“Narrative art is dead…” states a speaker (whose name and role I couldn’t discern) in a sweeping, presumptive way. Instead, he’ll be offering a parable of the relation between artist and concept. This conceit (pun intended) seems to be at the heart of this biopic of writer and filmmaker Pasolini. The Cambridge Film Festival described the approach as “kaleidoscopic” – which I see as snob art house speak for fractured and incoherent. I’d never have realised this is meant to be a day in his life – the last, which the brochure spoils, should we not know how Pasolini exits.
But the brochure doesn’t warn that it includes distressing graphic portraits of sexuality. I knew Pasolini made The Gospel According to St Matthew, which I’ve seen; I was not aware he that was the director of notorious 120 Days in Sodom. It is the latter film we see snippets from, and whose tone this film recasts.
Like the director of this film, Pasolini’s work runs the gamut from portrayals of Christ you could show in church (Abel Ferrara’s brilliant Mary of 2005) to violent and disturbing (Ferrara made the Texas Chainsaw Massacre films). The violence in Pasolini is sexual, and offensive to both men and women. Without knowing Pasolini’s own sexuality, I had assumed a male heterosexual gaze, objectifying and fantasising over what women want from men, including lesbians who copulate (a stronger word of one syllable felt more tempting to write) for one night with men who otherwise do not do so with women, in a public orgy resembling a wrestling match. Men too are abused by each other.
Nothing suggests censure of the acts depicted – the coldness is shocking. Pasolini’s opening speech from behind glass, observing the abuse of nude female actresses he’s directing, is how the film felt: he is shut off from what he shows, so that we are also emotionally shut off. It meant I never found a way to engage. I hated his speech about censors being moralists. And what’s so bad about that, I wondered, since his idea of not being censored is to show women being raped at a dinner party?
From the film, I could not see why Pasolini could be worthy of being a prophetic provocateur. Despite his newspaper interview, he seems to have little to say: even his film within the film has no ending, as his characters actually say. They wait; he dies. But this is no parable, for parables have narrative and an obvious moral. Despite the subject of his 1964 film and the repeated cries of an autobiographical character in this one, Pasolini is not messianic, he’s mechanic, even when he does the act in the car by the beach that leads to his demise. I didn’t feel the pity and outrage I normally would over that brutality.
Willem Defoe has often played roles where he is both disturbing and cool – ever since I first saw him 20 years ago in Tom and Viv, about another writer (TS Eliot), and then his several collaborations with the more extreme of Lars Von Trier’s recent work. Dafoe too has made a film about Christ – starring as the titular role – in a story that bridges the aforesaid poles of Pasolini, in The Last Temptation... This was mine to see another Pasolini or Willem Dafoe film. It is a temptation I will not struggle to resist.
I have watched films about people I don’t know well, and it’s made me want to go and learn more: last year’s Violette [Leduc]; the CFF before brought me to Hannah Arendt. The latter covered ideas; the former covered decades. Both contemporary writers were, like Pasolini, controversial, misunderstood, even maligned and persecuted. I was enrapt by both these previous films, enough to go again, to tell others to do so, enough to seek out their work. But with Pasolini, I felt disturbed, cool, and an afternoon wasted.
Pasolini was premiered at festivals a year ago; London was its UK gala screening. It is on general release from Friday!