There are few filmmakers in the annals of cinema as notorious as Pier Paolo Pasolini. From his first film, Accatone — documenting a messianic pimp — to his last, Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom: an infamous and notorious work that is either 145 minutes of filth so depraved it cost the filmmaker his life or a grand subversive masterpiece.
Pasolini, the latest release from provocateur Abel Ferrara, opens with the Italian director, played magnificently by Willem Dafoe, putting the finishing touches on his final film. Pasolini is 53, gay, a pluralist in the highest regard, and lives with his mother in Rome. He is also working on his novel, Petrolio, about a traveler and an angel following the Star of Bethlehem in search of the Messiah. A pilgrimage that leads them to a massive orgy, an annual ritual where all of the lesbians and all of the gay men in the city lay with each other for one night to procreate the species. Little about Pasolini was dull.
Which is why Pasolini is a frustrating disappointment and might explain why a movie finished in 2014 is just now seeing its theatrical release. And though Pasolini only runs 84 minutes, it feels longer; sluggish and slow, as if Ferrara either dreads having to find his way to Ostia Beach — where Pasolini was murdered — or finds pleasure in the foreplay.
Pasolini senses his demise, even vocalizing it to a reporter and close friend. He suspects his beliefs and actions will be his downfall, a downfall he also sees coming to Rome. In that sense, Pasolini makes the same assumption Dante Alighieri did 700 years ago when he penned The Divine Comedy, audaciously associating his halfway point in life, 35 years old, with the halfway point of human existence.
There is enough to like in Pasolini, particularly Dafoe’s performance and striking resemblance of the filmmaker, but Ferrara manages to make him feel absent in his own story. A shame, there isn’t a single frame in Accatone, Momma Roma, The Gospel of Saint Mathew, and Saló that lacked Pasolini’s presence. Few artists loomed larger.