Perhaps no other film in history has generated more controversy than Pier Paulo Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days Of Sodom. For some, it’s a complex work of art, and a brilliant commentary on fascism, consumerism, and the oppression and hypocrisy of ruling governments. For others, it’s nothing more than an expose of filth and perversion. Some viewers have even dismissed it entirely as trash cinema with an art-house label. It all depends on whatever your opinion might be, and what you’ve taken away from it. If you’ve seen this film, it’s more than likely left an impression on you. If you’ve at least heard about it, then you’re probably familiar with the reputation that precedes it. Interestingly enough, I came across an article not too long ago that debated whether or not it should be considered essential viewing.
When it comes to the term essential viewing, I think of a film that needs to be seen by any serious student or aficionado. I also think of something has importance as a work of cultural significance. Titles such as Citizen Kane, The Grand Illusion, 8 ½, Battleship Potemkin, Blood Of A Poet, and even The Birth Of A Nation all hold this acclaimed distinction. These are films that have left their mark on the history of celluloid, and a lasting impression on the world we live in.
The question that we must ask ourselves is whether or not Salo deserves that same distinction as the aforementioned titles. The answer, as far as I’m concerned, is yes. In order to gain insight into Pasolini’s final cinematic outing, it’s important that we start with the source material. The 120 days of Sodom is one of the most graphic and provocative books ever written. Penned by the Marquis de Sade during his imprisonment in the Bastille, it explores sexual deviation, extreme depravity, and the blatant abuse of power by the nobility of 18th century France. It’s a very poignant and honest depiction of what de Sade saw in the world around him. The story is about four upperclassmen, or ‘libertines’ who abscond to a private estate with 18 adolescent children, and some courtesans for the sheer premise of exploiting them for their own sexual gratification. It’s a journey into pushing the limitations of sadomasochism onto others, and the darkest aspects of human nature. There is no justification for their actions, and there doesn’t need to be. Simply put, they’re doing this because they can.
To commit this work to celluloid would be a daunting task for any filmmaker. Truth be told, it’s next to impossible when considering the content found within the text. Needless to say, it’s not a book for everyone, and there are parts that would make almost anyone feel uneasy. In its own way, the book breaks the proverbial fourth wall, and constantly addresses anyone who’s bold enough to go through the pages as ‘friend-reader.’ The book pulls you in, and continues to remind you that you’re taking place in a voyeuristic endeavor. A trait not lost in Pasolini’s film adaptation.
Much like the Marquis de Sade, Pasolini was an artist at odds with the world he was forced to exist in. He was a figure of controversy and possessed an enormous amount of intellectual prowess. An artist who had to be smarter than his enemies, he was a provocateur with a deep purpose. Catholic, communist, philosopher, poet, homosexual—these were all titles used to describe him at one point or another. At a time when consumerism and excess was on the rise, Europe needed an honest voice. As is the case with many philosophers, the message they carry isn’t the one that people necessarily want to hear, even if they need to.
Transporting de Sade’s work to fascist/Nazi-occupied Italy, Pasolini set out to address what his country was becoming, and the actions they had previously been a part of. It should be noted that while not being a literal interpretation, Salo captures the spirit and commentary of de Sade’s book, all the while being an independent vision. It’s a cold, honest look at what an artist sees in the world around them. A foray into the absolute worst aspects of humanity, it forces anyone watching to confront this reality, and all of the ugliness found within it. Whenever I watch this film, I find myself feeling punished in some way. Deep down inside, I feel that’s one of the films main intentions.
In retrospect, any filmmaker could have made a film about the Holocaust, and set it in the time period in which it happened. They could have shown the horrors of the camps, and genocide on a magnitude not seen before or since. However, the approach here is very different from what someone might expect. It addresses the main events in which cause it—complacency of a people, and the power in the hands that wield it.
(IE—In one of the film’s early scenes, it illustrates how the Nazis gathered victims. As the libertines begin to round up the adolescents, one is ambushed by what appears to be a undercover Gestapo agent, and another goes willingly into captivity, led by SS troopers while his mother protests.)
For someone obsessed with the torture porn sub-genre, many of the scenes involving sexual sadism might be dismissed as merely an excuse to shock. However, beneath the surface there’s a much deeper meaning to all of this imagery. It’s illustrating the abuse of power, and the exploitation of humanity. When Pasolini crafted his “Trilogy Of Life” (The Decameron, Canterbury Tales, and The Arabian Nights) he utilized sex to craft landscapes of erotica. Here, in the first instalment of what was to be the “Trilogy Of Death” it’s the oppression of the populous, and all forms of dignity stripped bare. Director John Waters accurately described it best as the “pornography of power.”
Speaking of the director’s earlier filmography, Salo manages to capture some of the aspects from two of his earlier works. In Porcile, (aka Pigsty), he criticized postwar Germany for its complacency with fascism, ridiculed the attitudes of the upper class, and the further growth of consumerist industry. It’s also a return to the early days of Italian neo-realism in some respects. Utilizing many non-professional actors, and shooting exclusively on location, it’s very reminiscent of one of his earliest films, Mama Roma.
In the film’s most infamous sequence, consumerism is exposed in its most barbaric form—in the shape of coprophilia. In a banquet organized by the libertines, victims and oppressors alike take part in a feast made of human excrement. Many film scholars have written a great amount about this particular scene, and its relevance regarding the general narrative. What I take away from it is this; it’s the act of being forced to become a consumer as well as a machine that keeps producing for the masses. (IE—The adolescents are forced to hold back from relieving themselves, in order to produce human waste for the feast. When one child can’t hold back from doing so, they’re viciously berated for it. Somewhat showing how human beings are often pigeonholed into their expected roles in society, and frowned upon for not conforming to its rigid standards.)
However, it’s the film’s conclusion that hammers home the theme of voyeurism, as well as its commentary on fascism. Throughout both the book and the film, we’re taken down a dreaded path that has no return, only an end. More than that, it’s the confrontation with the final extreme—death. As the viewing audience, we join in as the libertines partake in an exhibition of murder in a carnival like atmosphere. It’s how this final scene shifts its tone that strikes a chord with the viewer. As the inhumane festivities begin, the voice of Ezra Pound reading the cantos can be heard on a wireless. Pound, a poet convicted of treason after the war, reminds us of the time period that this is taking place in. Then, just as one shifts speeds on a record player, a solemn requiem begins, as we bear witness to human cruelty in its purest form. Much of this scene is shown through the binoculars of the different libertines, who take turns in enjoying the macabre spectacle.
Pasolini seems to be scolding his countryman at this very moment; “This is what your actions led to.” We, the audience are just as guilty as the executioners. We’re reminded as a society we often times stand by and do nothing, even in the face of unspeakable evil.
One could easily make the argument that this film is a reactionary statement, and they wouldn’t be too far off from the truth. It’s one of the many reasons why Salo is so important, and still applies to many events facing the modern society we live in today. We can’t go more than five feet without hearing about war and oppression in some far off distant land, and for many of us, it’s hard to fathom such things from our comfort zone. Here, our comfort zone is completely abolished, and were forced to confront reality. Just like the two soldiers sharing a waltz at the very end, we find ourselves easily distracted from such things, especially when it doesn’t involve us personally.
Is Salo essential viewing? Absolutely. Despite its content, it should be remembered as bold statement from one of the cinemas most important figures. There’s always going to be lengthy discussion regarding this film, and the viewpoints that so many different people have. Whatever these might entail, its place in history, as well as its legacy is undeniable.
“There is nothing more anarchic than power. Power does what it wants” – Pier Paulo Pasolini