Pasolini (2019; Abel Ferrara)
By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday, May 10, in New York City, and expands to other select theaters in the following weeks.
“Obsessed with Banality”
After playing Vincent van Gogh in At Eternity’s Gate, Willem Dafoe continues his biopic tour of tragic artists with this portrayal of Italian writer and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Pasolini played the festival scene in Fall 2014, but only now gets an official theatrical release. It’s easy to see why this solemn and deliberate film had a hard time finding distribution. Rather than focusing on the lurid aspects of the Pasolini story, the film is obsessed with banality. Certainly, Ferrara brings his usual grab bag of provocations and embellishments to the party. However, a fair amount of Pasolini consists of long-winded interviews and formal correspondences read aloud.
The story follows Pasolini during the last day of his life, from waking up in the Rome apartment he shares with his mother to his savage nighttime murder on the beach at Ostia. He reads the paper, plans his day, meets friends and works on his next project. Ferrara obsesses over mundane minutiae to the point that the film’s final shot shows us Pasolini’s day planner.
“Austere and Academic”
This film feels icy to the touch, and then suddenly Ferrara will make a bold aesthetic gesture, like dropping the needle on a Staples Singers song. Too often, those warring tones clash with a loud clunk. An overuse of cheesy dissolves and smeary slow-motion shots does not help.
Still, fantastic ideas occasionally peak out beneath the ponderousness. Willem Dafoe can conjure a scathing intensity in a vacuum, but the best moments here recreate scenes from Pasolini’s final, unfilmed screenplay. It makes you wish that Ferrara had fully followed that bawdily existential muse instead of birthing this austere and academic biopic.