Review: Willem Dafoe can’t anchor Abel Ferrara’s overwrought ‘Pasolini’

VENICE – “Pasolini is me.” So sang erstwhile Smiths frontman Morrissey on single “You Have Killed Me” from “Ringleader of the Tormentors,” an album recorded in Italy. The very next track on the album opens with a sample of a very distinctive sound: the siren of an Italian ambulance. At the Venice festival, it's impossible to go for more than a day without hearing this dolorous yet urgent wail on the Lido; it's an unofficial soundtrack. These congruences were very much slushing around my head as I sat down for Abel Ferrara's “Pasolini.”

Prior to the festival, Maestro Ferrara, the man who brought “The Driller Killer,” “King of New York,” and the original “Bad Lieutenant” into the world gave various interviews about the project. Like Morrissey, he is an inveterate quote machine, an expert in controversy, and the words that drew the most attention were electrifying: “I know who killed him.” Just five little words (and only one word different to the title of that Lindsey Lohan film where she played a possibly amnesiac stripper). Ferrara was referring to Pier Paolo Pasolini, that genius of Italian cinema who was brutally murdered in 1975. His body was found on the beach not far from Michelangelo”s ancient fortress, the Tor San Michele. He was 53.

As we know, a 17-year old called Giuseppe Pelosi, who had been working as a rent boy, was convicted of the killing despite later recanting his confession. Forensics found that more than one person had been involved in the murder, but the other men arrested were released. The whole affair has remained tainted by rumor and conspiracy, fed by Pasolini”s role in Italian culture as saint, sinner and everything in-between. November 2015 will mark the fortieth anniversary of the killing, yet it feels like a much more recent crime. You can see why it might seem like a good idea to make a film inspired by a tragedy that still retains such resonance.

One of the principal problems, however, involved in making films featuring fictional depictions of real life geniuses is that the audience will not be able to help thinking about your subject's own work while watching your film. If your film isn't as good as their work — and in the case of geniuses, the odds are against you — it will suffer by comparison. “Hitchcock” wasn't just a so-so biopic, it was a film that set itself up against the Master of Suspense. “Me and Orson Welles” bubbled along quite happily, but when you've got “Citizen Kane” looming over you, it's somehow not quite enough to bubble away quite happily. Marilyn Monroe, a different kind of genius, was impersonated to reasonably charming effect by Michelle Williams in “My Week With Marilyn,” but we were watching and weighing up the impersonation, not the performance. So far, filmmakers have had the good sense to stay away from fictional portrayals of Stanley Kubrick (cameos and comic sketches and so forth aside), but give 'em time.

Ferrara is openly inviting comparison with Pasolini”s work in this ambitious but messy and flawed piece, where reality bends and stretches and sensation rules. It feels like his fondest wish for the film would be for someone to say: “this is the biopic that Pasolini himself would have made.”

Sorry Abel, but Pasolini was not predictable, and this feels too much like a grab-bag of Pasolini”s greatest hits. There are welcome readings and dramatizations from his notes and un-filmed ideas. There are actual clips from his features. There is a beautifully shot blow job that recalls the matter-of-fact naturalism of the sex in Pasolini”s “Decameron” and “The Canterbury Tales.” There is an OTT orgy fantasia where gorgeous lesbians make out and fondle each other before handing themselves over to equally gorgeous gay men to be impregnated. As Pasolini himself, there is Willem Dafoe, who resembles what one of Florence's famed hundreds of street caricaturists would draw if Pasolini sat down and asked for a picture. In fact, the whole film feels like it springs from the definition of the Italian root of the word caricature: caricare, meaning to charge or load.

One of the better scenes enacts what would be Pasolini”s last interview, with Francesco Siciliano as journalist Furio Colombo. Published in La Stampa a week after Pasolini”s death as “Siamo tutti in pericolo” (“We are all in danger”), the article”s title was a direct quote from the director, who was musing philosophically on the unpredictable perils of existence. The horrifying irony of his timing has provided a talking point for Pasolini fans, scholars and conspiracists for the last four decades, but that”s not why this scene stands out.

The pleasure of this moment (and others like it) is that we simply get to hear Pasolini”s words, channeled through Dafoe, which gives us a fresh experience of that strangely prescient interview. He was not a director who ever had to play the modern game of four minute junket interviews or Twitter storms or Oscar selfies, yet he is (or rather was — one of the successes of Ferrara”s approach is how present tense this slice of history manages to feel) an absolutely modern thinker.

Dafoe makes for intriguing meta-textual casting as Pasolini for reasons other than physical similarity. Even the Vatican, who persecuted Pasolini during his lifetime, now admit that Pasolini”s “The Gospel According to St Matthew” is “the best film ever made about Jesus Christ” (it also won the Special Jury Prize fifty years ago here at Venice in 1964). Another contender for best film ever made about Jesus Christ (“Monty Python”s Life of Brian” would win except he”s not the messiah, he”s a very naughty boy) is Martin Scorsese”s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” starring Dafoe as Jesus and Ferrara alum Harvey Keitel (“Bad Lieutenant”) as Judas.

“Last Temptation” wasn”t too popular with huge numbers of Christians; Dafoe and co. were metaphorically crucified. Surely this former onscreen Christ brings that experience to his portrayal of the beleaguered Pasolini, criticized by the church, worshiped by critic-disciples and tempted by sexual experiences that led tragically to his death. It”s a pity Pasolini”s resurrection by Ferrara falls short of what it could have been.

If you think the previous paragraph is a bit of a stretch, then for God”s sake please stay away from Ferrara”s film; it requires a much higher tolerance of these kinds of leaps, connections and digressions. This is biopic-as-arthouse-collage, strictly for those willing to dive headfirst into an immersive, bitty, talky, messy and bold scrapbook of Pasolini”s final days. It has the quality of a sense-memory or dream. It is the opposite of forensic. Enjoyable in places, I wish it cohered a bit more. Oh, and that there was less opera: the score screeches and wails to a level verging on parody.

Many people”s biggest misgiving about this film won”t actually be to do with what is in the film. It will be to do with what has been left out. In response to Ferrara”s “I know who killed him” statement, which has predictably functioned so like a marketing pitch that it feels fair to judge it by the standards of a marketing pitch, Pasolini”s cousin, Guido Mazzon, said, “I hope that what is claimed with such certainty by the American filmmaker is true, because we cannot bear another round of unfounded speculation.”

It”s hard to imagine the family will be that happy with the loose, impressionistic result of Ferrara”s efforts, which doesn”t add much to the debate, even as it ably showcases part of Pasolini”s appeal. On reflection, it's another work by Morrissey that comes to mind in light of Ferrara”s bullish press-baiting: a case of “Bigmouth Strikes Again.”