Imitation game: sex, violence and religion in a big-screen biopic of Pasolini

The film shows how Pasolini located spiritual salvation in unremarkable lives.

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In his varied career, Willem Dafoe has played Jesus Christ (in The Last Temptation of Christ) and the Nosferatu actor Max Schreck (in Shadow of the Vampire). He brings elements of both to the title role of Pasolini. Dafoe is as close a physical fit to the Italian poet, writer and film-maker as is possible without recourse to CGI. The craggy face, noble yet reptilian, is lined with deep bedsheet creases; the cheekbones could double as bookshelves. He also wears Pier Paolo Pasolini’s actual glasses (thick frames, tinted lenses), which transform him into something part-mechanical. We can only nod in agreement when he delivers one of his gospels to a journalist: “There are no more human beings, only strange machines colliding towards each other.”

He is referring to consumerism, which has turned people into personifications of appetite. We have, he claims, become “sinister gladiators trained to have, possess and destroy”. Pasolini is rightly remembered for his films, which located spiritual salvation in lives that would otherwise be considered unremarkable, even coarse – the pimps and petty hoods of Accattone, the former prostitute trying to save her wayward son in Mamma Roma. Those who have never seen a frame of his work may still be familiar with the circumstances of his death: beaten savagely on a beach in Ostia by a 17-year-old rent boy and unidentified others, who proceeded to run him over with his own car.

It’s a compulsive tendency of the biopic genre to read the events of a life through the manner in which it ended. But Pasolini the man was so prone to issuing portentous decrees (“We are all in danger”) that Pasolini the film can’t very well portray him skipping through meadows with nary a care in the world. The establishment was antagonised by his work – even before he became a director, he had already been prosecuted for his writings and it has long been mooted that his murder was a carefully orchestrated right-wing plot. He was also drawn carnally to young men whose inclination towards violence was integral to their appeal. It would take a magician rather than a director to show Pasolini cruising the streets of Rome at night without hinting that he was shopping also for the exact manner of his execution.

The combination of art, religion and homosexuality has been dealt with expertly in the past by Paul Schrader, most notably in his 1985 biopic Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters, which also interwove episodes from its subject’s life with excerpts from his writing. In this case, the scenes staged are from Pasolini’s unfinished novel Petrolio, in which a proxy for the Italian director kneels before a line of cocksure young blades to receive in his mouth something other than a sacramental wafer; we also see parts of his unfilmed screenplay Porno-Teo-Kolossal, about wide-eyed innocents in a utopian city that is populated by gays and lesbians. (A heterosexual visitor is told: “There is a special part of the city for people like you.”)

The choice of Abel Ferrara as director makes a good deal of sense. Ferrara, like Pasolini, began his film career steeped in the grime of the streets. Pasolini’s intimacy with ragazzi di vita (“boys of life”) earned him the job of providing authentic dialogue for Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, while Ferrara started out in exploitation film-making. Some of it had enough religious content to indicate that his ideal audience might incorporate an overlap between congregation and dirty-mac brigade.

It would be overstating the case to compare Ferrara’s Driller Killer or Ms 45 to Pasolini’s early work. Yet the fusion of violence, guilt and spirituality, here and in Ferrara’s later movies such as Bad Lieutenant or his existential vampire film The Addiction, puts them in the same ballpark or church pew.

Despite claiming to know who really killed Pasolini, Ferrara offers no such theories here. He aims instead to capture the essence of the director through an accumulation of detail. We see Pasolini writing, giving interviews and supervising the ­editing of the remorselessly cruel Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. He is tended to at home by his mother, whom he had once cast as the Virgin Mary. (It beats giving her a box of Milk Tray.)

The muted colour scheme – beige, grey, violet, black – is Ferrara’s but he applies some Pasolini-like touches, such as the use of the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” to accompany shots of the film-maker prowling for pick-ups. Pasolini was fond of the musical mismatch that proves unexpectedly revealing, using Odetta and Blind Willie Johnson on the soundtrack of The Gospel According to St Matthew and setting a street fight to Bach in Accattone.

Pasolini couldn’t be called satisfying. Despite the telescoped time frame (the action is confined to the last 24 hours of Pasolini’s life), its focus feels too diffuse. No single movie, however, could be expected to encapsulate all aspects of a figure so contradictory that he backed the police against student protesters in 1968 while considering himself a revolutionary and made some of cinema’s most profound celebrations of God from the ­bedrock of his atheism. Bernardo Bertolucci once said that witnessing the making of Accattone as an assistant in 1961 was like being present at the birth of cinema. Pasolini – with its funereal sadness and its insistence that “Narrative art is dead” – is rather like ­attending its wake.

Pasolini (18), directed by Abel Ferrara, is out now

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 10 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: the world order crumbles