Venice 2014: 'Pasolini' review

Novelist, scenarist, journalist, political thinker, opinion maker and film director, Pier Paolo Pasolini was and is a huge influence on Italian intellectual life and his murder on the night of 2 November 1975 on a beach near Rome shocked the country and still resonates today. Almost immediately conspiracy theories grew up around the death of a man who was so incisively critical of Italian society and Marco Tullio Giordano's Pasolini, an Italian Crime (1995), dramatised the immediate aftermath and investigation. Premièring at Venice, Abel Ferrara's Pasolini (2014) is therefore entering something of a cultural minefield, taking on one of the most controversial and revered thinkers in his homeland.

Pasolini (an undeniably superb performance from Willem Dafoe, his best in years) has returned from Stockholm to his home in Rome. A normal day begins, as he greets his doting mother (Adriana Asti) and pours over the newspapers, while he takes his coffee. His cousin Graziella Chiarcossi (Giada Colagrande), who also works as his social secretary, reads out the appointments of the day: the editor of a national newspaper wants him to call; Italian novelist Carlo Levi telephoned etc. He writes letters, sketches in his notebook and lunches with his agent Nico Naldini (Vallerio Mastandrea), family and actress Laura Betti (Maria de Medeiros), who arrives with some choice anecdotes from a film shoot Yugoslavia. Yet despite her exuberance, Pasolini's is a quiet life of work and reflection.

In a letter to novelist Alberto Moravia, Pasolini muses over the form he is creating for his new novel, a collage of poetry, essays and letters, essential the modus operandi of the film itself. "Narrative art is dead," he intones at one point, "and we are in a period of mourning". Pasolini is a troubled man, seeing in the violence around him an impending threat. As he tells journalist Furio Colombo (Francesco Siciliano), in what is destined to be his last interview, "We are all in danger". Beyond the uncanny physical resemblance, Dafoe plays the role to perfection. The reserved type, Pasolini is always thinking of some other act of creation and Ferrara replicates this with a series of interludes - a young man having some rough trade on the beach, an enactment of his Porno-Teo-Kolossal, a final unmade script idea he was working on at the time of his death - intersperse the more straightforward day in the life.

Ferrara's reverence for Pasolini is unquestionable, taking Pier Paolo's writings as a starting point for Maurizio Braucci's screenplay and casting several of Pasolini's entourage in key roles including Accatone (1961) star Asti. However, there is a sense that Ferrara's sense of the iconoclastic director is as much to do with his iconic status as his ideas. Pasolini rails against possessions but is himself defined by his sunglasses, his clothes and his sports car. Likewise, Rome is filmed as a strangely airless and depopulated city. The late night restaurants are empty but for Pasolini, almost as if he's already dead. As Pasolini - both Ferrara film and character - motor into the darkness and towards a kind of blank brutality, what we're left with is a demanding, bold and enigmatic work. One feels its subject would have admired the boldness of its conception, if perhaps not its overly slick execution.

The 71st Venice Film Festival takes place from 27 August to 6 September 2014. For more coverage, follow this link.

John Bleasdale


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