Purple Magazine
— F/W 2015 issue 24




When I heard that Abel Ferrara was working on a film about Pier Paolo Pasolini, I played the usual guessing game with my friends. Who would be playing the title role? It came to me after a few moments’ thought: Willem Dafoe! A magnificent actor (as Lars von Trier, one of the great actors’ directors in the world today, hasn’t failed to notice), though all too often relegated to splendid supporting parts (Bobby Peru in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart, gas-station owner Gas in David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, etc). Since he is also something of a Ferrara regular, Dafoe just seemed the natural choice.

The striking thing about Pier Paolo Pasolini (PPP) was the contrast between his rather unblemished appearance and the violence of his poetic and cinematic oeuvre (not to mention the contrast between the “superb, flat voice,” as Lacoue-Labarthe wrote, and the relentless wail that is his oeuvre, which made Pasolini into a sort of Italian Artaud “for the masses”). The resemblance between Dafoe and Pasolini is thus not readily apparent. And yet…

And yet that ever-battered mug of Dafoe’s, expressing not so much sadness or injury as a history of violence endured, a sort of dignified virility free of machismo — that scar-hewn countenance, that physiognomy of half-flowing, half-cooled lava instantly evoke an interior Pasolini, which the film externalizes (the tinted glasses heightening the convergence of actor and role): as if all the Pasolini violence had been spat, vomited, one might even say defecated onto Dafoe’s face. That face instantly fits over Pasolini’s, coagulates with it, until
the two are but one.

The terrible function of fecal matter in Pasolini’s final work is, of course, well known. Indeed, the “Circle of Shit” in Salò is perhaps the reason for which Pasolini was killed. Ferrara’s film evokes that death, the final day of Pasolini’s life, and opens with an evocation of Salò. Right away, then, we establish the physiognomic Dafoe/PPP superimposition and the martyrdom of Pasolini; we have one subversive Catholic filmmaker speaking of another subversive Catholic filmmaker; we sense that the film will succeed.

From the outset, we have somehow stepped outside of time, as if the martyrdom had been translated to our present day, as if Pasolini’s “holy war” against the corrupt, hypocritical Italy of his time concerned us all, universally, in the here and now. Even the film’s alternation of English and Italian — because Dafoe didn’t have time to learn the language of Dante — bolsters the powerful eternity of PPP’s life with the force of universality.

The film’s overriding strength is that Ferrara, despite evident affinities for his subject, does not do Ferrara. (Such is not the case with, say, his previous film, Welcome to New York — or with the latest Scorsese, where Scorsese does Scorsese, or with any film by Tarantino, who seems to have decided from the very beginning always to do Tarantino: to make advertisements, rather than cinema.) Ferrara does not interpose his own sensibility, does not make Pasolini into a “Ferrara-esque” character, and at the same time avoids the pitfalls of the realist, strictly biographical biopic. There is, rather, something impressionistic in the film, a sort of noir impressionism (as if everything were seen through the tinted lenses of Dafoe/Pasolini). There is, too, something metonymic, the entirety of Pasolini being conveyed through the enlargement of a single detail. There is something of Pasolini’s everyday life, of his “vices,” of his courage, of his relations with journalists, of the last day of his Passion, supper included. The restaurant he frequented, where he dined for the last time — with that evening’s lover —
has remained just as it was in Pasolini’s time. I know this for certain, having taken my lunch there, like a pilgrim on holy ground, a few days before I saw the film. I was there.

A great Catholic, New York filmmaker films one of 20th-century Italy’s few supreme artists who was truly Catholic. The violence is unflinching, and yet it has a strange tenderness, evoked as it is by a man who still understands the meaning of cinema: who still understands shots, and dissolves, and match cuts. There is an un-emphatic solemnity, something liturgical. In fact, it recalls Ferrara’s own ’R Xmas — one of his most tranquil films, where the work of drug dealers is filmed like a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, where for long stretches the cutting of drugs is recorded like a sacred ritual.

The film is utterly relevant today because there is no treacle in its Christianity (Ferrara, like Pasolini before him, believes in the eternity of the Christian message), and because at the dawn of this century, on a planet ravaged by general chaos and the crumbling of all principle, the work speaks of a pathology that 20th-century philosophy strangely neglected, in preference to neurosis, hysteria, and schizophrenia.

It speaks of the political pathology par excellence: paranoia — which is to say persecution. Pasolini, sworn enemy of the ecclesiastical institutions of his time (like, say, Kierkegaard of the Danish clergy), sought to set an example and show that one must live like Christ (once again, like Kierkegaard). This “religious” message concerns us all. To live is to live for a truth — that is, not to fear dying for it. And to speak the truth is, by the same token, to expose oneself to the political pathology par excellence: persecution, to what the philosophy of the 20th century obstinately obscured: “paranoia” (but that literature — in Kafka, Céline, Artaud, Beckett, and others — did not shrink from proclaiming). Expose oneself, in other words, to the sham of politics as persecution of the indigent, the enlightened, the creative, the courageous. Many a petty rascal accused PPP of “paranoia” while he was still alive.

Ferrara endows his film with restraint, with a loveliness that one takes in like a Bach oratorio, and ends it with Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew, one of the most beautiful films in the history of cinema, which the Pasolini of Salò never renounced. On the contrary, Salò’s denunciation of a fascism beyond the historical fascism, of humanity’s intrinsic fascism — of a general fascism that could very well destroy our “democracies” from within — is, as it were, bequeathed to us as the identity that PPP always maintained between his work and his life. The artist knew he was going to die and was determined that in dying he would take what he had always done as far as it would go; he would do what all great modern artists since Sade had done (it’s no coincidence that PPP brought his oeuvre to a close with an adaptation of a work by Sade): depict the atrocity of which, on this planet, humanity and humanity alone is capable. This, broadly speaking, is the secret program of modern art. As the film implacably shows, we remain, despite more than one appearance to the contrary, mired in this same old muck. Lotta continua.

[Table of contents]

F/W 2015 issue 24

Table of contents

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purple NEWS

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