraced the shocking, low images that he thoroughly criticized, and an early interview scene between Pasolini and a mildly stand-offish reporter erases the boundaries between the narrativized Italian director and the filmmaker making a movie about him. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky reminded me of a similar scene in Dangerous Game that laid out, in vulgar terms, Ferrara’s statement of principles, but Pasolini’s answers could be considered a more mature, measured refinement, not the wild and confrontational challenge of an out-there filmmaker, but a relieved realization that he’s not the first to forge this path and is therefore not in it alone. Ferrara employs a number of rough but formally intriguing devices, from flurries of superimposition and dissolve to agreeably lo-fi visualizations of an unrealized Pasolini project. It can be goofy and bewildering when set against the inaction of the rest of the film, but this casual experimentation is a reminder of how even the simple and scuzzy can be beautiful, and even the kitschy and pornographic can be piercing, uncompromising art.
Rakshan Banietemad emerges from an eight-year hiatus with the decidedly underwhelming Tales. The best of Iranian cinema does not offset its artistic process with its rich vein of humanism, but incorporates its characters’ lives as a conscious element of defiance. The characters in a Panahi film, for example, are stirring not just because of their pushback against the law, but in illustrating that the simple act of living as a human being is fundamentally incompatible with regressive regimes that seek to control every aspect of said lives. But the characters in Tales are such thin props that they nearly become Godardian mouthpieces. The film unfolds via a series of long conversations with characters who flit in and out of each other’s periphery, but no one ever talks to another person like an actual person, instead falling into camps of victim or belligerent oppressor. Some scenes work better than others, especially the finale between a man and a woman that eases in and out of flirtation before throwing a hell of a sucker punch, but overall the film feels like a clumsy screed against obvious yet insufficiently defined targets.
Like many of Johnnie To’s comedies, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart was a commercial hit in Asia and largely ignored by even the Western critics who embrace him, yet its gorgeous, anamorphic compositions and sly comment on the ever-increasing commodification of dating and relationships made it one of To’s better works. Its sequel, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2, however, is, along with 2008’s melodrama Linger, the worst film To has made since founding his independent studio Milkyway. Where the love triangle between analyst Zixin (Gao Yuanyuan), boob-obsessed broker Shen-ren (Louis Koo), and directionless but kind architect Qihong (Daniel Wu) previously sparked with rank masculine competition, this sequel jumbles the stakes and loses its drive, not least because, while Shen-ren still pines for Zixin, Qihong toils away on the mainland completely divorced from the story. In his stead, Zixin’s brother, Paul (Vic Chou), indirectly tussles with Shen-ren for the affections of Zixin’s new boss, Yang Yang (Miriam Yeung).
This setup throws the romantic entanglements out of whack, as Shen-ren flits between the women while Paul sticks with Yang Yang and Zixin mainly just looks alternately scared of and still intrigued by Shen-ren. It doesn’t help that, aesthetically, this is the worst a To film has looked since the director paired up with DP Cheung Siu-keung, who is tellingly not the cinematographer here. The pair’s penchant for cavernous, wide-angle setups have been replaced by cramped, featureless compositions, and a former surfeit of visual details to draw the eye now keeps everything dully focused on the characters. In fact, only the last 20 minutes or so, featuring a brilliantly intercut series of mounting and unraveling misunderstandings, as well as a hilariously grandiose demonstration of devotion that would only make sense to a hungry alpha male, suggest anything near To’s usual level of mania and movement. The film was placed into the festival, I’m told, to force To, usually such a prolific and fast-moving director, to finally finish cutting the damn thing so it could get a domestic release, and it’s obvious from the final product that even the director must have realized he had nothing.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 4—14.