Willem Dafoe, the man cannot do wrong. His performances are infectiously touching, they are intimate and cold as evidenced by Pasolini, but the legend of the figure behind the performance is close to the greatest working professional today. His range is incredible, and the style of his creativity is a genuine pleasure to watch. That is what makes Pasolini so engrossing, so invigorating to see, even for those who may not have seen a Pier Paolo Pasolini feature. As long as some semblance of interest there, that spark is enough to engage with this Dafoe performance, which takes on the final days of the Theorem and Accattone director.
Naturally, the placement of these final days sticks Dafoe deep into the heart of the Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom era of Pasolini’s career. A wickedly controversial feature that is right at the heart of Pasolini’s final days. Dafoe exhibits such skill in this biopic, and that is due equally to his talent and perspective on Pasolini’s career, as well as the vision of Abel Ferrara. As reflective a piece as expected of the later years in Ferrara’s career. But to think he has mellowed now that exploitation is not his genre of choice is foolish. He still features the appeal of those rabid early works, pairing them now with the desire to tell the story of a greatly controversial director.
Beyond the usual notions of stylish direction and a strong lead performance is a genuine sense of atmosphere, of guilt and of obsession. Pasolini becomes a feature concerned more with the final days and fears of the man than of his accomplishments at the time. Encapsulated within is the controversy of Pasolini, the mania of religious belief and the dearly held conviction that comes with it and the European way of living in a beautifully realised aesthetic. Pasolini is at its best when it heads toward contemplative moments of quiet anguish, of shock turning to grief and joy, the belief in a Messiah. Ferrara’s conception of these moments comes through the lighting, the sincere joy and beauty of his performers and the impact felt not just by the audience but on the characters. It feels like a living, breathing atmosphere, which is much harder to perfect than create.
Ferrara, with the support of Italian tax credit, creates a feature that seems dear to his heart. There are brutal uses of shadow and lighting that give a faux intimacy into the mind of a man displayed as challenged not just by his art but by his own line of thought. Not as disturbing as Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, of course not, but to depict the era of that feature is a challenging tax that Ferrara and Dafoe rise to. Pasolini marks another misunderstood masterclass from Ferrara, whose work with Dafoe, from this to Siberia and all the features found between, are remarkable features that reinvent the director and give Dafoe a spectrum of artisanal embrace to work with and reflect on. An actor’s dream given to the most deserving performer of them all, the gift of beautiful dialogue, controversial times and supremely great direction.