Italian-American director Abel Ferrara is probably best known for Bad Lieutenant, his 1992 neo-noir crime drama starring Harvey Keitel as a Catholic – but also corrupt, cocaine-sniffing – cop. Or perhaps The Driller Killer, his 1979 ‘video nasty’ about a New York City artist who goes insane under the pressure of creativity – damn you, divine inspiration! – and starts, er, killing people with a power drill. His films have a reputation for being provocative and abrasive, indulgently violent, and uncompromisingly gritty. Abel Ferrara is American cinema’s prodigal son.
‘Sexual violence, the Mafia, and extortion surround the circumstances of Pasolini’s death; to this day, the truth remains a mystery.’
Pasolini according to Ferrara
Willem Dafoe as Pasolini in Abel Ferrara’s 2014 biopic
New model Ferrara
In 2014, Ferrara turned to the biopic form, telling the story of Italian filmmaker, poet, actor, and political figure, Pier Paolo Pasolini. A striking departure from Ferrara’s usual bad-boy movies, Pasolini is soft, moody and lyrical. Sidestepping context, Ferrara throws us into the last days of Pier Paolo, as he adds the finishing touches to his final film, gives interviews in anticipation of its release, and works on new projects.
In something like a posthumous collaboration, Ferrara, it seems, is fusing himself with Pasolini…
Amongst screenplays and storyboards, Pasolini – portrayed by Willem Dafoe – is writing a novel. “Narrative, as you well know, is dead,” he taps out on his Olivetti typewriter (and Ferrara used the real one). “Mine is not a tale it is a parable. The meaning of this parable is the relationship of an author to the form he creates.” This is the crux of Ferrara’s own creative procedure. Stitching together a series of non-narrative vignettes – here, the dramatisation of an interview, there Ferrara’s own staging of Pasolini’s unrealised concepts – the film explores the relationship of Pasolini to the forms he created; but it also creates its own forms and shows us Ferrara’s relationship to them. In something like a posthumous collaboration, Ferrara, it seems, is fusing himself with Pasolini.
“Is sex political?”
The film opens with a close-up of Pier Paolo, his face obscured by dark glasses. We’re on the cutting room floor of Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom, his loose adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s 1785 book of that name, a film about the sexual, psychological, and sadistic torture of a group of teenagers at the hands of corrupt Italian libertines.
In the edit suite, Pasolini is joined by a groovy French interviewer – beret on head, cigarette in hand (this is the 70s, remember) – who quizzes the auteur as he works. “Are those actors masochists,” he asks, in French. “If I chose them I would say they are” quips Pasolini in Dafoe’s New York drawl. Sadism, masochism, sex, and violence: its easy to see why Ferrara frames his film around Salo. “When you release your film, 120 Days of Sodom, do you believe that it will scandalise again?” continues the interviewer, to which Pasolini offers an axiom: “To scandalise is a right, to be scandalised is a pleasure.” This is Ferrara is speaking through Pasolini: to scandalise has always been his modus operandi.
Salo is still an ordeal to watch – 116 minutes of twisted torture that makes Tarantino look like child’s play…
And Salo did scandalise; it was banned in Italy within days of its release; in some countries, it remained banned until the twenty-first century. But in spite of this “right to scandalise” – and here is the difference between Pasolini and Ferrara – Pasolini’s films were not made for the sake of scandal. Salo is still an ordeal to watch – 116 minutes of twisted torture that makes Tarantino look like child’s play. But it’s also an intelligent work of art. Laced with references to Nietzsche, Pound, and Proust, it’s an essay on nihilism and existentialism, a political attack on corruption, not just indulgent provocation. And, though Salo may have been Pasolini’s descent into the depths of the profane, elsewhere, his depictions of the sacred tell a different story.
Margherita Caruso as Mary in Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
“The best film about Jesus ever made in the history of cinema”
In 1964, Pasolini directed The Gospel According to St Matthew, a film celebrated by the Vatican as “the best film about Jesus ever made in the history of cinema.” Shot in black and white, The Gospel According to St. Matthew was made without professional actors (Pasolini cast local farmers from the South – the unrefined people he “loved” – as well as his mother) and set to an idiosyncratic soundtrack of Bach and Mozart, African drumming and spirituals by civil rights activist Odetta. Its eclectic and meandering, strange and haunting – and overwhelmingly life-affirming.
Asked how, as a Marxist, he could make a film about the Gospels, Pasolini remarked: “I always see things as miraculous. My view of the world is in a certain way a religious one, though not rigid and sectarian one. That’s why I invest this way of seeing things in my work.” He’s no member of the faithful flock; and yet he draws out something profound in The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Because, for Pasolini, the Gospel wasn’t an unthinking touchstone for “consolation” but “a great intellectual work, a great edifice of thought. It doesn’t console – it fills, integrates, regenerates, sets one’s own thoughts in motion.”
The Gospel According to St Matthew is conspicuously missing from Ferrara’s biopic. It’s unfair to expect references to all of Pasolini’s work, but the absence of St Matthew is symptomatic of Ferrara’s eye for the moribund and the scandalous. From start to finish, the film is about the underbelly of Pier Paolo’s life and work – scenes from Salo, newspaper clippings on savage murders, illicit encounters in Rome’s darker corners – which present Pasolini as an unremitting nihilist (“I’ve been to hell and I know things that don’t disturb other people’s dreams”). But where, in this film, is Pasolini’s miraculous sense of fullness and regeneration?
Pasolini vs provocateurs
Ferrara’s film culminates with Pasolini’s brutal murder. On the 2nd November 1975, his body was found on the beach at Ostia, just outside Rome, with multiple broken bones and evidence of gasoline burns. He had been run over several times by his own car.
It’s late at night, and Pasolini is cruising around the outskirts of Rome. He picks up seventeen-year-old Pino from a bar, takes him out for dinner (spaghetti and chicken for the boy, nothing for the man, who’s hungry for something else), and drives him to Ostia. Pino isn’t up for fooling around, but he does want Pier Paolo’s money, so he quietly assents to his advances. And then, out of the car, Pier Paolo and Pino are approached by three men, who beat Pasolini to death while hurling homophobic abuse. And here, appearing as suddenly as Pasolini’s assailants, is the Ferrara we know. Pino escapes into the car and drives away in terror, (accidentally?) running over the broken body of Pasolini, lying limp on Ostia’s black sand.
Sexual violence, the Mafia, and extortion surround the circumstances of Pasolini’s death; to this day, the truth remains a mystery. Yet, Ferrara seems to have cracked the case, telling this tragedy through the lens of one-dimensional violence, all non-narrative nuance stripped away. And I am left wondering if this is how we want to remember Pasolini; if this is how best to celebrate his life and work. This is what scandal looks like for the sake of scandal, this is Pasolini according to Ferrara. It’s powerful and it’s certainly provocative – but, in the end, it lacks the profundity that sets Pasolini apart from the provocateurs.