Earlier this year, the director Abel Ferrara premiered his Welcome to New York, a lacerating study of an appalling man for whom Ferrara has, to put it mildly, conflicting feelings. The subject: Devereaux, a lightly fictionalized Dominique Strauss-Kahn surrogate, played by Gérard Depardieu (himself no stranger to controversy). Still unreleased in the U.S., Welcome to New York captures Devereaux’s carnivorous sexuality in stark terms: The exhaustive 30-minute orgy that opens the film would have been stimulating in Martin Scorsese’s rowdy The Wolf of Wall Street, but under Ferrara’s disciplined, disturbing gaze (dim lighting and fearless long takes abound), this monstrous chunk of a human being is rendered rather pathetic.
Contrast this attitude with the reverence of Ferrara’s latest movie, Pasolini, another compressed-time investigation of a figure with real-world origins. Where Welcome to New York clearly (though not moralistically) condemns Devereaux’s base impulses, Ferrara cherishes his subject here, the Italian multi-hyphenate Pier Paolo Pasolini. That means the Ferrara die-hards who have been anticipating the director’s Pasolini movie for so long — the ones who have grown accustomed to the limitless rage and intensity of movies like Ms. 45, Bad Lieutenant, and Dangerous Game — are the people likeliest to be caught off-guard by the sensitive, even-tempered, almost peaceful tones of Pasolini. (Ferrara and DP Stefano Falivene’s palette favors warm blacks, golds, and browns.) Though Ferrara gets in a gut-punch with his unflinching depiction of Pasolini’s violent death — after getting beaten to a pulp on a beach at night, his body is run over by a car — the film mostly occupies a softer, more contemplative plane.
The great image in Pasolini is a close-up on Dafoe, his eyes tucked behind shaded lenses, his hand touching his forehead, rubbing the creases as he thinks. The movie centers on the final days of Pasolini’s life (a tight structure reminiscent of Ferrara and Dafoe’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth); a more predictable director might have stressed the resignation of the image, showing Pasolini vexed and frustrated with the world around him (“The tragedy is there are no more human beings,” he states). But Ferrara peers beyond the surface and finds that this man is not fatigued, but rather gently invigorated with every aspect of his life: He probes the nighttime streets of Rome, buying spaghetti and beer for male prostitutes to seduce in his Alfa Romeo. He buries himself in newspaper headlines, which Ferrara displays in montage. He toils away on his typewriter, and Ferrara himself, with the help of Pasolini regular Ninetto Davoli, envisions the novels (Petrolio) and films (Porno-Teo-Kolossal, with gays and lesbians coming together to procreate) that Pasolini was working on at the time of his death.
Ferrara often unfolds this cascade of mental and emotional activity through delicate dissolves that create an overlapping landscape of images — visions within visions within visions. In this context, Ferrara’s choice for the movie’s final shot is sublime and even wrenchingly poignant — a short, perfect elegy for the interviews and poems, novels and screenplays, articles and images that died along with Pasolini on that beach in 1975.