His colorful life encompassed beautiful boys, Marxist politics, and some of the most explicit films ever made, but Pier Paolo Pasolini is perhaps best remembered for how he died. In 1975, the 53-year-old Italian writer-director was discovered bloody and mangled, the apparent victim of a gay pickup gone horribly wrong. A young hustler, Pino Pelosi, confessed to the murder, but conspiracy theories abound to this day: Was Pasolini killed by fascists? Or by the corrupt politicians he was investigating? Pasolini’s biographical arc begs the martyred-provocateur treatment à la Larry Flynt, but French playwright Michel Azama delivers something stranger—a chillingly austere account of an inflammatory artist whose life (and death) remain an impenetrable enigma.
Opening with Pelosi’s trial, the play flashes backward and forward between several formative periods in Pasolini’s life—his intense relationship with his mother, his expulsion from the Communist Party, his various run-ins with the Italian law over his controversial movies. The nonlinear structure heightens Pasolini’s unknowability, as does the speechifying dialogue that frequently interrupts the action to impart reams of background information. Hiding behind designer shades, Pasolini (Drew Cortese) comes off as rather pretentious. “My job is to talk about the things people keep quiet about,” he declares while striking a pose. Cortese’s fashion-model looks hardly humanize this self-aggrandizing auteur, who perhaps too eagerly embraced his role as “an apostle of filth.”
Azama’s play references Pasolini’s most notorious cine-grenades—Accattone, Teorema, and Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom —but its guiding influence is Pasolini’s Brechtian masterpiece, The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Notable for its detached take on Jesus’ life, Gospel is an episodic and opaque portrait of the world’s most famous rebel. The play takes an equally anti-psychological approach to Pasolini himself, abruptly transitioning between scenes as if to short- circuit all emotional identification. Even when a psychiatrist is called to analyze Pasolini in court, the laundry-list diagnosis (exhibitionism, sexual abnormality, narcissism, etc.) is so generic as to seem like a parody.
Much of Pasolini’s life is absent here—his poetry, his anti-fascist campaigns. Azama’s play (first published in 1984) provides a bare-bones biography that suggests the idea of Pasolini rather than an actual human being. Director Elizabeth Williamson (who translated the play with Nicholas Elliott) keeps everything brisk and minimal, though frequently the cast’s impassioned delivery threatens to overwhelm this intellectualized drama. The play would ultimately work better as a reading rather than a stage production. In any case, Azama’s anti-dramatic aesthetic hits the jackpot with the concluding description of Pasolini’s corpse. “Left jaw fractured . . . ears half detached . . . liver torn in two places,” an offstage voice drones. Reduced to the sum of his body parts, this elusive deity is finally brought crashing down to earth.