Italian poet-filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini’s last cinematic work was the intentionally controversial “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom,” released after the radical artist’s death in 1975. The next year, Bronx-born Abel Ferrara’s movie career began with a porno, followed by a slasher film. Decades later, with Ferrara’s long-delayed biographical film “Pasolini” (it premiered at Venice in 2014), indie film’s street vendor of gamy hopelessness pays his own kind of homage to a kindred provocateur, and the results may not fully resonate, but they always intrigue.
It’s not surprising that Ferrara, working with frequent collaborator Willem Dafoe in the title role, doesn’t offer the kind of big once-over that charts highs and lows, even though Pasolini, an openly gay, die-hard Marxist loath to compromise his artistic or political ideals, lived through enough turbulence to warrant an epic treatment. Rather, in Ferrara’s and screenwriter Mauricio Braucci’s intimate dramatization — which starts in the “Salò” editing room with an interview to a journalist, dips into the gestation of ongoing projects, and closes with Pasolini’s murder on a beach in Ostia — we seem to be in a continuum of final-hours rumination and sparseness that Ferrara most recently explored in his low-key 2011 apocalypse drama “4:44 Last Day on Earth.”
What does someone’s last day(s) say about the overall? Mostly that some things never change. In Pasolini’s case that means the gnaw of creating art and defending his revolutionary fervor to interviewers, but also the calming humdrum of home life when his mother (Adriana Asti, a star of Pasolini’s first film, “Accattone”) or actress friend Laura Betti (Maria de Medeiros) are around, and, most consequentially, answering the urges that sent him to Rome’s urban fringes for assignations with young men.
Though Ferrara never emphasizes Pasolini as a doomed man, our foreknowledge of what awaits him, and Dafoe’s stoic, dark-sunglasses portrait of someone eager to dive into work yet exasperated by the injustice and pushback around him, gives “Pasolini” a singularly poetic eeriness, as if we were stumbling into what feels like the last episode of a miniseries without having seen the earlier, headier days.
The anti-nostalgia approach is surprisingly effective. Ferrara’s attempts to dramatize Pasolini’s in-the-works projects, on the other hand — scenes depicting an unfinished novel about corporate/state corruption, and a planned fantasia called “Porno-Teo-Kolossal,” about an elderly man’s quest for the messiah — are awkwardly rendered distractions that too often break the rhythm provided by Dafoe’s lived-in performance. There is a sentimental touch, however, in Ferrara casting for these fantasy sequences regular Pasolini performer Ninetto Davoli, whose ebullience in these scenes is smile-worthy.
Ultimately, Ferrara makes a convincing case for being Pasolini’s biographical caretaker, one troublemaker looking after another’s legacy, albeit with a more serious, thoughtful approach than a transgressive one. As for the fateful night of Pasolini’s murder after picking up a male prostitute, Ferrara films it with a mixture of matter-of-factness, agitation, crime scene compulsion and, eventually, death-trip fervor. It may be only one man’s version of what many have speculated about — was it a hookup gone wrong, a homophobic attack or a political conspiracy meant to shut up a leading intellectual figure? — but in its clear-eyed grittiness, it’s also a tribute from a filmmaker for whom the night’s temptations were ripe and its dangers legion: Pasolini turns out to be the ultimate Ferrara protagonist.
In English, French and Italian with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Playing: Starts May 31, Laemmle Glendale