It appears to me that there is still a tendency among reviewers and film scholars to regard Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final masterpiece, Salò o le 120 giornate de Sodoma (Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, 1975), as a “last testament” rather than a prelude to a new phase of work, which Pasolini, by all evidence, intended before he was savagely murdered by a gay hustler (and probably others – the facts of the case have never been resolved) near Ostia before Salò’s release. But it also seems not unreasonable to view Salò in such a fashion; it is hard to think of a film with a greater sense of finality, a dismissal of our civilisation, a shutting-down of all positive impulse. The film’s total pessimism seems to have been made more complete by the grisly death of it creator, the images of which seemed almost part of Salò’s text.
Pasolini intended Salò to constitute dismissals at several levels, and serve not merely as a meditation on European fascism (the town of Salò was the last outpost of Mussolini), although the film has much to say about the fascist mind of the past and perhaps, especially, the present. More important, the film is a devastating dismissal of the dream of sexual liberation represented by Pasolini’s extraordinary “Trilogy of Life” (Il Decameron [The Decameron, 1971], I racconti di Canterbury [The Canterbury Tales, 1972], Il fiore delle mille e una note [Arabian Nights, 1974]), because Pasolini doubted the potential of his own vision. He was especially contemptuous of the sexual liberation movement undertaken by late-60s international youth, viewing that aspiration as a bourgeois indulgence already compromised by capitalism. At the release of Arabian Nights, he published a statement that might be seen as a preamble to Salò: “First: the progressive struggle for democratization of expression and for sexual liberation has been superseded and cancelled out by the decision of consumerist power to grant a tolerance as vast as it is false” (1).
This remark suggests that Pasolini was at this point less a disciple of Gramsci, his early influence, than Herbert Marcuse, who emphasised late capitalism’s deceptive power in allowing the libido free reign through the device of repressive tolerance, recognising that Eros is better being allowed inverted private satisfaction rather than energising revolutionary action.
Pasolini’s intellectual despair is manifest in every image of this film, still difficult to watch after 40 years, in part because Salò’s extraordinary beauty works in counterpoint with the cruelty of its content. The film is most difficult because of its uncompromised premises about the fate of humanity under capitalism. Two of Pasolini’s previous films, Teorema (1968) and Porcile (Pigsty, 1969), act as preludes to the conclusive statement of Salò. Teorema argues that any life-affirming idea must shatter the depraved bourgeoisie totally, redeeming, perhaps, only the lower class. Porcile says that late capitalism/fascism is a reversion to barbarism. In Pasolini’s vision, capitalism is synonymous with fascism, capitalism a predatory force needing either the propaganda or the enforcement apparatus of the state. Those unwilling to accept this formulation must set his films aside.
As is well-known, Salò fuses Dante’s Inferno to Sade’s most notorious novel, thus uniting the dawn of Renaissance humanism with a work that, on one level, questions the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the modernity to follow, seeing all of it as a prelude to capitalism/fascism. Sade’s catalogue of perversities in The 120 Days seems to spoof the empiricism of the Enlightenment mind, as the accretion of data offers a void, a point beyond which its libertine protagonists cannot go, also suggesting that all human creativity has lead to nothing but its own cancellation. Contemplating the argument is difficult, especially if we recall that Sade’s novel was also used, with great sardonic wit, in the conclusion of Luis Buñuel’s L’Âge d’Or (1930), a signal work of the avant-garde, at a time when modernism had some force in challenging bourgeois authority. We might also recall, however, that fascism was very much on the rise when L’Âge d’Or was released. Hitler only a few years from assuming power. Modernism as an “adversarial” jab at power needs revisiting, certainly in the mind of Pasolini, who is preoccupied with capitalism’s power to co-opt art’s potential for encouraging liberationist impulses.
Pasolini is faithful to the contours of Sade, while using Dante to structure the film into its infamous Circles (Ante-inferno, Manias, Shit, Blood). Four hierarchs, or libertines, a Duke (Paolo Bonacelli), a Bishop (Giorgio Cataldi), a Magistrate (Umberto Paolo Quintavalle), and a President (Aldo Valletti) have fascist troops bring the local young people to their chateau, where they are told to abandon all hope. Church and State are represented as the poisons of society, an idea that becomes more political with Pasolini’s rendering of The 120 Days than Sade’s. One of the film’s most chilling moments is the shot of the four libertines seated at a table, in deep shadow, dressed in expensive business suits, signing and closing the book on their rules of misconduct (in one of many jabs at modernism’s assumptions, the Duke remarks that the hierarchs are “the true anarchists”). The actions of power are always conspiratorial, since the rulers’ premises are far too ghastly to be open to democratic process. The libertines act in shadow simply to hide their hypocrisy: they have no taste for the bourgeois mores they advocate.
The hierarchs strip the young people naked and humiliate, molest, sodomise, torture and kill them. The young (the future) are deprived of any solace; they are punished for praying, their captors contradicting the ideology they sell. Salò is insistent on the reduction of the human being to an object available for the entertainment of its owner, the subject’s value as producer and consumer now over.
Each Circle begins in a spacious salon painted a deep red, with portals on the sides, a large doorway facing us, and symmetrically framed by windows. The image recalls Renaissance composition; the Quattrocento is invoked many times through décor and iconography. Cultural history surrounds the horrors, as ageing, excessively-gowned, grotesquely-cosmeticised prostitutes tell lewd tales to arouse their employers. The whores’ narratives capture the essence of the pornographic male imagination; the male needs arousal before he imposes his will, and the female is an irrelevant functionary regardless of her willingness as employee.
Modernity is always complicit in the horrors. Avant-garde paintings cover the walls of a sitting room, much as they might serve as decorations in corporate boardrooms. The hierarchs take turns perching on a throne in this room, watching (with opera glasses) colleagues in a courtyard below, who cut out the tongues of the naked young people, gouge eyes, set genitals afire. (The scene has been the topic of countless papers on “spectatorship”, the gaze, and the like; it is useful to note that the hierarchs both watch and participate in the sexual violence, making the moment far more about power and subjugation than the mere stare of a media consumer.) On the soundtrack we hear the “veris leta facies” verse from Carl Orff’s popular Carmina Burana, a choice helping of kitsch from the music canon. The Nazis apparently loved the Carmina as accompaniment to beer-swilling, and for its pomposity; the preoccupation of the piece with “fate” and its capriciousness jibed with their apocalyptic ideology. In the Circle of Blood, Carmina Burana is horribly dolorous, accompanying the nihilism of the torments.
By far the most upsetting sequence is the Circle of Shit, perhaps simply because the representation of human faeces (the film convincingly uses chocolate and dough as a substitute) is a severe cultural taboo. Faeces reminds us that we produce waste, and that we are organic machines that turn to waste, a fact that bourgeois consumer society, with its overlay of Christian ideology, must avoid if the consumer is to live in denial of his/her mortality and keep on purchasing worthless goods. Faeces underscore Pasolini’s key premises about the fate of the human subject under capitalism/fascism, as the tortured young people are reduced to that which they must consume. Pasolini’s use of shit informs his sense of the more essential, commonplace aspect of the authoritarian mind, and our own confrontation with power on an everyday basis.
The Duke screams “Eat!” at a young, naked girl – who has just been humiliated for crying over her dead mother – for not eating fast enough a turd the Duke has just defecated on the salon floor. Pasolini asks us to meditate on the familiarity of oppression: the Duke’s shouts and taunts might be those of the schoolmaster, the boss, or the supervisor we have all experienced. Pasolini makes us acknowledge that we all eat shit at one time or another, and must say that we like doing so, the bosses often eating it with us (as the libertines do when they join their young prisoners for a shit banquet, power making it known that it acquiesces in the miserable social contract established). We also eat shit in late capitalist society merely by existing, in Pasolini’s argument. He emphasised in interviews that the industrial food of the 1970s constituted nothing but shit (though one could say that the film’s equation of shit with fast food is hardly explicit). We now live in 2014, where fast food defines food itself, its ugly joints cheek by jowl along every highway. Information and entertainment also figure in Pasolini’s argument. Corporate and state propaganda (advertisements and the “news”) constitute one form of shit in postmodern civilisation, the entertainment offered by television and blockbuster cinema another.
Some progressives, notably gay critics, have criticised Salò’s representation of homosexuality, relegated, so it seems, to the catalogue of “perversities”, with anal sex the form of intercourse prescribed by the sadistic libertines. Heterosexual intercourse figures as warm and consoling, the only way that people share genuine affection, therefore a practice the libertines want eliminated. A young man is shot for having sex with a maid. Andrew Britton argued that one could see a hatred of homosexuality not only here but also in Arabian Nights, Teorema and Porcile. Pasolini may have been a doubtful or self-hating gay man, but the evidence of his work tells us that he was supportive of sexual liberation at all levels, his negative pronouncements aside. The sex of the libertines in Salò is sex as subjugation and violence, the sex of a neurotic bourgeoisie that enjoys certain restricted pleasures in private, at the expense of other people, with an interest in preserving secrecy, fear, anxiety, and the privilege that gives to the bourgeois control of illicit pleasure. It has been noted that fascism represents the Id unchained, so long as the state is served; Goebbels defended (assisted by Cocteau) the huge nude statues by Arno Breker with the comment, “We are not prudes”. Still, there is no missing Salò’s association of anality with death, conforming to conservative views of the body.
In showing the reduction of the human being to an object, Pasolini seems faithful to Sade. But Simone de Beauvoir writes in her famed essay “Must We Burn Sade?” (cited in the film’s one-of-a-kind reading list in the opening credits) that Sade disapproved of the guillotine, viewing it as the Terror’s reduction of the person to an object, preventing an ongoing cycle of torment which, for him, is the purpose of the true libertine’s competition with a merciless Nature. Salò is mindful of Sade’s complaint, especially in its final image of two young fascist guards dancing to “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)”, the film’s opening theme, a silly paean to fetishism that makes sense as an accompaniment to a look at the fascist worldview, but also as a form of pop that Pasolini despised. The mindlessness of the moment, with the promise that this dumb acquiescence in horror will continue forever, is the film’s coda.
Considering this film’s unremitting negativity, it is reasonable to ask what is being affirmed. We must recall that this is the filmmaker who gave us the “Trilogy of Life”, and advanced Eros and life from the beginning of his cinema (obvious in Accattone’s  profound love of the discarded, the street hustlers of the slums). Pasolini uses the “Wir setzen uns Tränen nieder”, the exquisite finale of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, as the film’s main theme, music that Leonard Bernstein likened to a “sad lullaby”. So Pasolini’s negations in Salò must be read as the angry statement of a man who embraced so much, and who asserted life against tyranny, repression, death.
Salò o le 120 giornate de Sodoma/Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975 Italy/France 116 mins)
Prod Co: Produzioni Europee Associati/Les Productions Artistes Associes/United Artists Prod: Alberto Grimaldi Dir: Pier Paolo Pasolini Scr: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Sergio Citte, based on the novel by Marquis de Sade Phot: Tonino Delli Colli Ed: Nino Baragli, Tatiana Casini Morigi, Enzo Ocone Prod Des: Dante Ferretti Cost Des: Danilo Donati Mus: Ennio Morricone
Cast: Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle, Aldo Valletti, Caterina Borato, Elsa De Giorgi, Helene Surgere, Sonia Saviange