When does indignation become resignation? Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò: 120 Days of Sodom bludgeons you with such gratuity that you don’t feel anything but helpless
“All things are good when taken to excess,” concludes the creepy, officious bishop when signing off a masterplan proposing the capture and torture of eighteen innocent teenagers. Sharing the table in his shadowy lair are three sinister co-signatories, a duke, a magistrate and a president. Together the quartet govern the Republic of Salò, the last bastion of Italian Fascism in the final days of the Second World War. They have decided to enjoy some seriously depraved fun, kicking things off by marrying each other’s daughters.
This is the dark prelude to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 film Salò: 120 Days of Sodom, a viciously pessimistic look at how sexual perversion is the ultimate expression of power. The opening scene is a cold and economical one, an apt overture to the repulsive events that follow. For Salo is a Marxist intellectual’s vision of evil as a sociological force, inflicted with calculating, sadistic extreme on an oppressed minority.
The plot is based on the book by notorious 18th century French libertine the Marquis de Sade and structured around the four parts of Dante’s Inferno: the Anteinferno, the Circle of Manias, the Circle of Shit and the Circle of Blood. The four debauched caricatures (‘characters’ would be far too kind) begin their spiral into hell by rounding up nine young men and nine young women with the clinical efficiency of concentration camp capos, before subjugating them to an impeccably regimented ordeal of defilement in a plush Italian villa.
Process and form
Over the course of two long cinematic hours, the youngsters are degraded, sodomised, forced to bathe in and eat shit, then tortured to death. If this sounds gratuitous, that’s because it is. And it’s why some critics have dismissed Pasolini’s last film as a perverted work of gay pornography and not the sincere, artful and only partially successful polemic it actually is.
A staunch Communist, Pasolini deplored how authentic Italian culture was being destroyed by what he saw as a pernicious mass consumerism.
Admittedly Salò does have the stylistic hallmarks of a flesh show: the single locale, the group of attractive people, the one-dimensional plot, the elaborate sexual configurations. Yet eroticism is the last thing on your mind: the solitary moment of sexual tenderness is mercilessly ended by gunshot. Rarely does Pasolini indulge in sensual close-ups either, preferring wide panoramas, formally-composed tableaux and a cold, clinical tone that borders on the surgical.
Process and form are everything in Salò. Precious little is done to explain the motivation of the torturers, save for the fact that they are men in power, and this is what men in power will do. Equally inscrutable are the victims themselves, who rarely emote or speak, reduced to homogenous lumps of malleable flesh meekly submitting to their appalling fate.
A lament for a lost generation
A staunch Communist, Pasolini deplored how authentic Italian culture was being destroyed by what he saw as a pernicious mass consumerism. This new kind of Fascism was degrading spirituality and individuality, he believed, a sickness symbolised in Salò by the young captives wallowing in and re-digesting their own filth. More than a critique of Mussolini’s dictatorship, Salò is a lament for this lost generation too, and a depiction of how humanity is consuming itself through perverse appetites.
The same criticism can be levelled at the movie too. Salò is so overpowered by the malignant authority at its heart that it begins to feel like the work of the very Fascists it sets out to condemn. Resignation and acceptance are the film’s signature tones. Pasolini bludgeons you with such gratuity that by the end you don’t feel anything but helplessness: a numb spectator witnessing the end of civilisation itself.
Rumours (and eyewitness accounts) persist that (Pasolini’s death) was meted out by a group of thugs dispatched by those dark authority figures who’d once denounced him as a ‘corrupting homosexual’
No sense of resistance or counter-argument is offered, an odd stance for such a fiercely political filmmaker. I’d swap all of Salò for that one quiet scene in Pasolini’s 1964 masterpiece The Gospel According to Matthew, where a sleeping King Herod writhes with nightmares of guilt, a haunting depiction of what power can do to people. There was resilience and belief in that film. But that was in Pasolini’s younger days, when he was more idealistic, more hopeful and less disillusioned.
The moment of death
A few weeks before Salò’s release, the director’s corpse was found in the Italian coastal town of Ostia. The official (long-disputed) verdict is that he’d made sexual advances to a young man who, supposedly out of self-defense, ran over Pasolini several times with the director’s own Alfa Romeo. Autopsy pictures tell a different story though: one of prolonged, deliberate sadism.
Rumours (and eyewitness accounts) persist that it was meted out by a group of thugs dispatched by those dark authority figures who’d once denounced Pasolini as a ‘corrupting homosexual’. Perhaps they even planned it with the same unnatural malice as the four libertines at the start of Salò, a scene which feels more like an ending than a beginning.
“It is only at our moment of death that our life, to that point undecipherable, ambiguous, suspended, acquires a meaning,” Pasolini once said. Far from being his best film, Salò is still a profoundly unsettling one, serving as a sad yet strangely appropriate epitaph for a great filmmaker tragically engulfed by the relentless brutality around him.
An Introduction to Pier Paolo Pasolini Chris Fennell, BFI, 27 February 2017
The Film That Truly Shocked Me Joe Bish, Vice 9, December 2014
Who really killed Pier Paolo Pasolini? Ed Vulliamy, The Guardian, 24 August 2014