There are few films as provocative as Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final twisted masterpiece Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom. Following Pasolini’s penchant for adapting established literature, the film uses the Marquis de Sade’s half-completed “120 Days of Sodom” as a fountainhead for the film’s depiction of deviant, perverse sexuality. Set in Salo, Mussolini’s brief second Fascist state, the film suggests its narrative as a dark political unconscious, although in practice, there is little to remind the viewer of these political implications. Instead, the viewer becomes fixated on the spectacle of sexuality made sinister, slowly adapting to the esclating sexual horrors depicted by the film until the finale seems a foregone conclusion. If anything, this gradual adaptation of the audience to the horror of the film’s content must be Pasolini’s final thesis on popular entertainment as exhibited here by the cinema. Though we initially react with horror to the graphic scenes of Salo, we also quickly allow ourselves to slip into the fiction, escaping our responsibilities to the moral order from which we come by supplimenting the new perverse order of the world that Salo offers. This is the cinema as a critique of cinema, for it is the identification and transition of the “real” spectator into the disembodied spectator of the cinema that allows the shedding of a moral order closely bound into our physical selves. Pasolini has claimed that parts of the film (such as the eating of feces) are commentaries on the consumption of mass produced food, and likewise we may see the consumption of the film as a similiar consumption of the perverse that indicts the viewer. We are the victims of our own appetites.
The Mythology of Salo
In every description I have ever read of Salo, be it the Criterion Collection box, the Netflix entry, or the wikipedia entry, claims are made about the film that position it as profane and provocative. It’s graphic nature is commented on far before any mention is made of plot, cinematographic style, or the acting. It has become an exploitation film, a document of somehting graphic that overtakes any depiction of narrative. In these descriptions, Salo seems to lack any content- it is simply a potently transgressive film.
Given this reputation, I have always regarded Salo with a mix of horror and awe. Because of its universal transgressiveness, I feared the film. Salo seemed to be nothing save an all-out assault on taboo and decorum- leading me to attribute the film a sort of mythical status. Salo, in my estimation, was a film that was transgression. Like the experience of the children in the villa, I felt sure that Salo would be a punishing assault on my social and psychological boundaries. I was sure, in short, that Salo was what cinema always promised to be: a full destruction of the self (this is what Siegfried Kracaeur wrote in Theory of Film). In this, Salo has often been hailed as a sort of divine film- it’s ultimate transgression is the transgression of the film-spectator separation, the one division cinema is never supposed to cross (right?).
Of course, the mythical status of Salo is also aided by the fact that Pasolini was killed just before it was released. His murder, a bizarre series of events, that have been speculated upon with much interest in Italy, sealed Salo’s semi-divine status with the blood of its architect. That Pasolini was unable to produce further films, or explicate this last film furthers the suggestion of conspiracy and enigma underlying the film. Perhaps in a story we might expect from Pasolini himself, the creation of such a transgressive film was a death sentence itself. What we get in this mythology is the collaps of the auteur back into his text, as the auteur becomes a part of the mythological fiction in which we regard the cinema.
The De-Mystificatio: Without Psychology, There is no Humanity
Unfortunately, Salo is by no means as powerful as it is reported. It is graphic, but it is also devoid of psychology, an omission my friend Harry Kashdan noted just after we finished the film. Filmed in Pasolini’s signature ‘fresco’ style, where all of the shots feel highly composed and stylistically balanced, the viewer lacks intimacy with the characters that prevents the psychologocial profiling of the story. So while we are witness to the nightmare of Salo’s sexual humiliation, we never precieve its psychological darkness. We, as viewers, are positioned like witnesses to a crime- we can only guess at the motive.
It is difficult to surmise what Salo would be like with a psychological interest. Imagine if we met the tortured children each night when they went to sleep, imagine if we penetrated theirs dreams: would they be further nightmares of sexual torture or dreams of escape, of football, of Christmas with their family?
Pasolini seems to have intentionally filmed Salo from this distance. Why? Is that he cares not for establishing the psychological duress of the characters, the psychological twists of the four men? Or is it his own homage to the style of cinema verite? A stylistic choice designed to deaden our sense of the fictiousness of the film?
The Silver Bullet of Relativism
It’s hard to say. Salo is not a particularly difficult film to watch, for we are always prepared for it. The silver bullet that kills the threat of Salo is the fore-knowledge that the film will be graphic. It has no foundation of normality, so we are contextualized within the perverse world of the villa rather than a larger social structure. And this prevents us from contrasting the perverse horror of the villa with a village of normality. We are already guests at the villa, and our sense of morals are relative.
If the villa is to be read as a symbol, it must be read according to its properties: its decadence makes a sign of the wealthy, its location high above the plane makes in an inassailable fortress, its separateness divides its reality from that of the rest of the Republic of Salo. Like the historic Republic of Salo itself, this villa is a charade, a game that is brief and separate from the reality of World War II. It is a utopia, a “no-place”. It is a puppet kingdom.
Politically, Salo is purely a metaphorical film. To try too hard to connect its deviant sexuality with Fascist tendencies is to miss the point- this is a political film in drag, a film that is dressed up like political film, but without any serious implications for political understandings of Mussolini, or Italy, or Fascists. Like a Disney movie, but for very different reasons, Salo is a timeless story. It bears witness to how relative our sense of morals are, and how quickly in isolation, we might revert to more base instincts and appetites. It offers a dim view of power- a suspicion of the powerful as the manipulative and the perverse, but how is that new?