Why Pier Paolo Pasolini will always be remembered for Salò
American director Abel Ferrara's latest film pays tribute to the Italian master filmmaker
Abel Ferrara was once a director indelibly tied to America. Films such as King of New York (1990), Bad Lieutenant (1992) and The Funeral (1996) - arguably his best works in a long career - were very much about the souring of the American dream. But no more, he says. "I'm a world filmmaker. I'm a citizen of the world. I go where I'm free to make movies, and it's certainly not the United States. Forget it. I'm not going to waste my time with these people."
Instead, he's spent five of the past 10 years in Rome - ever since he headed there to make 2005's Mary. Most of his work is funded in Europe now, far from Hollywood. "The further I get from Los Angeles, the better it is," he says. Even 2014's Welcome to New York has a distinctly European flavour - despite its American setting. So perhaps it's no surprise that his latest film, Pasolini, sees him pay tribute to Italian cinematic maestro Pier Paolo Pasolini.
A poet, writer and intellectual, the Bologna-born Pasolini made his name with films such as The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) and The Decameron (1971). "He's a filmmaker I adore," says Ferrara, 63. "As a young filmmaker, you go through periods … With Italian cinema, your [Michelangelo] Antonioni period, your [Roberto] Rossellini period … but there was never a period [with Pasolini]. He was always there. So then you try to understand: 'Why him? Why? Why? Why?' And the film becomes the answer to that question."
As it goes, it was Pasolini's last film, 1975's Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom - a shocking post-Mussolini spin on the Marquis de Sade's famous 18th century erotic novel - that cemented his reputation, albeit posthumously. For shortly after Pasolini finished Salò, he was murdered on a beach outside Rome in November 1975, crushed by the tyres of his own car. Debate still rages as to whether a young male prostitute was responsible, or if others were involved.
With the film dealing with the last days of his life, Pasolini is convincingly played by Ferrara's regular collaborator Willem Dafoe, in their fourth - and best - film together. "He was really prescient," Dafoe says of his character. "He really saw where society was going before it went there. What he was talking about is still relevant today … he lived through the Italian [economic] boom, and he saw what it was doing to people. I think in a very articulate way, he expressed the price that we pay as individuals, as people."
Ask Dafoe how he, Ferrara and screenwriter Maurizio Braucci decided to approach depicting the complexities and contradictions of a man who was gay, Catholic and Marxist, and he's clear. "To honour who he was but also be free, to not have it be a creaky biopic - where you lean on a certain kind of temptation to try to explain who this guy is," the actor says.
"What we really wanted to do is to express a state of mind - a place he'd arrived at. To sit with his ideas and what he did on that last day in an evocative way that really expressed who he was as we saw."
Curiously, like Ferrara, Dafoe is an adopted son of Italy - he's married to Abruzzo-born actress/director Giada Colagrande, and has dual Italian and American citizenship. "That had a lot to do with coming around to this very Italian subject," Dafoe says, though he admits it's risky. "Where do a couple of Americans get off doing this mixed-language film of a very Italian figure? But … sometimes when you aren't born into something, there's a possibility to have a fresher take."
Ferrara is aware that as an outsider taking on one of Italy's anti-heroes was never going to please everybody. "You know how it is," he says. "Some people we p***ed off."
Yet detractors cannot deny the lengths the production goes to for authenticity. "We had his clothes, his glasses … we had his furniture." Then there was shooting in Rome, perfect for transporting audiences back to 1975. "It's the eternal city. So we got one leg up there, man."
What's clear is that there isn't a director like Pasolini working today - an artist, an activist and a thinker. Ferrara bristles at the suggestion that controversial Danish auteur Lars von Trier might be his equivalent. "Lars von Trier? I'm not putting down Lars. I dig the guy. But is he writing a brilliant 1,700-page novel? I don't think so." What about Ferrara? He carries that same anarchic individualistic spirit. "I'd like to say 'me'," he says, smiling. "We're trying but … he's a lion and we are rabbits."