For students of transgressive cinema, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom is nothing less than a rite of passage. But this single point of entry into the Italian filmmaker’s oeuvre is only a single facet of the man, who was so much more than a singular cinematic experience. The openly gay Pasolini was also an accomplished poet, writer, political activist, journalist, and novelist who ultimately met an untimely demise when he was tragically murdered at the age of 53. Director Abel Ferrara (Ms. 45/King of New York) looks to tackle the final days of the director in Pasolini, a film that was recently released on Blu-ray thanks to Kino Video, which has finally made it available in the US.
The film is less a paint by numbers biopic and more a visual poem starring Willem Dafoe as the spitting image of maestro Pasolini. Seamlessly interweaving the director’s final days, his past, and framing with it with a project he had yet to complete with a surreal story of enlightenment, it’s a stirring and melancholic portrait that does the near impossible. The film not only shows you what he was, but also manages to foreshadow what could have been, had he had lived. Ferrara’s film feels more realistically nuanced as it contrasts the more touching scenes of Pasolini at home with his mother with the auteur cruising for young rough trade. But it does so in a way that lacks that touristy nature of the current crop of biopics when they tackle gay life. These elements don’t feel salacious or exploitative, they just feel very matter of fact and part of this man’s life.
The presentation on the Blu-ray is simply sublime as the Belgian French and Italian co-production retains the look the graininess of the 35mm source that only enhances this portrait of the filmmaker. As far as extras, accompanying the film is a conversation between Ferrara and Dafoe that shows not only the chemistry between the two, but how this film was a pure passion project for both. The discussion has both men discussing how they conducted interviews with Pasolini’s family to try and step behind the curtain for a man that was so many things to so many people. My favorite story to come out of the discussion is those that knew the director personally and their reaction to the uncanniness of the resemblance between Dafoe and Pier Paolo, driving them to tears when seeing him in character.
After having suffered through enough biopics of gay celebs where you can you tell so many compromises had been made to tone down something that defined the lives of these men, it’s refreshing to see something that, like the directors’ work, is so completely unapologetic in its approach. Pasolini was reminiscent of the latest autobiographical films by Alejandro Jodorowsky that merge the real and the surreal in a perfect marriage to shed some light on the souls of these artists whose lives straddled both. Pasolini easily could be Ferrara’s best work. It’s the kind of film that shows how much he as a director has evolved, to be able to tell a story like this and still have that gritty ‘70s New York sensibility he’s known for alive and breathing under the surface. It’s no easy task, but because of the almost complete and total understanding and love of his subject, it feels effortless and organic here.