A New Kind Of Biopic: Ferrara’s “Pasolini” Reviewed

by Rachel Bellwoar

How do you know you’re watching a biopic? Pier Paolo Pasolini is far from an unknown director, but to someone who has never heard of Salò or watched Italian cinema, what’s to make them think that Pasolini is any different from the fictional director in Federico Fellini’s 8 ½? Even the trailer for Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini begins with a Pasolini quote, but the film does not. There’s no text at the end, acknowledging how old he was when he died or his legacy. It’s not a matter of seeing Pasolini’s films beforehand, but having some vague knowledge of who he was. Without that, Ferrara’s film, Pasolini, could be a tough watch.

Not that it’s easy to watch even with that knowledge. The film covers the last days of Pasolini’s life, including his murder, but doesn’t play up the fact that he’s going to die. Those familiar with Pasolini will realize that is what’s going to happen, but the film doesn’t try to use that for tension or to make out like there were signs (when there weren’t) that he would be killed that night. Pasolini was a controversial figure and his death is as unexpected in Pasolini as it was in real life; which is why the film doesn’t feel like it’s all about his death, even though that’s when Ferrara and screenwriter Maurizio Braucci chose to set it.
More controversially, Ferrara and Braucci don’t address the speculation around his murder. While doing so could’ve put too much emphasis on his death, the film presents a version of events without making it clear that it’s one version and that there are a lot of questions still about what happened.
Willem Dafoe and Ferrara have collaborated many times now, and Dafoe definitely bears a physical resemblance to Pasolini. Nothing is overplayed and it’s a performance that allows Pasolini to be all things at once.
Even in knowing that his death is coming, the film makes it possible to forget about it while watching. Instead, the film presents a day in the life of a writer that feels honest and uses real locations in Rome. Nothing is embellished in order to create “better” content. Pasolini’s own words are used for the interviews he gave on Salò prior to his death (the film would be released posthumously). Since Pasolini was an intellectual, these statements can be challenging, but this film isn’t about making Pasolini simpler.
At the same time, Pasolini shows Pasolini working on new projects: a film, Porno-Teo-Kolossal, and a novel, Petrolio. The novel would be published, unfinished, in 1992, but Ninetto Davoli never got the chance to star in the film. In Pasolini, Pasolini meets with Davoli (played by Riccardo Scamarcio) to discuss the part and Ferrara even films some scenes from the book and the screenplay himself. Epifanio, the character in the unrealized film, isn’t played by Scamarcio’s Davoli, though, but an older man — which might seem strange until you realize that man is none other than Davoli himself! Unfortunately, I know I wouldn’t have realized who Davoli was without listening to the conversation between Dafoe and Ferrara that is included as a bonus feature on Kino Lorber’s release and it’s a shame that casting could go over viewers’ heads, because it really is beautiful.
Pasolini is available now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber. Dafoe and Ferrara didn’t make a traditional biopic, but it is a fascinating one.

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