Film & TV

Pasolini Explores the Disgusting, Brave Work of a Great Filmmaker

Willem Dafoe in Pasolini (Kino Lorber)
Willem Dafoe plays the radical Italian artist who focused on human depravity, including in himself.

‘Is sex politics?” In the biopic Pasolini, that question is posed to legendary Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini (played by Willem Dafoe), who responds, “In life, everything is politics.” His answer brings this movie close to understanding the discord now roiling American public intercourse. For Pasolini, sex was a metaphor for spiritual dysfunction, the anguished expression of human desire and its opposite, vengeance — that is, politics.

This ambitious biopic, directed by the renegade American filmmaker Abel Ferrara (whose films Bad Lieutenant, King of New York, The Funeral, and Welcome to New York make him something like an American counterpart to Pasolini), arrives just as unfathomable gamesmanship and political theatrics have frustrated the current administration and discombobulated American society. Pasolini (now playing at Metrograph) explores a filmmaker’s personal and public responsibility in an era when political society races to the bottom. It asks, as did Pasolini himself, How low can we go?

Pasolini’s interest in sexual behavior shocked the polite humanism of the Italian neorealist tradition, starting with his brilliant debut Accattone (1961) and then Mamma Roma (1962), The Hawks and the Sparrows (1966), and his final film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1977). He deserves a biopic because his audacity helps us think through the vindictive motivations of the recent political backbiting that ignores everyday social problems in favor of settling personal grievances and grabbing partisan power.

For a culture that overthrows the sacred for the political, Pasolini’s vision of the profane takes on fresh relevance. Ferrara and Dafoe probably did not intend their very personal, Eurocentric drama to reflect American turmoil. But Dafoe, perfectly cast as the bespectacled Pasolini, speaks with a timbre that recalls how Arthur Kennedy’s middle-American intonations in Lawrence of Arabia reoriented a foreign experience, giving it American immediacy.

Ferrara sets his essay-film just before the artist’s death, when Pasolini is at a desperate point, only days before releasing the sure-to-be-controversial Salò. Pasolini questions his own aesthetic ideas and political philosophies as a poet and cineaste. The film shifts into fantasy sequences of a proposed novel about sexual libertinism and Italian history. It’s a jumble of ideas centered on images of Italian Fascist art.

Awed by Pasolini’s sharp perspective, Ferrara and Dafoe take a respectful approach that is not an artistic failure so much as an indication that we live in a period when it’s difficult to ascertain the complexity of political and artistic radicalism. (What’s that? Marvel and Pixar fans might ask.) Ferrara and Dafoe confront an important quandary: that liberals might be as afraid to look deeply into the human abyss as conservatives are.

Ferrara starts by dealing with Salò, Pasolini’s most extreme film — a key work of political provocation and anxiety (as a clip in Godard’s The Image Book indicated). Whereas Nanni Moretti’s Caro Diario (1993) paid sentimental homage to Pasolini’s violent death, the explicit clips from Salò permit Ferrara to portray Pasolini’s rough-trade sex life — made all the more startling by Dafoe’s appetitive smile. A scene of raunchy street sex that fades to morbid black, followed by daylight shots of the famous Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, connects debased behavior to the high artistic aspiration of Italian Fascist art. The Palazzo, built by Mussolini in 1935, bears the inscription “A nation of poets, of artists, of heroes, of thinkers, of scientists, of navigators, of migrants,” about which Pasolini had to be ambivalent.

Pasolini is the only great director to make a movie as truly disgusting as Salò, a political allegory that explicitly depicts outrageous scenes from its source material, a 1785 novel by the Marquis de Sade. As the most audaciously realistic and yet inventive political filmmaker, Pasolini converted Sade’s wicked theology into a parable and critique of Fascism as a system that corrupts even its own doctrine. Salò’s conceit is also an unsettling rebuke of the threat that Marxist Pasolini saw in his political adversaries who blurred the line between power and insensitivity. (It was Pasolini who directed both the Bach-influenced The Gospel According to St. Matthew and the ribald Second Coming allegory Teorema—a title that translates Pasolini’s allegorical reasoning as “Theorem.”)

Set in the Salò Republic, the Italian puppet state of Nazi Germany, Salò begins with a unique preamble of footnotes (including by Roland Barthes) to validate its portrayal of the last days of Mussolini’s regime. Pasolini takes an intellectual view of the fictionalized exploits of several town nobles who use their authority to commandeer young members of the Italian resistance and submit them to sexual humiliation, physical and mental torture, and murder.

Salò demonstrates Ferrara and Dafoe’s pronouncement: “Narrative art, as you well know, is dead. This is a parable. The meaning of the parable is the relation of the author to the form he creates.” Salò’s four sequences (Anteinferno, Circle of Mania, Circle of Shit, Circle of Blood) evoke Dante’s Inferno. This high-brow stuff (even quoting Ezra Pound’s Cantos) gets quite low down. It’s an atrocity exhibition. That explains Ferrara and Dafoe’s valiant attempt to extrapolate from inside Pasolini’s mind. Among Salò’s most unsettling aspects is the incontestable fact that this alarming film shows Pasolini bravely admitting his own depraved temptation. His social criticism did not lack self-awareness.

Made only three years after Mel Brooks’s flatulent campfire in Blazing Saddles, Salò, in its emphasis on scatology and shock, turns the lusty neorealism of Accattone into a political schema that, though always seriously intended, uses allegory that is too harshly literal — our faces and sensibilities rubbed in degradation. Though testing Pasolini’s own virtue, the challenge — the self-reproach — is insular, perhaps too personal.

Yet this gives Salò, and the figurehead that Ferrara and Dafoe create from Pasolini’s artistic courage, great and undeniable significance amid the political hypocrisy and artistic crises of today. Pasolini connected the impulse to power with sadism. Often described as an “art horror film,” Salò bears a classic warning — man’s inhumanity to man — that has been hidden by Millennial political objectives. Who can doubt Pasolini’s proposition that the bureaucrats who advance the unrelenting congressional and media witch hunts would not also be capable of Sadean indignities if given the opportunity?

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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