Willem Dafoe in ‘Pasolini’
Willem Dafoe in ‘Pasolini’

In the pantheon of filmmaking greats, Pier Paolo Pasolini stands alone. A poet, novelist and journalist who founded a political party before he was 25, he was also a Communist, a devout Catholic, and an openly gay man at a time when being such was far from easy. His art reflected his life: bold, challenging, and always provocative.

Pasolini’s life inspired another cinematic bad boy, New York-born Abel Ferrara, to make a film about him. Now in his fifth decade of movie making, the defiantly independent Ferrara’s body of work displays an intense focus on the aberrant and the antisocial; his first film was a pornographic affair with a title that shouldn’t be repeated in polite company or printed in a family newspaper, while his second was a now legendary slasher flick bluntly entitled Driller Killer.

Strange to report, then, that Ferrara’s feature Pasolini (opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater on Friday, July 5) is a comparatively sedate affair. Oh, sure, there’s a little bit of sex scattered throughout, but in the final analysis, Pasolini is a respectful (and largely respectable) recreation of the Italian director’s final day on earth.

As depicted by Ferrara regular Willem Dafoe (who also headlines Ferrara’s newest film, Tommaso, which recently premiered at Cannes to largely positive notices), Pasolini is a pretty ordinary fellow doing thoroughly ordinary things on a day like any other. He eats, reads the paper, does some writing, participates in an interview, dangles a baby on his lap, and enjoys a frisky encounter with a young stranger.

Those familiar with Pasolini know how the story ends: the director’s last day culminated in his gruesome murder on an Ostian beach; his body run over by his own car in what bore the markings of a gangland hit. Happily, Ferrara doesn’t depict any of the gruesome details of what still remains an unsolved crime.

References to his work are woven throughout Pasolini, which opens as the director watches the rushes of his latest feature, Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom). Perhaps the most shocking film to ever grace an arthouse, Salò (loosely based on the Marquis de Sade’s novel and set in the waning days of Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic) is represented here by a relatively benign sequence. There’s also a brief but striking visual reference to Pasolini’s 1968 fable Teorema.

Even on the rare occasions when he’s been given studio money (e.g., 1993’s Body Snatchers), Ferrara’s films have been difficult to market and have never had great success at the box office. Pasolini is no exception to either rule: completed in 2014, the film made its initial appearance at the Venice International Film Festival, opened in a few European countries, and then languished in the vaults until being granted this very belated American theatrical release.

Pasolini was great friends with opera singer Maria Callas (she tried throughout her life to convert him to heterosexuality, to no avail), and Ferrara’s film concludes with an extended excerpt from her recording of Rossini’s ‘Barber of Seville’. It’s a tender footnote to what feels like the most humanistic film of Ferrara’s long career.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...