"Pasolini": Antibiography

in 37th Moscow International Film Festival

by Victoria Smirnova Mayzel

Pasolini by Abel Ferrara is a movie apparently made in deliberate violation of rules; it is a biography in which the auteur’s poetic value is suspended, abolished at the outset. However, if one knows Ferrara, one understands that this risk is paradoxically justified. Moreover, in numerous interviews Ferrara makes the point that he wanted to show not a classic, but a “real man”.

The idea is, certainly, utopian but, surprisingly it is realized with brilliance. As a result of all subtractions, we see a person who could have been Pasolini, except for the perfection of his movies; a personage stripped of his hyper-aestheticism (which manifested itself, for example, in the manner he showed the peasants from Friuli: plebs, visionaries who wore out many a pair of shoes searching for Death). Ferrara’s movie tells us that this Lumpenproletariat didn’t exist except on screen, in the framework of the highly suggestive aesthetics of Pasolini. Ferrara lets them into the frame as if to make a comparison; he presents the prototypes (for example, Ninetto Davoli himself) not purified by the author yet.

This is what is most painful about this movie for Pasolini fans. The biography is all at once devoid of tragedy; it is becoming oddly unshaped. The murder itself (the essential point for which the film was made) looks like a silly accident. It is fatal, because it is so sudden, without metaphysical reason whatsoever.

Pasolini’s last day is any day of his life: there is no doom of an accomplished biography, no attempt at making History, at solemn signs of destiny; nothing to make the viewer “coordinate positions” and perform a procedure that the director was so fond of; nothing like moving from the final point to the beginning, like the transformation of life into art.

Ferrara leaves Pasolini “incomplete”; or only partially complete. He marks the gap between life and oeuvre, establishes a utopian territory where personal biography – always irreducible and untranslatable in any aesthetic mode – becomes tinged with ressentiment. 

It is no coincidence that Ferrara all the time quotes Pasolini’s films: Pasolini plays football among provincial youths (Mama Roma), the voice of Maria Callas off-screen (Medea), the old Ninetto Davoli who departs with his son to search for the meaning of life (Ucellini e Ucillacci). All these quotations become indexes that make reference to the auteur, but never actually attain him.

This rejection of biography is justified by the desire to give Pasolini the right to be more (or less) than a director. Once again, it is as if Ferrara wanted to see Pasolini alive not metaphorically but literally, so the latter is forced not to be himself, not to be reduced to his creation but to contest it, to bracket it, to play to self-abandonment. Therefore, the script that Pasolini reads in Ferrara’s movie is bad and pretentious. It is as bad as common people going to heaven, as vulgar as Roman orgies or conversations with the interviewer from La Stampa. The real Pasolini would never have staged anything like this. Admittedly, there is something sincere about this persistent kitsch, and this sincerity is possible for a man and impossible for an auteur. Pasolini speaking through his texts would never have been so direct as Pasolini who wants to be absolutely direct, even rude, negating contradictions of the language he cultivated so much. 

Ferrara is genuinely radical when he rejects his protagonist’s aesthetics and dispenses with his sophistication. Musical fragments from St Matthew Passion create the effect of a parallel existence of man and auteur with stories which don’t overlap, generating that disjointed intonation (as if it were possible to separate two realities, that of the body and that of the text): “There is nothing in common between me and my character, between the protagonist and the author, whoever he is; his history has nothing in common with mine. He disgusts me”.

Pasolini’s text itself (a line from a letter to a friend) suggests an infinite gap between “knowledge which he acquires” and knowledge of which he “dreamed before”. That’s why Ferrara doesn’t give us a biography. He negates the ultimate avant-garde touch which could have given meaning to trivial events, which would have put in order what was accidental, which would have formed what was inconsequential. On the contrary, he insists on ressentiment; he includes the ordinary and the quotidian – an inclusion that is impossible for the auteur like in the episode with Pasolini’s mother or that with Laura Betti. Or another episode in which his alter-ego mentions “love” before sex with a thug.

Actually, Ferrara does what he has always done. He deliberately indulges in formal imperfection. In the wake of the author of Teorema, who regularly inserted obscure signs that cannot be read into texts, Ferrara deconstructs the myth in order to deplore the real Pasolini. Once again, he does so quite deliberately, aware of his mission. For once destruction is done, Ferrara ends up inside Pasolini’s écriture (the same signs that can’t be read), or his ideas, for example, his eagerness to “fuse with people” (impossible due to his belonging to another, intellectual, class and inherent aestheticism).

As he shows his death in such an ordinary manner, Ferrara in fact gives Pasolini what the latter always desired – some genuine democracy, a right to be killed like everyone else, without reason, in an area where everyone would be killed. A terrible, ordinary, and disillusioning death.

Edited by Birgit Beumers