When Pier Paolo Pasolini was killed in the early hours of November 2, 1975, cinema lost one of its most unique talents. His artistic temperament guided a career through literature and movies.
Pasolini was found beaten to death in a field in the Roman neighborhood of Ostia. Pasolini’s body had also been run over by someone driving the director’s Alpha Romeo.
One of his films “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1964) was listed by the Vatican’s 1995 Pontifical Council for Social Communication as one of the best religious films ever made. Other films by Pasolini like “The Canterbury Tales” (1972) or his last film “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom” drew condemnation or were outright banned in his home country.
“1975 in Rome was not like 1975 anywhere else in the world,” Abel Ferrara says in a Skype interview, talking from his home in Rome.
Ferrara himself is no stranger to controversy. His early films like “Ms. 45” (1981) explored a kind of surreal violence before David Lynch laid claim to that method with “Blue Velvet” in 1986. While “Pulp Fiction” gets all the plaudits for revolutionizing movie-going sensibilities in the 1990’s it was Ferrara’s “The Bad Lieutenant” (1992) that excelled in similar two-fisted imagery.
Ferrara’s 2014 film “Pasolini” starring Willem Dafoe, which has only been released stateside this year, will have its Texas premiere as part of QFest: The Houston International LGBTQ Film Festival on Saturday, July 27 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston at 7 pm.
“Willem is wearing the same clothes that Pasolini wore,” says Ferrara. There’s a shot of the director’s address book with appointments dated for November 6 and 7. “That’s his book, it was given to me. Some people say he knew he was going to die. There’re all kinds of crazy theories that he set up his own death. Because that night, November 1 in Italy, is a feast of the dead.
“When you look at his diary and the way it’s written, there’s no way he wanted to die. He had appointments with big people and scheduled interviews, but the point is that’s his book, that’s his fucking handwriting,” says Ferrara.
“Sixty to seventy percent of the dialogue is his, and if not his we researched and took from the books he wrote, took from the movies he made, took from the life he lived,” says Ferrara.
“It gets you only so far all this research but at least it gets you that far.”
One of the locations, Al Biondo Tevere, located alongside the Tiber River, was a restaurant that Pasolini frequented. “The same cook that made the macaroni forty years ago was the cook that prepared the meal you see in the film,” says Ferrara.
“The restaurant is still there, the people who were there the night Pasolini was eating for the last time, forty years later, are still there.”
On the Al Biondo Tevere Facebook page there’s a video of Ferrara playing “Start Me Up” on acoustic guitar during an improvised moment.
Another landmark seen in the film is the Palazzo della Civiltà, which was built for a World’s Fair in 1942 that never occurred. The square building accented by six levels of loggias has been seen in movies as diverse as “Rome, Open City” (1945) and “Titus” (1999).
“Mussolini built it as a fascist structure but I’m not using that for any meaning,” says Ferrara. “It was something Pasolini could see from the window of his house.”
The Cavatina di Rosina, “Una Voce Poco Fa” from Barber of Seville sung by Maria Callas can be heard playing over the ending credits.
“That was his lover, she was the one who tried to get him to fall in love with a woman, she was his main squeeze,” says Ferrara about Callas whose only movie role was as the star of Pasolini’s 1969 “Medea.”
“Most of the music we use in the film was music Pasolini used in other films, not the American rock but the other music,” adds Ferrara.
While only one person went to prison for the murder of Pasolini, Ferrara maintains that “nobody thought it was just one kid. He was the fall guy.” The press portrayed the incident as a gay tryst gone wrong.
“In a situation like that, trust me I talked to his closest friends, no one was shocked that he was killed under those circumstances,” says Ferrara. “He said it in his last interview, he wasn’t writing from an ivory tower, he was out there with those kids on the streets.
“The tragedy was that Pasolini had another thirty years of making movies. He’s not playing shortstop for the Texas Rangers, he’s not going to retire at 32. And he would still be making brilliant films. They took down a poet in the prime of his life,” laments Ferrara.
Dafoe has appeared in many of Ferrara’s films starting with 1998’s “New Rose Hotel.”
“He’s the consummate dude, he’s got the energy, got the spirit, he’s a philosopher, he’s everything you want in an actor; he’s got street cred that he earned,” says Ferrara.
“The relationship between a director and an actor is the magic of the movie and once you’ve got it why change?” asks Ferrara.
“Pasolini” has been a project of passion for Ferrara since the 1990s.
“The producer of ‘King of New York’ threw this idea at me about making a film on Pasolini. Obviously I thought it was a great idea. And then these guys that financed a lot of my movies from that period, some of them went to jail, one of them became the Prime Minister of Italy, some of them just disappeared.”
In Italy during the 1990s it was known as the clean hands or mani pulite period. “It’s where they shook the tree,” says Ferrara. “The bottom line is I didn’t see the guy for another fifteen years. He reemerged and started telling me we should still do the film.
“Now it’s twenty years later, twenty years is a long time, you know what I mean? At the time I was working on ‘Welcome to New York,’ which is about the Strauss-Kahn affair and addiction in a certain way,” says Ferrara.
“When you’re addicted you have two options: prison or death,” says Ferrara. “These two movies represent that. You have Strauss-Kahn being arrested and Pasolini ends up dead.”
“Welcome to New York” takes place over a period of two weeks. In his recent films Ferrara has used the confinement of time to explore his narratives.
Another film Ferrara made starring Dafoe, “Go Go Tales” (2007) takes place in 90-minutes. “It was almost in real time,” adds Ferrara.
“Using another film I did, ‘4:44 Last Day of Earth’ as the model, that film takes place beat-by-beat over the course of 16-hours.
“So for ‘Pasolini’ we wanted to be in that same groove. We took the last 30-hours of his life. We studied it and documented it,” says Ferrara. “We knew exactly where he went and what he did.”