The Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini (Willem Dafoe) is finishing off his work on what will be his most controversial project to date, Salò, where he uses the Marquis de Sade text to comment on his various preoccupations politically and socially, for he is an artist who sees the entire world as political, including sexual experiences as he explains to one of the many journalists who are happy to interview him. But it's getting late and he really should be getting back home to his mother (Adriana Asti), though even on the journey he is still compelled to continue his planning, drawing a scheme for a new film to begin after Salò. However, the Italy of the nineteen-seventies is a violent place, as he is about to find out first hand...
Obviously there was nothing the creators of this biopic of Pasolini could do to match the controversies of the man's career, as he was one of the most confrontational directors of his day, possibly of all time, seemingly breathing uproar like oxygen to fuel his passion for self-expression, a nature and action that was very important to him according to this. However, the man bringing his final day (with flashbacks and asides) to the screen was Abel Ferrara, and he was no stranger to controversy either, though not quite from the same starting point; that said, their religious and social concerns inevitably intersected, even if their sexual ones did not so much, Pasolini was homosexual and used that state of mind to inform his output.
Ferrara did not shy away from that, as Pasolini's last hours were very much connected to that sexuality, though to this day there is a heavy question mark hanging over the circumstances of his death. Such a provocative figure was always going to make enemies, and there are many who believe his murder was a planned attack and not mere bad luck, wrong place at the wrong time issues when he picked up a young hustler and was supposedly set upon by a gang who objected to his homosexuality. Ferrara left room for the possibility that they were lying in wait for him as instructed by some shadowy authority, but then again you could even more easily believe it was Pasolini's poor judgement that tripped him up so drastically.
Knowing that the subject was heading towards his doom, as we all are when you get down to it, did loom over the proceedings as we tended to be marking time until that scene arrived, but this passed that relatively brief period (for a feature film) in a way that wove in and out of Pasolini's life with an almost dreamlike style. We would see him going about his day to day life, eating, reading the newspaper, meeting with the media who hung on his every word, hanging out with his friends and mother (Maria de Medeiros showed up as his great confidante Laura Betti with some anti-ageing tips and Ninetto Davoli was both depicted as himself and appeared as a different character) and of course writing for his next film, suggesting this was not the existence of a man preparing for his demise.
And in that, Ferrara and screenwriter Maurizio Braucci pondered over the sense of going about your business as usual when all this life was going to be taken away, whether it be abruptly or more drawn out, insinuating that we would never truly prepare for the inevitability of what was to happen, yet also that we never truly appreciated what we had and were going to lose; we may think we do, but conceiving of that total shut down of living was so absolute that after this we start to question any possibility of an afterlife. There were a couple of sequences where Ferrara staged what would have been Pasolini's next film after Salò, and it would presumably have been no less contentious, though the fact remained this was not the Italian talent's version, this was Ferrara's version of Pasolini as much as the rest of this was, so the parts where Dafoe read out the man’s notes and observations were perhaps more effective. There were objections in his casting; he didn't look much like him even with the glasses and hair dyed black, and he spoke in English with no Italian accent attempted, which rendered the film somewhat unreal. Nevertheless, if not a film for the casual viewer, it cast a spell for those interested in Pasolini drawn to it to see what commentary had been brought about by an artist who remained vital.
[The BFI have released a Blu-ray of this title, which has an hour long conversation with the filmmakers and Robin Askwith's entertaining memories of Pasolini as extras. They have also released a Blu-ray box set of the director's titles if seeing this inspires you to check out his efforts, or you want to do a little homework before watching Ferrara's biopic.]
1990's King of New York was a return to form, while the searing Bad Lieutenant quickly became the most notorious, and perhaps best, film of Ferrara's career. The nineties proved to be the director's busiest decade, as he dabbled in intense psycho-drama (Dangerous Game, The Blackout), gangster movies (The Funeral), sci-fi (Body Snatchers, New Rose Hotel) and horror (The Addiction). He continued to turn in little-seen but interesting work, such as the urban drug drama 'R Xmas and the religious allegory Mary until his higher profile returned with the likes of Welcome to New York and Pasolini.