Abel Ferrara’s “Pasolini”

“It’s you from the dream, apparently idealized, but actually real.”

My response to Pasolini the first time around was very mixed, impressed by some scenes but somewhat perplexed by its dispersiveness, I was sure the slight disappointment came from my lack of preparation for what is offered here, and revisiting many of Abel Ferara’s films in the past few days certainly helped me seeing it from a different perspective. That surprise with loose ends and fragmentation was, predictably, unjustified, even if the “the last day in a man’s life” idea made it seem mannered. Some of my favorite films in the director’s career are his recent ones, which pretty much abandoned the attempts of the collaborations with Nicholas St. John to organically intertwine their complicated questions with conventional genre figures and narratives in favor of candidness and spontaneity, a welcome but often uneven effort to resolve the central themes of his cinema almost exclusively through the image. The increasing formalism is what attracts me to them, and for once in contemporary cinema the excesses of a filmmaker actually saturate his works with ideas instead of stripping them bare for superficial aesthetic pleasure. It is a forthright position: if form can be separated from a grounded worldview, the only thing it reveals is a lack of principles.

Like The Blackout, Mary, Napoli Napoli Napoli, Welcome to New York and others, the film is very open in its struggle to blur and get past the inherent divide between images, documents and dramatization in itself to the core concepts and personal, religious or political issues that inspired the endeavor in the first place. It is, as much as Mary, a desperate search for meaning amidst the ruins observed by the central (and nearly mythical) character, for any kind of direction in a tortuous assembly of the visions suggested by the subject matter, and finally, another study on “the relationship between the artist and the forms he creates.” And to Ferrara, it has become more difficult to find these intersections by a direct portrait, by performance alone, that relationship now comes from a montage with the exact same intensity and collisive force brought from the clash of bodies and discourses we usually associate with his films.

What now seems perplexing is how he achieves one of his most compassionate portraits within such a “pessimistic” treatise. We watch the routine, work, surroundings, dreams and nightmares of Pier Paolo Pasolini, it is, after all, another extremely subjective look at the last day on earth, though not based on familiar territory and situations from the life of the filmmakers, but in Rome and (mostly) in facts from the life of a famous and controversial man. But this simple observation of facts brings the director too close to home, the connections with the life and work of Pasolini are so strong that they reflect nearly everything Ferrara has shown us up until this point is his career. He goes back to understand the life and thoughts of a important public figure and the political environment of Italy in the 70s while, simultaneously, finding a troubling sight of modern society and its future, maybe the roots of his own point of view, possibly the most complex of all cinema at this point.

According to Pasolini, “the situation” is imminent tragedy and we are all responsible for it. After his death, the remaining monuments of a fascist utopia still endure against the sky, fulfilling a prophecy of the final stages of decay of the liberal system that was built upon it, with a war that ravaged the country and instituted a sense of morality that justified its own collapse. And nothing positive appears to come from this fall. About Petrolio, we hear: “analogies between his story and mine aside, he disgusts me”. In the excerpts from St. Paul, the movie Pasolini wanted to shoot as soon as possible and only now is dug up, the subversives of those days, were they not defeated, would still be longing for an abstract view of liberation and ending up in the same hell he had already lived. As a consequence of our repeated failures, yes, “hell is coming”, but as I recall from Body Snatchers, “the individual always matters”, and Ferara frames him standing with the very marginal possibility of a future, one where morality still exists. Rendering it just as pessimism would be incredibly reductive, there are still too many mysteries here, when both men cannot give us an answer, hopeful mysteries.

Christofer Pallú