One day with Pasolini

Willem Dafoe


Pasolini (2014), directed by Abel Ferrara

By Conor Plosia

Pasolini is a film by Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, The Funeral) and stars Willem Dafoe (Platoon, The Grand Budapest Hotel) as the Italian artist Pier Paolo Pasolini.  Known for his work as a poet and filmmaker, the title character has become an icon of Italian culture.  Ferrara’s films often feature hardened male leads, men experiencing pain or loss and, ultimately, tragedy; it’s a narrative pattern that tends to leave Ferrara’s audiences in a state of limbo.  With Pasolini, there is something different about the protagonist; he is hardened by his own self-righteous intelligence and fame, rather than by violence or crime like some of the director’s previous cinematic subjects.

In the film, Pasolini struggles with the loss of narrative in literary-based art forms.  Ferrara challenges this notion with a sub-plot of stories created by Pasolini that coincides with the main narrative plot of the film.  He weaves in and out of these worlds of fact and fiction – as if they’re one and the same.  Because, in fact, they are.  The reality is there is no truth to cinema; nothing is ever an exact depiction.  Ferrara takes full advantage of a viewer’s willingness to believe whilst suspending the urge to critically analyze art due to emotional attachment.  And rather than being hindered by the use of fictional sequences in a film based on true events, the filmmaker opts to create a familiar world, but one we’ve never seen before. 

Willem Dafoe is one of the few actors who can transform himself into a new person for every new role.  He immerses himself psychologically and fully, and to play Pasolini must have taken a toll.  So much life and energy concealed behind a Zen persona.  I began to find myself lost in the charm and wit of this portrayal, as well as how fitting it seemed (one great artist deserves another).

To capture an artist’s life within a motion picture is a difficult and daunting task.  Whether the aim is to cover a day or a lifetime, the narrative must be honest, at times harsh, at other times hauntingly beautiful.  Many artists experience an inner pain to their lives, especially those of high acclaim in their field of work.  The film offers a unique and beautiful view into a day in the life of Pier Paolo Pasolini.  Although the film depicts a talented and intelligent man, it fails to scratch the surface of his accomplishments.  He found success as a poet, filmmaker, journalist, playwright, actor, politician, philosopher and painter.  He saw no bounds to what he could create and his versatile artistic structure only brought him praise.  The choice to make the film about one day in Pasolini’s life creates a limitation for what can be explored in the narrative, but the creative team behind the film discovered a beautifully tragic moment in this great man’s life to explore, and the result is a curious and emotional film.

As a tribute to their work together, Abel Ferrara cast longtime Pasolini collaborator Ninetto Davoli to play a character in one of Pasolini’s own stories.  And Riccardo Scamarcio was cast to play a young Ninetto Davoli.  The two share a scene: they travel through the world, following a star, only to reach a staircase with a light at its end.  They grow weary of walking, and when it’s proposed they stop, they realize spiritual life has no end and they decide to simply wait.  This beautiful anecdote of discovery displays Pasolini’s view on the world; it’s one that’s far from ordinary.  He doesn’t challenge religion, or evolution, he simply embraces a human truth: above all else, we were born to explore. 

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