Unfinished Business

The title, in Italian, of Who Killed Pasolini?, Marco Tullio Giordana's new movie about the tawdry death of the poet and filmmaker, is Pasolini, Un Delitto Italiano. This translates literally as “Pasolini, an Italian Crime,” and it reveals that “Pasolini,” to Italians, now stands for a mysterious murder — a tabloid event — instead of a man and his body of work. It also embodies Giordana's main argument: that the killing was not a random bit of anonymous homosexual play gone wrong, but a political and cultural act tied to the very heart of modern Italy.

Giordana is an arguer — something like an Italian Oliver Stone, a man whose great cinematic purpose is to upend official explanations. His picture is a singular mix of polemic, speculative interpolation, forensic detective work, and courtroom drama; it artfully traces the wavering boundary that divides fact from fancy. And it makes ruthlessly clear Giordana's belief that for two decades the Italian government has suppressed crucial information about Pier Paolo Pasolini's murder.

The movie opens with a nighttime car chase — touchingly modest, by current Hollywood standards: just two small cars, and no crash or ricocheting bullets — that ends in the arrest of a young Roman hustler named Pino Pelosi (Carlo de Filippi). Pelosi can't explain why he's driving Pasolini's Alfa Romeo. The reason becomes clear the next morning, when Pasolini's battered body is found in a desolate quarter of Ostia, Rome's port in ancient times but, in the film, a shattered, near-lunar setting.

De Filippi has an utterly Roman face that looks as if it belongs on an ancient piece of silver, but it's his body that matters more. It's wiry and graceful, but there's not enough of it to make believable Pelosi's confession that he single-handedly subdued Pasolini, before finishing him off by accidentally running him down with the Alfa. The provocation? That Pasolini, after giving the punk a blow job, proposed to fuck him. Pelosi tells the police that Pasolini responded to his refusal to submit by threatening to ram a stick up his ass. It was just the two of them, the boy claims — conveniently, because he's a juvenile and, under Italian law, cannot be tried as an adult unless there is reasonable cause to believe that others were involved in the crime.

The (authentic) crime-scene and autopsy photographs of Pasolini's remains suggest a confrontation of unimaginable violence, not two men quarreling. Yet while the poet's corpse is a battered, bloody ruin, Pelosi's clothes are only slightly stained with blood, and his lone injury is a nick to the forehead — the result of the sudden stop the police forced him to make. To Inspector Pigna (Tony Bertorelli), the pieces don't make a satisfying picture.

Giordana devotes most of his courtroom scene — Pelosi's trial — to a forensic analysis of the slaying, and the proof that Pelosi could not have acted alone is overwhelming. The judges think so, too, and they convict the boy as an adult “with unknown accomplices.”

Who were they? Here Giordana veers into the surreal world of Oliver Stoneland. He sees a broad conspiracy among fascists, organized crime, street thugs, and government officials to silence those, such as Pasolini, who publicly criticized Italian government and society. A week before he died, Pasolini had accused the government of “unworthiness, misappropriation of public funds, price-fixing, [and] the disgraceful condition of schools, hospitals, and every other basic public institution.”

The fact that Giordana can't precisely finger those responsible for Pasolini's death doesn't mean he's missed the mark. Pasolini was a passionate, visionary social critic — and a man whose obsessive quest for sex with young men left him vulnerable, whether to prosecution, blackmail, or murder. In Italy as in many other places, killings in the world of anonymous homosexuality are not regarded as unusual, and they are treated indifferently by officialdom. The idea that Pasolini was offed by a surly trick, rather than silenced in a de facto political assassination, was an easy one to sell to a worldwide public conditioned to believe that sinful sex deserves, and gets, death. But Marco Tullio Giordana is a tougher customer, and his movie makes an irresistible counteroffer.

Mr. Holland's Opus is supposed to be an uplifting tale of a would-be composer who sacrifices his creative ambitions on the altar of public education, but it turns out to be an interminable exercise in hokiness whose climactic scene is like a home video of a middle manager's retirement party at Xerox.

Richard Dreyfuss plays the noble Glen Holland, an Elton John look-alike who launches his teaching career in 1965, just as the Vietnam War is intensifying. Holland is an amiably frustrated, mellow hack, and Dreyfuss, with his sharp edges, wears the role uneasily: He seems like a character who's bound to snap one day and show up in the teachers lounge with an assault rifle.

The screenwriter, Patrick Sheane Duncan, seems dimly to grasp that 30 years in the life of a music teacher at a provincial high school is not, on its face, the stuff of great drama, so he has taken the precaution of using American history from the '60s to the '80s as a backdrop, MTV-style. There are plenty of vivid celluloid snippets — Marine helicopters in the Mekong Delta, Bobby Kennedy at the Ambassador, Gerald Ford tripping down a staircase — accompanied by hip tunes.

These montages are history for the age of the TV commercial. They're nicely done, but as efforts to add texture they're as desperately silly as the rest of the picture. Duncan and the director, Stephen Herek, wield irony like a sledgehammer: Holland and his wife, Iris (a puffy and one-dimensional Glenne Headly), raise a son who's … deaf. Holland is an irritable and indifferent father, as the kid finally points out to him — but hey, he's got band to teach for fifth period, and his half-written symphony awaits on the piano at home.

Mr. Holland's Opus certainly means well. In fact, it doesn't mean anything else. Instead of a rich, real narrative and fully realized characters grappling with conflict, the movie bangs away smugly at its one note: more money and attention for the arts! It's the “Chopsticks” of propaganda.

Who Killed Pasolini? opens Fri, Jan. 19, at the Roxie in S.F.

Mr. Holland's Opus opens Fri, Jan. 19, at area theaters.

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