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How does one measure the impact of Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom?
When Salò was new the Los Angeles theater that dared show it barely advertised; the word spread around town like some horrible secret. For any viewer of normal sensibilities, its shock value was completely off the chart -- it wasn't pornography, it was something much stronger. Ironically, today's horror and torture-chic fans might not think much of it, a thought that appalls this reviewer -- and fits in perfectly with Pasolini's pessimistic opinions about modern culture as a commercial cesspool that reduces human beings to a commodity that can be bought and sold.
The Marquis de Sade put his most inhuman and licentious ideas down on paper as a way of scandalizing and mocking the intelligentsia of his day, of committing literary subversion against the power system. Pasolini's film aestheticizes the unthinkable. Repulsed viewers will be forgiven if they interpret Salò itself as a source of Evil. It's dangerous stuff. Perhaps that's why the concept of Taboo was invented.
Salò is of course highly political. It's set in the last months of Benito Mussolini's 'second government' when the Germans brought Il Duce back to run a puppet Fascist state in the North of Italy. Cornered Fascists continued murdering and torturing partisans when they could catch them. Pasolini uses this horrible situation to restage Marquis de Sade's tale about a group of depraved libertines that hole up in a castle to amuse themselves by degrading, torturing and murdering a number of young victims. In De Sade's perverse logic, his libertines are just imitating God's work on Earth -- causing pointless suffering and misery.
Pasolini made Salò as an extreme expression of his fury and despair at the world. The student 'revolution' of 1968 had come to nothing and the same conservative, exploitative forces were firmly in power everywhere. Pasolini was a confirmed Communist and conducted a rather risky homosexual life. He was greatly admired by intellectual leftists in the Italian film industry. His The Gospel According to St. Matthew, a devout film about the life of Jesus, was honored worldwide. Pasolini filmed his passion play with simple peasants instead of movie stars, emphasizing teachings over miracles.
While Salò was being dubbed for foreign markets, its director was brutally murdered, beaten to death in an ambush. Made to look like a crime perpetrated by a gay pickup, evidence suggests a conspiracy by right-wing thugs. (See the fair-minded biography Whoever Says the Truth Shall Die.) Salò was banned in Italy. It was screened in a French festival in such a way that Italian supporters were not allowed to make statements. Pasolini never got the chance to see his film premiered or defend it to a hostile press. Sensational news attention guaranteed that the grotesque horrors of Salò would forever be directly associated with Pasolini's brutal murder.
Pasolini instead carefully limits our point of view. The only characters developed in detail are the inhuman libertines, all authority figures -- a nobleman, church representative, banker, etc.. The ritualized cruelties at the remote villa begin with the libertines cynically marrying each other's daughters, as in initial affront to bourgeois decency. The victims, all sons and daughters of anti-Fascists and dissidents, are from mostly well-to-do backgrounds and have been rounded up by Mussolini's secret police, with the help of the Germans. Group denial makes the victims obedient players in a game dictated by the libertine monsters. In most cases the victims passively accept whatever outrages are committed, at least until they are targeted individually.
Pasolini allows the victims' hopeless suffering no special sympathy. They readily betray one another in a hopeless search for security. Pasolini consistently frustrates our search for anyone in whom we can invest our emotions, leaving us to view everything from the point of view of the pitiless libertines.
The victims spend much of the movie nude and vulnerable. In Pasolini's previous three "human celebration" films (The Decameron is one) nudity was presented as beautiful and healthy. Salò offers no outlet for our anguish. The pale, trembling victims quiver in numbed shame, and considering what is in store for them, eventually wish they had no bodies to be punished. Pasolini reserves the only gesture of defiance for a proud young man caught having forbidden heterosexual sex. Before he is shot down, he raises his fist in a Communist salute. 1
Each night of humiliation begins with a formal gathering in the salon. Several 'hostesses', aged prostitutes and madams in beautiful hair and gowns, tell stories of sexual depravity. As in the de Sade novel, the libertines speak at length of their philosophy and explain the perverse rules that classify their captives as human garbage suitable only for degradation. Given official approval to dispose of the condemned in any way they please, they entertain their sadistic fantasies as if on a mission of self-discovery, and exult in every vile or disgusting thing their minds can imagine. The movie shows it all happening, albeit with substitutions for bodily excretions and elaborate makeup for the abominable mutilations.
Enforcing the outrages is a small corps of machine-gun toting male guards that double as homosexual partners for the libertines. The guards are swept up in the illogical death wish as well, as seen in the final chapter. Pasolini gives the audience no identification surrogates. Every individual is either a pitiless oppressor or a doomed victim. There's no sense of humor, especially not in the libertine's wretched jokes. The movie is emotionally as cold as ice. It is not by any means sexy, quite the opposite.
Four baleful inter-titles mark the film's major chapters: Antechamber of Hell, The Circle of Obsessions, The Circle of Shit and The Circle of Blood. As each title comes up, one can feel a shiver of dread go through the audience. After some preliminaries, the final act settles into a finale that might be taking place in Hell. Pasolini distills the essence of the infamous Marquis' cruel philosophy. The victims are tied up and staked out in a sandlot outfitted like a Roman torture arena. The 'torture master' is even dressed in a perverse costume, like something out of an ancient epic. There's no apparent audience. The victims are held tight while they're raped and mutilated, and killed with knives, ropes, and hot irons. It's circus of horrors complete with unbearably realistic makeup effects.
The clincher is that the libertine observers are fifty yards away, watching from behind windows. They use opera glasses to view close-ups of the worst atrocities. At that distance, with loud music playing, they can't hear the cries and screams from the arena. Death is placed at a discreet remove for the comfort of the observer -- like Television with the audio turned down. This perverse setup reminds of the voyeuristic horrors of Psycho or Peeping Tom, "civilized" genre movies constructed on sick ideas. Because we also are morbidly curious, because we also want to see, Pasolini implicates us in the Sadean experience. We're locked into the horrible beauty of the images, the faces of the victims in extremis and the leering, horrid faces of the libertines -- and Pasolini gives us no "out." There's nowhere else to turn, no resolution and no escape.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom challenges most of the accepted definitions of film quality. Can a movie so transgressive be a masterpiece as many critics claim? Because most people will see Salò without knowing much about Pasolini or his politics, those championing the film might appear to be elitists who have lost contact with reality -- "suspect intellectuals" trying to pass off excrement as art. Pasolini doesn't fit into that common assumption. One of the film's Fascists says that he hates being associated with idiots generalized as "the people"; Pasolini is known for his understanding and sympathy for peasants and Roman street hustlers. 2
But average "bourgeois" audiences associate content like that in Salò with extreme exploitation fare: pornography, Herschel Gordon Lewis gore pictures, modern Torture Chic horrors. Taboo underground films exist that extol just about every human perversion imaginable, both real and fake. This is an art film by a filmmaker who believes in his theme and chooses clarity over cinematic style. Pasolini wanted an ultimate expression of disgust and despair, and by and large achieved it. Salò is not the kind of movie that will find critical consensus or acceptance. Not anywhere.
Criterion's DVD of Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom looks better than ever, with enhanced encoding and a wide 1.85:1 transfer finally making readable the action in Pasolini's many wide shots. Color is intense and the grain is under control. A reader has uncovered what looks like a short missing part of a scene, however. 3 Ennio Morricone's music is sparse but sounds good on the clear Italian track (a grating English dub is provided as well). Most of the film's music is played on a piano or heard on a radio.
Disc Producer Kim Hendrickson has located and fashioned featurettes that make a strong case for Salò as great art. Salò Yesterday and Today uses clips of Pasolini and other speakers. Behind The Scenes footage of the shooting shows that the director often operates his own camera. Fade to Black makes a more direct critical case for the film, with Bernardo Bertolucci and others remembering the specifics of its premiere and festival showings under the cloud of the director's untimely death. In The End of Salò the film's still man explains that he recorded Pasolini's atrocities seriously because he was aware of ongoing torture happening in his native South America. Stills of unused scenes show a female victim apparently being electrocuted. Pasolini's unused original scripted ending is presented as well. This last featurette and an especially insightful solo interview with Jean-Pierre Gorin make the best case for Salò as an artist's masterpiece. Designer Dante Ferreti also appears in an informative new interview.
The fat 80-page insert book takes the critical defense of the film into overkill mode. Neil Bartlett, Catherine Breillat, Naomi Green, Sam Rohdie and Roberto Chiesi weigh in, with Gary Indiana summarizing the arguments in his BFI tome. Gideon Bachman contributes excerpts from his diary kept on the film's set.
I can't help but think that Criterion's timing for the reissue of an improved Salò was motivated by current outrage over our administration's acceptance of systematic torture as 'no big thing.' There is a direct relationship between our present political realities and this "abominable" film from 1975. 4
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. So Pasolini's reserves a "defiant" moment to single out a naked Communist, whose dying gesture may or may not be futile. Propaganda films have used atrocious visuals almost from the start, as when WW1 dramas showed "Evil Huns" impaling babies on bayonets to stir up hatred against Germany. Dan Rather "dramatized" the conflict in Bosnia by showing a video of Serbs preparing to saw off the head of a captured prisoner -- with a large timber saw. Rather cut away, but not before letting us know that his privileged eyes had seen the nightmarish finale. And in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a documentary about the evils of the Taliban showed a still of a human face flayed of all skin, staring like Norman Bates' mother. The Taliban do this sort of thing all the time, the docu claimed -- and although none of us ever heard of this again, we immediately hated and feared the Taliban.
2. One of Pasolini's first film jobs was providing authentic street slang for Fellini's Nights of Cabiria.
3. During the first wedding ritual the libertines abruptly kick the naked victim-witnesses out of the marriage hall. In the Criterion disc they barely settle on the stairs before we cut back the ceremony. Reader Robert Monell has sent Savant a frame grab from a European DVD that shows a libertine lecturing the victims on the stairs, before locking the doors. In the Criterion version, the speech is not there; the view returns to the inside of the hall to show the libertine locking the stairwell door.
It's possible that this is the same kind of encoding error that occurred on another Criterion disc a couple of years ago. The full scene might actually be on the disc, but with the chapter marks improperly set so that playback skips part of the encoded chapter.
4. Atrocities, sadly, are relative. A make-believe movie about dangerous ideas and repulsive -- but clearly faked -- atrocities is Taboo, but our leaders can blithely dismiss qualms about systematized torture on national television, arguing semantic definitions of Waterboarding. A hit TV show makes millions popularizing the repulsive falsehood that torture is good and necessary. As for Pasolini's disgusting visuals, don't forget that only a few years ago American public high schools regularly showed traffic safety atrocity films to impressionable teens and children, films full of real shock images of screaming accident victims and bloody, mutilated corpses. Disgusting gore horror is apparently acceptable when implemented by Puritans.
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