Pasolini—Abel Ferrara’s murky recreation of the last few days in the life of the iconoclastic Italian writer and filmmaker, who was murdered in 1975—is a flawed film of unvarnished integrity (Grade: B). Traditionally, biopics about people who met violent ends treat their subjects’ deaths with a combination of foreshadowing and elision (e.g. Diana drives into the tunnel, the viewer hears a sound effect, and then is shown a funeral), effectively conflating demise with destiny and turning the end of a person’s life into something so inevitable that its circumstances don’t have to be shown. But there’s no way for a movie to treat Pasolini’s death obliquely or tastefully without also betraying him, so Ferrara’s depiction of his brutal murder (he was beaten unconscious and then run over with a car) is unflinching. Ferrara—best known for dirty New York tragedies like Bad Lieutenant and King Of New York—has a habit of identifying with and then destroying his protagonists. Though he clearly idolizes Pasolini and identifies with his worldview, he avoids turning him into a self-destructive stand-in. Pasolini’s death is tragic not because he was a tragic figure, but because it represents the meaningless end of something meaningful.
Aside from an early scene of Pasolini preparing for the release of his final film, Salò, Or The 120 Days Of Sodom, Ferrara makes no reference to his subject’s best-known works, instead focusing on the projects he was working on at the time of his death. He paints Pasolini—and “paints” is the right word, considering Ferrara’s fondness for chiaroscuro lighting and portrait-like close-ups—as a public intellectual struggling with the world and as an artist perpetually at work, dictating letters, accepting editors’ deadlines, retyping drafts, and holding meetings. As played by longtime Ferrara collaborator Willem Dafoe, he is magnetic but delicate, confident but not self-centered, swaggering around in a leather jacket with his sensitive eyes hidden behind sunglasses. About half of the movie is taken up with scenes from its subject’s unfinished work, including sequences from his final screenplay, Porn-Theo-Colossal, featuring real-life Pasolini regular Ninetto Davoli. The result is occasionally wonky (Dafoe, an Italian citizen, speaks most of his dialogue in English, while the rest of the cast sticks mostly to Italian), but all of its shortcomings are guided by a clear sense of purpose.
Pasolini is one of those imperfect movies that’s more admirable than many more fully realized ones. In some respects, it’s a readymade example of the film maudit—the “damned film” of old-school cinephilia, the movie worth fighting for. Five days deep into TIFF, I find myself periodically recalling moments from Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden, which I briefly wrote about earlier: the often dickish protagonist, Paul, breaking down into tears after hearing about a friend’s suicide; the New Year’s Eve party where a young Daft Punk put on their own single for the first time, the camera locked firmly on them as they try to play cool; one character’s rousing defense of the ultimate modern-day film maudit, Showgirls. (Hansen-Løve spent a spell as a critic for Cahiers Du Cinema, a magazine partly founded on the notion of the film maudit, and its values never seem far from her mind; when I interviewed her this weekend, she described the first 240-page draft of Eden’s script as “the Heaven’s Gate of house music.”)
One of the reasons I watch movies is for moments where I am able to feel or better understand something that exists outside of my experience; I got that from Pasolini’s lengthy cruising scenes and Eden’s depictions of 1990s club life, but I can’t think of a single similar experience I had while watching Hill Of Freedom, which I’d rate as more perfectly accomplished than either. These kinds of responses are mostly personal, but they make useful guideposts for a critic; figure out the underlying quality that made them possible, and you might just uncover some essential truth about the film itself.
Of course, the atmosphere of festivals and the quick-turnaround culture that exists around them makes any kind of real critical work—the stuff that deals with mixed feelings—challenging. Adding to the difficulty level was the fact that my fourth and fifth days at TIFF consisted, almost exclusively, of underwhelming-to-outright-bad movies by favorite filmmakers, the only exceptions being Pasolini and Ned Rifle.
Hal Hartley’s first proper feature in 8 years (Grade: B+) finds him returning for the second and presumably final time to the characters of Henry Fool, the sprawling 1997 tragicomedy that’s the closest thing the indie stalwart has produced to a magnum opus. Like its predecessor, the global paranoia send-up Fay Grim, Ned Rifle is centered on one character’s search for Henry, the trickster, conman, and self-styled raconteur played by Thomas Jay Ryan; this time, it’s his son, Ned (Liam Aiken, who’s been playing the role since he was 6), a teenage born-again Christian who is convinced that it’s his duty to kill his father.
The movie, which is less formally outrageous than any of Hartley’s 2000s work, is undoubtedly designed to please the writer-director’s fans, with the returning cast—Ryan, Aiken, James Urbaniak, Parker Posey—joined by Hartley regulars Martin Donovan, Bill Sage, and Robert John Burke. (Meanwhile, Aubrey Plaza fills in the big-eyed gamine role previously occupied by Adrienne Shelly, Elina Löwensohn, and Sarah Polley.) Sure, it’s all shtick, but the thing is the shtick is too peculiar and personal—a writerly non-realism built on choreographed movement around a stationary camera and a variety of motifs and devices borrowed from ’60s and ’80s Godard—to ever register as hackneyed. Repeating himself without ever lapsing into self-parody, Hartley has made a movie that will seem awfully familiar to his fans, but which also looks, sounds, and moves like nothing else on the current American indie landscape.
I wish I had similarly nice things to say about Foreign Body (Grade: D+), a risible, boneheaded Big Issue soap opera that also happens to be Polish writer-director Krzysztof Zanussi’s first new feature since 2009’s self-referential Revisited. Zanussi—one of the great underseen filmmakers of the 1970s and 1980s—has long traded in overtly Catholic themes and subjects; here, however, religion has ceased to be a means for better understanding life, and becomes an end in and of itself. The sense of inquiry that once defined Zanussi’s work has been replaced with sentimental self-righteousness; the sharp observations about the search for personal and divine meaning have been swapped out for smug tautologies, third-act miracles, and a pansexual villain who literally begs to be converted.
Said villain is arguably the only interesting thing about the movie. Played by Agnieszka Grochowska—who looks and behaves like a cross between Juliette Binoche and Eva Green, and has Binoche’s booming laugh—and dressed in a variety of slacks and collarless shirts rolled up to mid-forearm, she resembles a kind of caricature of Lene Winter, the stylish sourpuss played by Nina Kunzendorf in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, the best of TIFF’s world premieres. Festivals tend to create patterns and echoes in the viewer’s mind; sometimes, these result in unflattering comparisons. Gorchowska’s character, Kris, serves a similar purpose to Lene, presenting a counterpoint to the protagonist; as a result, Zanussi’s writing seems even more embarrassingly heavy-handed. Similarly, the mostly English dialogue spoken by Foreign Body’s Italian, Polish, and Russian cast seems painfully clunky in comparison to Hong Sang-soo’s Hill Of Freedom, in which the Japanese protagonist is forced to rely on his slightly awkward English to communicate with the various people he encounters in Seoul.
I was disappointed, but not dispirited, by Johnnie To’s romantic comedy Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2, an uncharacteristically weak effort from the prolific, genre-jumping Hong Kong director. (Grade: C, bordering on a Jersey Boys C+.) Though best known Stateside for his action flicks and crime movies, To has been making romances and comedies since the beginning of his career, and his body of work includes some of the finest rom-coms of the last decade, including the pickpockets-in-love flick Sparrow and the original Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.
Though it boasts the kind of zany plotting familiar from To’s other collaborations with screenwriter and occasional co-director Wai Ka-Fai, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart lacks the firm sense of form that has long distinguished the work of its director and his production company, Milkyway Image. Working in digital for the first time—and without his longtime cinematographer, Cheng Siu-keung—To has made an uncharacteristically flat-looking movie. Still, mediocre movies by great filmmakers tend to have one or more great sequences; in this case, it’s a comic set-piece in which widespread flight cancellations cause all of a philandering executive’s stewardess mistresses to show up at his office at once.
Unfortunately, there are no great sequences in The 50 Year Argument (Grade: D+), a promotional circle jerk about The New York Review Of Books co-directed by Martin Scorsese. (Not that you can tell; the movie’s only flourish of personality comes at the end, which cuts in clips from the final scene of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451.) The film—if it could be called that—consists of 97 minutes of testimonials about how the NYRB has always been on the right side of history. It has noble intentions, but seems aimed more at subscribers than viewers; it’s never a good sign when a movie’s most visually and dramatically compelling moment is a three-minute clip from The Dick Cavett Show.
Claire Denis’ short acting experiment Voilà L’Enchaînement (Grade: B-) finds the French filmmaker ditching her usual immersive style, instead presenting a series of conversations between a couple—played by Norah Krief and Alex Descas, the latter a longtime member of Denis’ regular company—in an abstract space dominated by a gray backdrop. Denis’ great gift lies in her ability to visualize the unspoken through editing and composition; this talky piece is a rare showcase for her considerable talent for directing conventional dialogue. It’s a decidedly minor work, but still sharp in its observations about how relationship dynamics can uncomfortably overlap with issues of class and race.