Making no attempt to deliver a conventional cradle-to-grave biopic, Abel Ferrara instead offers a subtly suggestive cameo of the great Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini’s fateful final few days. Bearing a striking resemblance to his subject (especially behind dark glasses), Willem Dafoe’s underplayed performance embodies a hard-working artist. When we meet Pasolini he is editing his ultra-controversial film ‘Salò’, thinking through a novel-in-progress and imagining his next movie. Courted by the press, he’s sociable with friends and family, but secretive in his sexual exploits with streetwise young men.
If the blend of English and Italian dialogue seems slightly wilful, it doesn’t disrupt the film’s ease: a matter-of-factness which resists idolising Pasolini in favour of an open-minded rendering of everyday humanity. That makes its subject’s still-shocking demise (Pasolini was murdered in 1975; a rent boy confessed but mystery stills hangs over the crime) all the more powerful. To be fair, the full effect probably depends on some prior Pasolini knowledge, but even those coming afresh will appreciate a haunting portrayal of an artist destroyed by the senseless prejudices he fought to tear down.