The Life and Death of Pier Paolo Pasolini
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 25, 2005
A quick search on Google for information about Pier Paolo Pasolini surfaced this tidbit (here):
Pasolini was murdered brutally by being run over several times with his own car at the beach of Ostia near Rome. Pino Pelosi, a hustler, was arrested and confessed to murdering Pasolini. On May 7th, 2005, he retracted his confession, claiming that unidentified men had killed Pasolini. He gave threats of violence against his family as the reason for his erstwhile confession. The investigation into Pasolini's death has been re-opened following Pelosi's recantation.
This interesting real-life development pretty much cancels out whatever intriguing speculation about Pasolini's murder might be contained in Michel Azama's play, The Life and Death of Pier Paolo Pasolini, which was written in 1984. So, perversely, it's kind of a lucky break that the play in fact contains very little that's revelatory about the man, his controversial career, or his sensational death.
The play, about an hour long, jumps back and forth through Pasolini's life, from his first brush with public controversy when he was ordered out of the Communist Party because of a sex scandal involving three underage boys, up through his fateful late-night cruise in a Rome piazza where he met 17-year-old Pelosi. Scenes of Pasolini's life and death are crosscut with courtroom sequences where a judge (unseen, always voiced by Sandra Shipley) interrogates, chides, and punishes Pasolini for his various obscene creations; one actor (Arthur Aulisi) plays all of Pasolini's prosecutors/accusers. In court and, often, outside of it, Pasolini defends poetically the impulses behind his work. Azama, by way of translators Nicholas Elliott and Elizabeth Williamson, is a little fuzzy on this point, but what I basically gleaned from the script is that Pasolini intended his art to (a) remind us of the holiness and beauty of what we too often take for granted, and (b) rail at us for refusing to see the obscenity in a decadent, consumerist culture.
The play references his novels and three of his films, including his last one, Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom, which he is shown here as planning to be as outrageously unwatchable as it is generally considered to be. But his description of Salo follows a (very unconvincing) scene in which his longtime lover Ninetto announces that he's leaving him to get married, leaving us with the implication that Pasolini's most political work was in fact the churlish reaction of an aging cuckold.
There's the vaguest of insinuations that Pelosi acted in concert with others (or took the fall for others), but no alternative theory of the murder is put forth.
Beyond the clichéd treatments—Pasolini as tormented (and occasionally fined, or even jailed) artist; Pasolini as gay predator; Pasolini as the victim of a brutal unsolved murder—there's finally not much here to absorb about a man whose life and work would seem vivid enough to fuel any number of plays twice as long as this one. It occurred to me as I was watching the play that in its determined orderliness—slides announce the time and place of each scene; the scene plays out; a blackout follows; and then the sequence is repeated—The Life and Death of Pier Paolo Pasolini is veering about as far as possible from the methods and objectives of its subject. Where's the subversion? Where's the shock effect? Where's the breaking of taboos, the rubbing of noses in said breaking, the jolt of surprising and unforgettable images and ideas?
Now, I can't tell how much (if any) of the bite of Azama's play was denatured in translation and staging (Williamson is the director; her work strikes me as competent but not very inspired). But the fire in Pasolini's belly—the presence of which seems pretty much indisputable from the record of his accomplishments—is almost entirely absent here.
Drew Cortese, in the title role, comes close to finding it, though, with really passionate readings of the lengthy monologues in which Pasolini justifies himself, to us, and to himself. I wouldn't mind seeing this actor tackle this complex man in a play more worthy of both of them. The rest of the cast members are less successful: Ian Oldaker is generally effective as Pelosi, except he looks to be just about the same age as Cortese (Pasolini was 53 when he was killed); Dan Domingues has almost nothing to do in the underwritten role of Ninetto; and Aulisi, as half-a-dozen different versions of "Those Against" (as he's billed in the program), works hard to distinguish one from the other with only pale results.
I was excited to see a play about Pasolini: I don't know much about him, and I'm eager now to learn more. But I found that my curiosity was much better satisfied by my Googling after the show than by anything gleaned from the show itself.