Pasolini’s Salò   1 comment

Trigger warning: I’m about to discuss a difficult film about sexual and other violence; I won’t be too explicit, but proceed with caution if you proceed at all.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1976) is one of the most notorious films ever made. Pasolini took an equally notorious text by the Marquis De Sade and moved its setting from 18th Century France to World War II Italy—the town of Salò, from which Mussolini ran his Nazi puppet state in its waning days. The plot: four representatives of power (governmental, aristocratic, financial and religious) kidnap several teenagers and torture them in a variety of sadistic (hey, I wonder what the etymology of that word is) ways. The four Libertines (as De Sade called them) conscript more teenage boys to be armed guards, enslave their own teenage daughters as serving girls, and employ three elegant middle-aged madams as storytellers, to tell the assembled victims and torturers tales of their childhood entries into prostitution (these tales clearly indicate child abuse of the worst sort imaginable, but are recounted as if cheerful memories), all for the inspiration of the torture to follow.

I can hear you all rushing to add this to your Netflix queues. Kidding aside, I want to be clear: I do not recommend this film for most people. DO NOT WATCH THIS MOVIE. Its ability to shock has perhaps dimmed a bit by today’s standards, but it is still very unpleasant to watch (despite being visually beautiful in some ways—Pier Paolo knew how to compose a frame). Indeed, until recently I had no plans to ever see Salò.

A year ago the only Pasolini film I had seen was The Gospel According To Saint Matthew, his lovely and moving post-Neorealist dramatization of Jesus’ teachings.  I was well aware of Salò‘s reputation, and was intrigued, but not at all enough to warrant slogging through 2 hours of torture. But then I watched Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life (The Decameron [1971], The Canterbury Tales [1972], and Arabian Nights [1973]), each of the three films a joyful, transcendent masterpiece. I had to see more of his work, and for some reason I felt compelled to begin with what was chronologically next in his canon, Salò. I wouldn’t watch today’s “torture porn” horror movies with binoculars on a ten-foot pole, but Gospel and the Trilogy told me that Pasolini had something to say and a visual poetry with which to say it.

Why did Pasolini follow the colorful, life-affirming, sex-positive vision of the Trilogy of Life with the dark, cynical horror of Salò? Why did he swap the naked revelers of his medieval epics for the naked victims of Fascism? At least part of the reason seems to be in his reaction to the trend those films began. The success in Europe of the Trilogy inspired countless imitators, and a whole genre of soft-core pornography, period films that mimicked the sex and nudity of Pasolini’s films without the art.  Pasolini was outraged: in interviews during Salò‘s production (clips from which are included in the 2+ hours of documentary materials on the outstanding Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray), he rails against the commodification of human beings, including—but certainly not limited to—what he saw in the poor copies of his Trilogy of Life. In updating De Sade’s Revolutionary France to Fascist Italy, Pasolini gives us a more recent context in which we can imagine such horrors taking place, and yet he clearly suggests they were taking place—metaphorically if not literally—in his contemporary time: the mid-1970s. The Libertines, Pasolini is saying, are us, treating beautiful young people as objects.

And what would he make of today’s world? Does Salò serve as a prescient metaphor for Reality TV and celebrity worship?  Is it a literal analog for sex trafficking, or the sweatshops in which our clothing and electronics are manufactured? What about the body count of innumerable, endless wars and easily-preventable gun violence? And surely as a longtime Marxist, Pasolini would be horrified at the extent to which Free-Market Capitalism has prevailed and made so many people victims to wage theft, and the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor.

In fact, in the short time since I watched this film, I have read several blogs, articles, and Facebook statuses similarly railing against the commodification of human beings. And the NY Times a week ago published an editorial called “Capitalism Eating Its Children”; cf. an early line in Salò: “…The Bourgeoisie has never hesitated to kill its children.” The world is still very capable of resembling Salò.

There are two moments that particularly haunt me as I remember the film. The first is relatively early: one of the teenage girls (perhaps the most tortured character in the film, and the only one of the victims with a backstory, making her the most sympathetic—her mother died attempting to save her from being kidnapped by the Libertines) is being abused by one of the madams/storytellers, and she flings her arms around the older woman, clinging to her for the rest of the scene. It’s heartbreaking, even sickening: she reaches out for comfort from her abuser.

The other is when one of the guards is caught sleeping with a household maid. Because they have forbidden “normal” sexual relationships, the Libertines draw guns to shoot him immediately. But to their shock—the only thing in the film that shocks them at all!—he, naked and unashamed, raises his fist in a Communist salute. In a film in which the power dynamic is largely the clothed against the naked, here is a guard, bereft of the uniform that gave him his power, now siding with the oppressed. It is the only time in the film that a naked person asserts his own will.

These two moments—one of heartbreaking innocence, the other of doomed defiance—suggest to me that the vision of humanity Pasolini depicted in the Trilogy still persisted in his mind. Perhaps I’m grasping at straws, but I don’t believe he had given up on us.

Sadly, Salò was Pasolini’s last film; he was murdered shortly before the film’s release. We can only imagine what other films he might have made. Some close to him have said that Pasolini intended Salò to be the first installment in a “Trilogy of Death.” But he had also written a screenplay based on the life of St Paul, which will be published in English soon; I look forward to reading it. Meanwhile, I’ll be catching up on more of his early films…

I do recommend the Trilogy of Life, and very highly, but not for everyone: while the three films are predominantly joyful, playful and optimistic, they are not without some violence. And in case I haven’t made it clear: they have a TON of sex.

One response to “Pasolini’s Salò

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  1. Pingback: No Motherless Children | Brother Scott Michael Pomerenk, n/BSG

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