Pasolini first look review – Abel Ferrara's bewitching walk on the wild side

Willem Dafoe is superb as the celebrated Italian director who died in mysterious circumstances in 1975, in a film that could be Ferrara’s best yet

Some artists meet bloody ends, others fade and falter and a blessed few improve with age. Let’s file Abel Ferrara in the latter camp – at least for now, until the wheels come off. The American director defies good taste, defies good sense, and flirts with disaster on a regular basis. But he’s hit a heady run of form over the past 12 months. The medication is working and his road handling is perfect. His new film, Pasolini, stands as one of his best.

Pier Paolo Pasolini was an outspoken Marxist intellectual and a film-maker of rare, taboo-busting talent; a man who insisted that “to scandalise is a right, to be scandalised a pleasure”. Ferrara clearly views the Italian as a kindred spirit, and his lush, reverent drama charts the director’s final 24 hours, winding towards a fateful rendezvous on the outskirts of Rome. It makes for a bewitching walk on the wild side, a film full of squalor and beauty, with Lou Reed’s Holly as its patron saint.

Willem Dafoe is ideally cast as the great director, a raw-boned panther in middle-age. Pasolini is just back from a meeting with Ingmar Bergman. He’s hurrying to edit his 120 Days of Sodom and already looking ahead to the next movie project. He is in the prime of his life, padding around his book-lined apartment and receiving guests and journalists with a quiet alpha-male courtesy. Yet Pasolini’s existence turns out to be rigidly compartmentalised. Each morning he is woken by a cuddle from his elderly mama. Each evening he prowls for rent boys on the streets beside the station.

“We are all in danger,” he informs a reporter at one point. Ostensibly, Pasolini is talking about the western world as a whole, beset by a cheap consumerism he sees as just another strain of fascism. But he also has an inkling that his time may be running short.

Ferrara caused a stir at this year’s Cannes film festival with Welcome to New York, a convulsive psycho-sexual pantomime, gleefully inspired by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair. And yet, despite its volatile subject matter, Pasolini (which premieres here in Venice competition) could hardly be more different. It’s cool and composed, even during its most impressionistic flights of fancy. Tellingly, at regular intervals, Ferrara elects to break the narrative to spin his own version of Pasolini’s last, unmade picture. He has two holy fools wander a reimagined, bacchanalian Rome, where the gay and lesbian communities come together once a year in order to propagate the race. This, one feels, was Pasolini’s utopia: a tolerant sexual playground, a world in joyous harmony. Out by the beach in Ostia, it will all be quite different.

One night, perhaps, Ferrara will run himself aground on a beach of his own. Like Pasolini, he appears to be a director drawn to danger, not naturally geared towards second acts and respectability. But that’s a problem for another day. In the meantime, his Pasolini is terrific; a study in velvety blacks and foggy greens. It’s a work of startling maturity from this incorrigible tearaway, a minor-key dream that finally turns towards darkness. Catching this inside the Venice cinema was a happy discovery, akin to discovering an illuminated miniature inside a dirty book store. It’s profane and it’s precious and it glows like the moon.


Xan Brooks

The GuardianTramp

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