Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ‘Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom’ Makes a Mockery of Things

Viewers are acutely aware that Pasolini makes a mockery of things and went too far with Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. But too far, morally? Personally and psychologically? Politically? Somehow metaphysically?

Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom
Pier Paolo Pasolini
4 October 2011

My master’s master is also my own. We can only approach Criterion’s re-release of Pasolini’s 1975 masterwork (or final provocation, depending on the perspective) with fear and trembling. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s excruciating rendering of the Marquis de Sade, has provoked the kind of controversy we haven’t seen in literature since Olympia Press published Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita in 1955, or the Joyce pornography trial (United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, 1933). (The greatest English language works of the 20th century routinely fled to Paris for publication. Film followed suit.)

In Italy, Salò was banned on debut. Art-house audiences, lured by Pasolini’s lyrically erotic early seventies ‘Trilogy of Life’—Boccaccio’s Decameron (1971), Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1974)—reportedly left theaters in complaining droves: “It is ugly, ugly.” Salò, more or less consistently banished from Australia, was available in most western European countries (merci, France); Criterion’s 1998 US DVD release ran into legal conflict, and so forth. Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, has never been banned or cut in Sweden.

This new version boasts a far higher quality transfer than Criterion’s first release, cut short due to a rights battle with the Pasolini estate, but circulating among collectors for years, with $500 plus price-tags, as ‘the rarest DVD ever’. The re-packaging offers more than the included documentaries, interviews, and booklet of academic and personal essays by some of Pasolini’s famous and articulate fans. This new deluxe edition is really the last step in legitimizing the film—a process nearly completed by last fall’s Pasolini retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center—and granting Salò unshakeable high-art respectability.

The film, in the meantime, hardly ceases to inspire superlatives. In 2006 Time Out magazine voted Salò the ‘Most Controversial Film Ever Made’. Directors Michael Haneke and Catherine Breillat, among others, call it one of the best. Giuseppe Bertolucci, who made a well-known documentary about it, certainly considered it most indicative.

Most ages devour their rawest, most radically uncompromising poets. Pasolini’s career reads as a heartbreaking, stylized summary of the last century’s glamour and tragedy.

Little Pier Paolo began writing poetry at the age of seven, modeling himself after Arthur Rimbaud. In his teens, he expanded to Shakespeare, the Romantic poets, and Russian literature. At the University of Bologna, he studied philology and aesthetics and joined a film club. We can guess at the happiness of his family life: Pasolini’s father, an Army lieutenant, was locally famous for having once saved Mussolini’s life.

By 20, Pasolini was more or less a communist; by 22, he discovered his life-long predilection for tough working-class boys. Right before the end of WWII, he was drafted and imprisoned by the Germans; his younger brother, a partisan, was killed in an ambush. As early as 1949, Pasolini was expelled from the Communist party and lost his teaching position on charges of corrupting minors and performing obscene acts in public. He began writing novels, was sued by the Italian government over one, and by 1957 was working on Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. Portrait of the artist.

During the political ferment of the ’60s and ’70s, Pasolini managed to enrage both sides. He pointed out, for example, that in clashes between police and student rioters, the former were actual children of the working class, and the latter the bourgeoisie. At the same time, he was making films and finding an audience: Teorema played at the 1968 Venice Film Festival, and the ‘Trilogy of Life’ films found favor with a wider public. But Pasolini recoiled, dramatically renounced his earlier work, and with Salò began what he called his ‘Trilogy of Death’. He didn’t live to see Salò premiere in 1975.

Pasolini’s awful murder still haunts. Newspapers ran sensational photos of his mangled body, repeatedly run over by a car. The reputed killer was a 17-year-old he had tried to pick up: Michelangelo Antonioni thought he had been executed by one of his own characters. But after the alleged killer withdrew his confession in 2005, the investigation re-opened. Friends of the director have long claimed he was the victim of a contract killing, a government conspiracy—and these are just some plausible explanations.

Inseparable from the finished film, Pasolini’s death hangs over Salò’s every frame. As viewers, we are acutely aware that the director did go too far in some very real sense. But what exactly do we mean by that—too far, morally? personally and psychologically? politically? somehow metaphysically?—is less clear.

In 2008, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, still has the power to turn viewers into stone. And the context really has changed: today, the next installment of the Saw series can be expected to bring in over $60 million—a conservative estimate—in the US alone, and ‘torture porn’ is an accepted term at the box office. What bothers us in Salò isn’t so much the depicted rape and torture (formally distanced by today’s thriller standards) but the how of it.

Pasolini doesn’t play by the rules. There is no catharsis and hence no relief. There’s much less pleasure for the viewer here. No wonder Haneke loves him: Funny Games, in both Austrian and American versions (1997 and 2008, respectively), plays the same nasty trick, exposing the viewer as the lusting sadist while the director shakes his head with moral indignation somewhere off-screen. Whereas someone, or judging by ticket sales, an awful lot of someones, are deriving real pleasure from Saw.

A grimmer thought is that Pasolini—believing that with Salò’s extremes, he was producing an avant-garde art that could not be adapted and made palatable to late capitalist consumer culture—has been proven naïve. Give the studios lemons, and they’ll sell lemonade.

Salò, which opens with an utterly high-brow ‘recommended reading’ list, is based (very roughly) on the Marquis de Sade novel, reset in the Italian collaborationist Republic of Salò. Four ‘libertines’, representing pillars of bourgeois society (Duke, Bishop, Magistrate, and President) pledge to marry each other’s daughters. As some monstrous celebratory rite, they and various accomplices, including four sumptuously dressed old prostitutes who enflame the company with stories of perversion, retire to an isolated castle. Activities inspired by de Sade ensue.

In the prelude, Nazi officers help ‘collect’ nine teenage victims of each sex. Young men are also forcibly recruited: they will be the guards. The nearly instantaneous transformation of these young men into paradigmatic young fascists hits one of Salò‘s many raw nerves, a fragment straight out of the 20th century’s most nightmarish collective unconscious.

But one of these guards, his noble beauty positively searing the screen, figures in what is, to my mind, Salò‘s most vital scene. An escalating series of forbidden private erotic encounters ends with that guard caught in bed with a black maid. (In the prelude, we glancingly witness them do something like fall in love on sight.) Before both are executed, the guard leaps to his feet and, naked, gives the closed-fisted communist salute.

The executing libertine recoils visibly, a veritable vampire from the sign of the cross.

How anyone can watch this scene and not suspect Pasolini of hopeless, equally searing romanticism is beyond me. In Salò, the fascists never establish total control over life in the castle: moments of freedom may be brief and fatal, but they never fail to occur.

Reading the transposition of de Sade to WWII as a lucid political allegory (the formula offered by many is sexual sadism = political fascism) is far too facile. Such a reading ignores countless other glaringly planted signifiers: anachronistic discussions of class; Legers and other modernist paintings covering the castle walls; the increasingly experimental piano music. More pointedly, that formula wouldn’t make us nearly so angry.

In interviews, Pasolini added at least one more link to the morbid chain, so that sexual sadism = political fascism = the culture of late capitalism. For example, the director claimed coprophilia was a metaphor for the filth that consumers were made to devour routinely.

In de Sade’s novel, only the most aristocratic children interest the libertines, but Pasolini’s film thrives on class distinction. Salò’s children are defenseless not because the outside world is in chaos but are categorically defenseless within a remorseless hierarchy. A judge’s daughter is among the victims because the family has fallen on hard times. (Her father, let us guess, was unbribable.) There can be no hope for rescue by the forces of order because order itself is on the wrong side. The only freedom possible is short-lived, internal, and purchased at tremendous cost.

We move through three subsequent Dante-esque circles of hell, dread mounting: each scene is additionally frightening because the logic of the film dictates that things will only get worse. The prelude is followed by the circle of Manias, then of Feces, and finally of Blood. As in pornography (but also in picaresque novels, avant-garde stylizations of all kinds, political satire, and so on), narrative takes second place to a different logic of escalation.

Haneke’s fondness for Salò sheds new light on what I’ve thought of as ‘the Austrian problem’ in recent years. Most powerfully in Haneke’s brilliant rendering of Elfriede Jelinek’s 1983 novel, The Piano Teacher, it registers as a double blast of Austrian rage. This rage is self-directed, and the art it produces is white-hot: j’accuse in German. The recurring leitmotif is WWII and polite Austrian society’s attempt to white-wash over bloodstains. Jelinek, whose father was a Czech Jew, was raised in a Viennese Catholic convent school. Her prose tears aside veils and violates sacred spaces, shuddering with some of the purest, most contagious fury in contemporary fiction.

In Women as Lovers (1975), Jelinek sums up intimacy, sex, and marriage as follows: a young woman, hoping to replace numbing factory labor with husband-and-home life, ‘communicates’ with the young fellow about to impregnate her:

i need you and i love you, says brigitte. her hair shines in the sun like ripe chestnuts, love is the feeling that one person needs the other. i need you, says brigitte, so that i no longer have to go to the factory, because i don’t really need the factory at all. what i need is you and being near you. i love you and i need you.

Love is the emptiest signifier.

Unsurprisingly, one either reacts to Jelinek with sorrowful recognition or reflects back the anger. One member of the Swedish Academy resigned over her Nobel prize. He charged that her work was pornographic.

Before Jelinek, there was Thomas Bernhard. (Her comrade-in-arms in certain respects only: Jelinek was a Party member until 1991, whereas Bernhard denounces the catholic/ nationalist/ socialist Austrian state, for him interchangeable words.) Bernhard, whose work is gaining popularity in translation, was accused quite directly by Austrian critics and press of Nestbeschmutzer—literally, ‘one who dirties his own nest’. His stunts are legend: an Austrian State Prize for Literature acceptance speech so offensive it drove the Minister of Culture and half the audience from the room, and his will, forbidding publication in his native county for the duration of legal copyright. (Since contested.)

In an afterword to the 1983 novel The Loser, Mark M. Anderson concisely describes the conflict. Bernhard’s play Heldenplatz (Heroes’ Square), written to ‘commemorate’ the 50-year anniversary of Austria’s Anschluss with Nazi Germany, ends with the suicide of a Jewish professor (returned to Austria but broken by continuing anti-semitism). He throws himself from the window of his apartment overlooking Heroes’ Square:

…which not coincidentally is the square where thousands of cheering Austrians greeted Hitler in 1938 and which, also not coincidentally, is adjacent to the offices of Austria’s major politicians and the very Burgtheater where the play is performed…[in the final scene the hallucinating] professor’s mother hears recorded chants of ‘Sieg Heil’ that emerge from the wings (and as if from outside the theater)…But the audience hears them, and as we look about we realize that some of the elderly, elegant spectators must have been on Heroes’ Square in 1938 shouting those very words.

Next to these Austrians, Pasolini’s challenge—and the fury his work inspires—betrays a close family resemblance. The vehicle for expressing a certain truth is nearly identical: the unwelcome dredging up of unbearable national memories in a deeply complicit present.

Yet the shared sense of guilt crosses identity lines (my people were on the other side of that war; I’m a woman—it doesn’t help). Salò makes accomplices of us in implicit and formal terms. Readers of de Sade beware: it is one thing to see certain things in print and another entirely in moving image. By the film’s end, we look through the executioner’s eyes. Ut pictura poesis be damned.

We know what we’re getting into from the start, from the title and reputation of this film. Some kind of voyeurism brings us to Salò, and no excuse about art or painful self-improvement can shake the fact. Intellectual fascination, rather than gratified pleasure (one hopes), carries us through. But even that puts us more firmly in the camp of the libertines, impotent without the madams’ elaborate narratives. Modernist art and music in the castle mock our appetite for artistic sophistication. Is there anything we won’t devour? Or, in terms of the artist’s aporia: is there any way to talk about the problem without adding to it?

Auteur film in the late ’60s and early ’70s exploded with that anxiety. Two political satires of roughly Salò’s time, widely denounced as well as denouncing, offer a final slant of context: The first is Godard’s 1967 Le Weekend, which cast two well-known French television stars in a very darkly comic road trip through capitalism and revolution. A shock to earlier Godard fans, Le Weekend trips from scenes of mass road deaths to rape, patricide, and cannibalism. Godard described his films from this period as the “angry rattling of a metal cup against the bars of [his] cell”.

The other is the unfairly forgotten 1974 Sweet Movie by Dušan Makavejev. From the context of ‘third-way’ socialist Yugoslavia, Makavejev treats late communism with the same zest Godard and Pasolini bring to capitalism. For a taste, the sweet spot of Sweet Movie involves the sex murder of a sailor named Love Bakunin. He may well have been humming the Internationale.

The Criterion extras for Salò include three documentaries about the film: Salò: Yesterday and Today, Fade to Black, The End of Salò; additional new interviews; booklet with essays by Neil Bartlett, Catherine Breillat, Naomi Greene, Sam Rohdie, Roberto Chiesi, and Gary Indiana, and excerpts from Gideon Bachmann’s on-set diary.