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Pasolini and his passions

18 December 2015

Stephen Brown sees a film about a master of the cinema

Film about film: Riccardo Scamarcio (left) as the young Ninetto Davoli, and Davoli himself as Epifanio, in Pasolini

Film about film: Riccardo Scamarcio (left) as the young Ninetto Davoli, and Davoli himself as Epifanio, in Pasolini

AFTER recent cinema screenings, Abel Ferrara’s film Pasolini (Cert. 18) is now available as a DVD/Blu-ray release.

The film focuses on the day in 1975 when the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini was murdered. This Marxist Existentialist’s films often drew heavily on religious material (The Gospel According to Matthew, Theorem, The Canterbury Tales, as well as an unmade screenplay about St Paul) when telling their stories.

In his final film, Pasolini links the depravities of the Marquis de Sade’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom to Dante’s circles of hell. After depicting in Salò humanity’s darkest inclinations under Mussolini, he passionately wishes to warn the contemporary world of tragic tendencies towards possession and destruction, selecting the quest for oil (Petrolio) to illustrate his intended parable. “There are no more human beings” he says: only automatons.

Before we learn of this project, Ferrara plays the self-same piece from Bach’s St Matthew Passion as used in Pasolini’s film about Jesus. It’s as if to say ecce homo: if you want to behold true humanity, this is where to look. (Ferrara later features the Gloria and Credo from Missa Luba, again a quote from The Gospel According to Matthew).

Going through Pasolini’s final day on earth has the feel of a Via Dolorosa. He dines with loved ones for the last time. A journalist interrogates him in a manner not unlike like that of Pontius Pilate. “If you do away with all this [consumerism], what would you have left?” he asks, only to receive a disturbing reply.

And any film about Pasolini that shied away from equating passion not only with (Christ’s and our) suffering, but also overwhelming sexual desire, would be falling short. Thankfully, it doesn’t; for ultimately we witness the beatings and death that occur as a result of the director’s passions.

Ferrara also gives us a vision of Petrolio in which the character Epifanio (played by Ninetto Davoli, Pasolini’s long-time collaborator) leaves earth, seeking paradise. He doesn’t find it, but is nevertheless grateful for being made to appreciate his own planet better. Looking at the stars, he exclaims that the Messiah is born and that “Something will happen.”

The Christian referencing in this new film is no more accidental than it was with Pasolini. Ferrara, whose films include Bad Lieutenant (about a cop seeking redemption), was raised as a Roman Catholic. Even though he is now a Buddhist, it is still possible that he would stick to his earlier claim “We all need Christ.”

Not least, it’s revealing that he chose Willem Dafoe, who played Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, to be the doomed Italian film director. There’s something of a Christ-figure to his performance here, too. In fact, the piece often flags when Dafoe is absent from the screen.

The film ends to the sound of Maria Callas singing “Una Voce Poco Fa”: “A voice has just echoed here in my heart. Already my heart is wounded.” The aria, like the film, is a tribute to, but not a hagiography of, one that loved not wisely, but too well. We should be deeply grateful for a film that does justice to the prescience and care of the human race displayed by Signor Pasolini.

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