Anticipation for this film, mounting for years now, begins with the mere pairing of the names Abel Ferrara and Pier Paolo Pasolini. “The connection between them is obvious,” writes Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook: “scummy poets both, Pasolini and Ferrara are equally obsessed with utter darkness and rough ecstasy, with cinema that’s at once profoundly physical and ineffably smoke-like.” Speaking with Ferrara for Interview in 2011, the artist Aïda Ruilova discovered that the screenplay was well underway. “Ferrara can’t stop talking. His passion for Pasolini merges with his own self.” Just over a year ago now, the project finally began to come together. With the release of the first stills, we saw that when those thick black-rimmed glasses reframe Willem Dafoe’s face, the resemblance is uncanny.
“Ferrara’s characters are not logical beings with aims and goals but psychic processes with multiple facets who refuse finitude, who need to pass through delirium to arrive at truth,” wrote Fergus Daly in a 2008 review of Nicole Brenez’s Abel Ferrara. Could well describe PPP, particularly on his last few days on earth (to consciously echo the title of the 2011 Ferrara film that also starred Dafoe). Recounting the long, unresolved search for the murderer, Ed Vulliamy, writing for the Observer, calls Pasolini a “brilliant intellectual, director and homosexual whose political vision—based on a singular entwinement of Eros, Catholicism and Marxism—foresaw Italian history after his death, and the burgeoning of global consumerism. It was a murder that, four decades later, remains shrouded in the kind of mystery and opacity Italy specializes in—un giallo, a black thriller.”
Back to Fernando F. Croce: “I have always been fascinated by the way Pasolini followed the earthy hope of Trilogy of Life with the bottomless horror of Salò, and Ferrara’s portrait understands how thin a line divides rapture and despair…. Is this Ferrara’s most restrained work? How tender this harshest of directors turns when paying his respects to a kindred troublemaker, how tangibly warm his panning shots and slow dissolves feel.”
“Pasolini is just back from a meeting with Ingmar Bergman,” writes the Guardian‘s Xan Brooks. “He’s hurrying to edit his 120 Days of Sodom and already looking ahead to the next movie project. He is in the prime of his life, padding around his book-lined apartment and receiving guests and journalists with a quiet alpha-male courtesy.” Brooks, who would later get a few words with Ferrara, finds the film “cool and composed, even during its most impressionistic flights of fancy. Tellingly, at regular intervals, Ferrara elects to break the narrative to spin his own version of Pasolini’s last, unmade picture. He has two holy fools wander a reimagined, bacchanalian Rome, where the gay and lesbian communities come together once a year in order to propagate the race. This, one feels, was Pasolini’s utopia: a tolerant sexual playground, a world in joyous harmony.”
As Celluloid Liberation Front notes in Cinema Scope, the title of this unmade project was to have been Porno-Teo-Kolossal. “The great Neapolitan playwright and actor Eduardo de Filippo, who was to star in the film, is played by Pasolini regular Ninetto Davoli, while Italian poster boy Riccardo Scamarcio plays the young Ninetto Davoli. Ferrara’s film is a fractal mosaic evoking the multiverse of Pasolini’s volcanic mind and life, his ‘sinful’ sacrality and iconoclastic precognition (‘Consumerism is an even worse form of fascism’). Transitorily abstract despite its predetermined chronological terminus, the film avoids historical contextualization and opts instead for an inner excursion into the projects, ghosts, friendships, passions, and professional commitments that animated Pasolini’s life until his very brutal and still mysterious end.”
For the Dissolve‘s Scott Tobias, Pasolini is “a confused, tedious, only fitfully compelling experiment in narrative filmmaking. Ferrara auteurists will likely go for it, but the main problem with Pasolini is that Ferrara himself has been a Ferrara auteurist. The scenes that work in the film, like a conversation Pasolini has with a journalist about his politics and art or the speculative staging of his murder, are the most straightforward in their formal language. But when Ferrara attempts more avant-garde touches or bathes the fallout from Pasolini’s death in operatic montage, the film loses clarity and purpose.”
“You come in expecting portraiture, but Ferrara gives you Cubist still life,” writes the Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin. “Ferrara has come up with something pretty special here: a subtle, seductive, lamp-lit hymn to one artist’s talents from another in the process of rediscovering his own.”
“Not since 2005’s Mary has Ferrara dealt with such a high-stakes subject matter and plunged so deeply into it,” writes Tommaso Tocci for the Film Stage. “Pasolini once described fascist architecture as partly metaphysical and partly realistic (incidentally, fascist architecture is used as visual metaphor at the film’s climax, itself perhaps an ill-judged aesthetic choice or a bit of supreme irony), and it’s a good description of Ferrara’s tone as well.” As for the “weird mix of Italian and English” dialogue, “Is there a reason for it? Of course not. But it gives the film an offbeat, porous quality that Pasolini himself could have appreciated.”
And then there are the interviews, always promising, since Ferrara can’t seem to help speaking his mind. Talking with Cineuropa‘s Héctor Llanos Martínez, Ferrara sticks to the film. During the press conference in Venice, he denied he ever claimed to knew who killed Pasolini. And then, a few days ago, he cut loose, responding to the Hollywood Reporter pointing out that Wild Bunch is contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated version of Welcome to New York. “I’ve fucking had it with this corporate assault on the artists and the freedom of the artist, period. It’s like a war against movies. Because 90 percent of the marketplace is owned by five guys masquerading as corporations. They’re vultures and they’re vampires, and they’re trying to suck the blood out of the life of the filmmaking community.”
He lashes out at IFC Films president Jonathan Sehring and suggests that filmmakers burn down the IFC Center. “If there’s anything to learn from Pasolini, it’s that he died for his films, man. To re-cut these films is to destroy them.” What was it Ferrara said of Pasolini, speaking to Evan Louison in 1985? “He was a rabble-rousing, muckraking, troublemaking motherfucker.”
Updates, 9/10: At the AV Club, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky finds Pasolini to be “a flawed film of unvarnished integrity.” Ferrara “has a habit of identifying with and then destroying his protagonists. Though he clearly idolizes Pasolini and identifies with his worldview, he avoids turning him into a self-destructive stand-in. Pasolini’s death is tragic not because he was a tragic figure, but because it represents the meaningless end of something meaningful.” This is “one of those imperfect movies that’s more admirable than many more fully realized ones. In some respects, it’s a readymade example of the film maudit—the ‘damned film’ of old-school cinephilia, the movie worth fighting for.”
On the one hand, Pasolini is “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,” writes Jake Cole at the House Next Door. On the other, “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.”
Update, 9/14: Oliver Skinner talks with Dafoe and Ferrara for /bent.