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TIFF 2014: Abel Ferrara and Willem Dafoe revive ‘Pasolini’

Few filmmakers can be considered as consistently outrageous and downright dangerous as Abel Ferrara. So there is something fitting in the director of “Bad Lieutenant” making a film on the Italian filmmaker, poet, journalist and cultural critic Pier Paolo Pasolini – from one provocateur to another.

Pasolini was murdered on Nov. 2, 1975, a victim of a homophobic hate crime or simply done in by an opportunistic hustler, though multiple conspiracy theories have long swirled around the details of his death. For many Americans in particular, Pasolini is known primarily as a filmmaker, director of such films as “Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom,” “The Decameron,” “Teorema” and “The Gospel According to St. Matthew.”

Ferrara’s film – which just had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and comes to Toronto looking for distribution – looks to avoid many of the clichés of the bio-pic by focusing on the last day of Pasolini’s life. As played with a tender, incisive and brooding intensity by Willem Dafoe, Pasolini is seen having recently returned to Rome after a trip to Stockholm and he spends time at home with his mother, sees some friends, does an interview, makes time for some writing, meets an actor about a project and at night prowls the streets restlessly.

“Here’s a guy constantly changing, constantly growing, constantly reaching, constantly breaking new ground, everywhere along the line, said Ferrara in an interview alongside his star Tuesday afternoon. “So for us to lock into where he’s at, we got to find one spot or else it’s impossible.”

“You know he’s going to die,” picked up Dafoe. “That’s the one thing you go into the movie knowing. So you only have the present. I think that’s a good way to condense everything that’s before. Everything before is implied by where he arrived at. There’s a progression and you can feel that. And that was interesting, and also potent.”

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Numerous scenes in the film, including the murder, are shot at or very near the locations where the real life events would have taken place. Dafoe wears a small medallion that Pasolini was wearing at the time of his death, and even squeezed his way into some of Pasolini’s own clothes. Yet in wanting to get the details right, Ferrara also did not want to simply slavishly re-create, but to breathe new life.

“What I learned most about all this is you cannot film the research,” Ferrara said. “You do it, you love doing it, but in the end you’re making a film. I’m making a film about him. I’ve cruised the train station in Rome plenty of nights. I was looking for drugs not boys, but those feelings, what he was going through, I’m watching the film and I’m seeing the character. It’s not a lesson on Pasolini.”

Among the many interviews with family and associates done by Ferrara, he spoke to the man who confessed to and did jail time for Pasolini’s murder only to later recant his tale. Yet Ferrara did not go to him looking for any definitive answers on that fateful night.

“I was asking him about the cigarettes they smoked,” Ferrara said. “I didn’t want to hear his [story]. He changed his story six times. He hustled a guy that night and has been hustling that guy for 40 years.”

Dafoe noted that while he had probably seen “Salo” at that point, his first real exposure to Pasolini’s work came with Martin Scorsese’s recommendation he watch “The Passion of St. Matthew” before shooting “The Last Temptation of Christ,” the only research Scorsese suggested. And over time Dafoe has come to learn more and more about Pasolini’s life and work.

Ferrara noted that at 63, he is now 10 years older than Pasolini when he died. In focusing on Pasolini’s last day, visualizing scenes from an unfinished novel and unrealized film script, trying to focus on all that he still was to do, Ferrara is perhaps looking to pull Pasolini forward, to get him out of the past and into our present.

“Pasolini is like Plato, what he said was powerful right then, what he was saying is powerful a thousand years from now,” said Ferrara. “For us, he had so much work to do. The guy was prolific beyond the definition of the word. It’s prophetic, he’s speaking the truth.”

Follow Mark Olsen on Twitter: @IndieFocus


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