Dec 14, 2019
Welcome back for our last review for the year, and... man, sometimes I know how to pick them. If you don’t know who Pier Paolo Pasolini is, definitely go take a gander at his Wikipedia page to get a taste of his filmography, and the many controversies that surround it, in particular for his last provocative film, SALÒ OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM. If you do know who Pier Paolo Pasolini is, and you’re wondering if this film is as raunchy and provocative as his filmography, I can assure you and should probably warn you that it is, from start to finish.
It’s not the way I intended to close out our series Under the Kanopy this quarter, featuring the critically acclaimed, if not commercially viable offerings available on Kanopy. Kanopy is a library and university funded streaming service that offers patrons six free streams per month from a collection of classic and contemporary films, including agreements with Criterion, A24, Kino Lorber, and more. You will find critically acclaimed content that’s available nowhere else, all for the low, low price of free.
And before the review, we’ll have a promo from our friends at the Two Views Movies podcast. Every episode, Garrett and Carson discuss a feature film, either playing in theaters or dipping back into the past for a forgotten favorite. You can find them on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram @TwoViewsMovies, or check out their web page at twoviewsmovies.com. You can also subscribe to their podcast on all major platforms.
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Here we go!
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Today’s movie is PASOLINI, the provocative biographical drama directed by Abel Ferrara and written for the screen by Maurizio Braucci, based on an idea by Abel Ferrara and Nicola Tranquillino. The film examines the final day of renegade artist Pier Paolo Pasolini (Willem Dafoe), from finishing up SALÒ OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM through his last interview and later, his vicious murder on the beach at Ostia. It also recreates and reexamines his works and his early life.
Some spoilers, that actually might help with the viewing experience, but also multiple content warnings for hate crimes, sexual assault, and graphic sexuality.
I think the most difficult part of examining Pasolini’s work is separating the provocative sensationalism from the work itself. I’ve been using that word a lot, because no other word really captures the themes of Pasolini, nor the intention for the use of those themes. Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life is composed of three quite raunchy takes on “The Decameron”, “Canterbury Tales”, and “Arabian Nights”, which many saw as perversions of classic works. Anyone who has read all three works knows, however, that they were quite raunchy to begin with, and part of the reason they survived into the present day. However, his most notorious film was also his last, the infamous SALÒ OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM, which was to begin his Trilogy of Death, exploring the darker side of humanity with torture, rape, and other tales from the infamous Marquis de Sade.
If you’re offended by bawdy sexual humor, or the darker side of humanity, then you aren’t going to like Pasolini. Nor should you, since you weren’t the intended audience. Quite often, the intended audience was the government, or the censors, or the church, or pretty much whomever Pasolini thought was restraining or holding back either himself or society. Similar censorship battles were happening all over the world, with one faced by one of my favorite literary authors, William S. Burroughs over his publication of “Naked Lunch”. Burroughs also used similar provocative content for his works, a battle repeated years later by 2 Live Crew for their music. Pasolini was engaged in cultural warfare, which was only possible in large part because of his sensationalism, a true agent provocateur. And if you don’t like Pasolini’s themes or content, then you’re definitely not going to like this film, either.
Conceptually, I really admire the structure of PASOLINI. Opening on Pasolini finishing up SALÒ OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM is a great reference point on which to quickly introduce everyone to Pasolini, which also includes a few scenes from the film. We’re also introduced to the absolutely uncanny resemblance between Pasolini and Willem Dafoe, which allows him to do an above-average job with the entire performance. Pasolini is brash, determined, forward, and... speaking in English. I feel like everything gained by Dafoe’s resemblance is lost when the film is mostly in English, certainly more marketable outside of Italy, but also giving it a strange feel similar to how I felt watching the English-language 22 JULY (Episode #286). And given that this film didn’t do well in 2014 during its initial release, I wish they had gone 100% Italian language.
After the initial reference point, we walk through Pasolini’s last day on earth, using each known encounter or appointment as a chance to examine his life, or his current works, or what were considered his proposed works for the next two films in the Trilogy of Death. Interspersed between this narrative are flashbacks to those moments, or dramatizations of his works and ideas, often featuring very lewd scenes of graphic sexuality. To be honest, I wasn’t ready for a lot of it, despite my fascination with Burroughs’ work, because reading it and seeing it are two very different experiences for the same kind of content. I also had to be ready to exit out in case the wrong person came downstairs at the wrong time, because there are a surprising number of wrong times available in its 84-minute running time.
Here’s the thing. I don’t think Pasolini’s sensationalism has the same punch, or targets, as it did in the 1970s. In hindsight, his comedy in the Trilogy of Life and his darker content in the proposed Trilogy of Death is no more offense than your average late-night comedy or torture porn thriller available today just about everywhere. Moving between his final day of life and bawdy flashbacks and dramatizations doesn’t really do justice to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s life, which would be an infinitely more interesting biopic than what ends up being a film mostly about his works.
The ending is really tough to stomach as well. Just prior to his violent end at Ostia, Pasolini is recounting to some friends his idea for his next work, walking us through an entire sequence of dialogue from the work. The brutal death scene follows, one based on the initial confession by Pino Pelosi, and has since been retracted and disputed, and one we know is coming. And then afterwards, we’re given a dramatization of the exact same extensive dialogue. It’s heavy-handed, landing with a thud, perhaps the most difficult part to accept for the film. It feels like the film is trying to do too much for one film, and certainly for its run time, and for those who forced their way through the film, likely causing mild to extreme offense in the process.
PASOLINI tries to do too much for a single film, misusing Pasolini’s notorious sensationalism and content in such a way that ends up focusing the film on his works as opposed to his life. While Willem Dafoe is the spitting image of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the provocative (there’s that word again!) material and approach often ruins any more sublime points and thoughts being made. Fans of Pasolini probably saw this film back in 2014. Folks interested in learning about Pasolini, and don’t mind graphic sexuality and other darker themes, will appreciate this film. Everyone else, please heed the content warnings and the subject matter, and decide accordingly.
Rotten Tomatoes: 79% (CERTIFIED FRESH)
One Movie Punch: 6.4/10
PASOLINI (2014) is not rated and is currently playing on Kanopy.