by Donald Farmer
The circumstances accompanying the 1977 American release of Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom were almost as unusual as those depicted in this, the final film of Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini. Advance word in Film Comment, Film Quarterly and particularly The Village Voice indicated that Salo features extremes of sadism, violence and scatology then unheard of in a major picture, and the publicity mills were scarcely hampered by the fact that Pasolini himself had been brutally murdered on November 2, 1975 – nearly six months after his film’s completion.
When the critical verdict returned from the picture’s fall 1977 showing at the New York Film Festival, however, it was clear that the usually softened reception given a posthumous work had been abandoned for an overwhelmingly negative, often vicious backlash.
Attacked as both nauseating for its frankness and depressing for its bleak ideology, Salo has since garnered a reputation as one of the screen’s darkest works. At least in terms of shock value, the intervening years have seen its violence outdone by the current wave of explicit gore films, but even in 1977 the gore scenes were hardly as disturbing as one in which 16 captives are forced to eat their own excrement.
Anyone familiar with the Marquis De Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom knows that the exhaustive catalog of tortures and sexual perversities found therein would seem doubtful material for a major film production, much less one by a director who had previously won praise from as unlikely an admirer as Billy Graham for The Gospel According to Saint Matthew. But just as De Sade’s work was intended more as literary rebellion than exploitation, so Pasolini’s approach to this material took a similar intent – with a special emphasis on political allegory.
The worst possible frame of reference for a viewer to approach Salo would be with comparisons to films where sadism is the main attraction. To quote Pasolini from an interview conducted during the filming by Gideon Bachmann, “My film is planned as a sexual metaphor, which symbolizes, in a visionary way, the relationship between exploiter and exploited. In sadism and in power politics human beings become objects!’
Pasolini conceded that he was not indifferent to whatever salacious appeal the finished film would have and said, “I am surely not planning to create an aesthetically political, puritanical film. Obviously, I am fascinated by these sadistic orgies in themselves. So there you have two basic dimensions: the political and the sexual!’
Both the film and De Sade’s novel have a particular numerical emphasis, an aspect which Pasolini amplified with some revisions. For example, the book features four symbols of French authority: a bishop, a president, a banker and their leader, the Due de Blangis, of whom De Sade writes, “He may be regarded as the repository of every vice and every crime. He has killed his mother, his sister, and three of his wives!’
Pasolini transformed this group into four equally sadistic Italian fascists who abduct 18 teenage boys and girls for a four-month succession of orgies and torture. DeSade’s book saw the four principals assisted by four old storytellers, their four wives, and four female servants. The book is also divided into four parts titled “The Simple Passions,” “The Complex Passions,” “The Criminal Passions,” and “The Murderous Passions,” – the section where all the captives, the servants, and all but one of their wives are excruciatingly tortured and killed.
While retaining this basic structure, Pasolini let his introductory scenes (titled “The Ante Inferno”) count as the film’s first quarter in order that the actual 120 day’s could be divided into a trio of “circles” to parallel Dante’s circular descent in “The Inferno!’ Dropping De Sade’s titles, he renamed these sections “Circle of Manias,” “Circle of Excrement!’ and “Circle of Blood” in which the teens are subjected to graphic tortures which the four masters alternately observe, assist in, and perform. Pasolini added this touch so that each would have the “philosophical pleasure of contemplation, the particularly abject pleasure of complicity, and the supreme pleasure of action!’
To carry’ the Dante comparison a step further, Pasolini had apparently conceived Salo as the first in a trio of films corresponding to the poet’s Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. His murder so soon after the film’s completion, however, has left us with only the first picture in what promised to be Pasolini’s second trilogy.
Salo opens at a lakeside villa where the four fascists are signing a pact in preparation for the 120 days. The first line of dialogue, heard after the last name is marked down, gives a clue to the film’s general direction for the next two hours- “Everything is good at the extreme!’
We’re next shown a succession of Italian teenagers being kidnapped for the initial “screening” where the imperfect youngsters will be weeded out to provide 18 perfect boys and girls for tortures. This number soon descends to 16, matching the book’s figure, when a boy is shot trying to escape and a girl’s throat is slit after she is found praying.
The standards used to select the teens are almost ridiculously extreme. One otherwise attractive girl is rejected because she has a tooth growing too high from the gums. The candidate the masters seem most pleased with is a girl who witnessed her mother’s murder as she was kidnapped, and Pasolini emphasizes the fascists’ delight in finding an innocent already exposed to such horror. This girl becomes a repeated target of cruelty throughout Salo as she is forced to eat the Duke’s excrement and is last seen during the “Circle of Blood” with a candle held to her breasts.
With all the teenagers selected, they are driven to the masters’ huge villa and lined up under the balcony where the Duke reads the rules they now must live under. The most conspicuous include one which punishes normal sexual activity with the loss of a limb and another prescribing instant death for any religious act.
The “Circle of Manias” begins at this point, concentrating mainly on sexual degradations. Aside from several erotic reminiscences provided by the first of the storytellers – all aging prostitutes – the main episodes here involve a “wedding” staged with two of the teenagers and a sequence where all the youths are stripped and forced to crawl around like dogs. Highlighting the effect, all of them wear collars and leashes and are encouraged to bark for strips of meat which the masters toss at them. One of the four calls a girl over and tells her to eat a ball of cheese he holds out. She obediently bites into it, unaware that he’d hidden several nails in the cheese. The fascist seems especially pleased when the girl grimaces and blood pours from her mouth.
This scene and the subsequent “eating” scenes tend to hammer home the Freudian concept of an oral assault. Despite the (inexplicable) success of a film like Pink Flamingos, Pasolini must have realized that he risked alienating much of his audience by showing characters eating human feces. In his own words, he included the footage to point out the “manufacturers force the consumers to eat excrement. All these industrial foods are worthless refuse!’ The substance used was not, of course, the real thing – Pasolini’s recipe called for Swiss chocolate mixed with biscuit crumblings, marmalade and olive oil.
Moving into the “Circle of Blood,” the 16 captives have become progressively desperate and several of them attempt to save themselves by implicating their fellow prisoners. A chain reaction of this effort begins when a boy tells one of the fascists that a certain girl has broken one of the rules by concealing a photograph under her pillow That master goes to her bed and finds a picture of a boyfriend, but the girl begs for mercy and leads him to a couple making love in exchange for her own protection. To save themselves, in turn, the couple tells him about one of the guards who visits a serving girl at night. Gathering the other fascists, they find the two in his room and immediately draw their pistols. As a last act of rebellion, the guard gives a Communist salute before being shot. This chain reaction tattling proves to have been useless as none of the teenagers are spared.
The entire group moves into the main hall for a final story about a maniac who enjoyed torturing 15 young girls simultaneously. One girl is tied to a razor-studded wheel and skinned alive while a live rat is sewn up in another’s vagina.
The fascists are finally ready to conclude the 120 days, and they take the boys and girls to the villa’s courtyard where their arms and legs are tied to stakes in the ground. As the tortures begin. Pasolini heightens their realism by only showing the action from the point-of-view of whichever master is watching them through the binoculars, creating a documentary effect. The absence here of live or dubbed sounds from the courtyard (we hear instead a beautiful instrumental/ choral piece) also adds an unsettling atmosphere to this sequence.
Fire and steel are the favorite torture devices in Salo, as one fascist holds a lit candle to a boy’s genitals and a girl’s breasts – this is followed by another master using a knife to cut out one boy’s tongue and another’s left eye. We also see a graphic scalping and watch as a boy is repeatedly branded on the chest. Intercut with these shots are scenes of one fascist joking with a guard while another performs an impromptu dance in the courtyard.
The original design for Salo included some material not in the final version, but the theft of part of the negative after production prevented Pasolini from using this material. Pasolini wasn’t the only Italian director during this time who had to alter his film because of a negative theft – Fellini had the same problem while making Casanova- but this loss unfortunately managed to eliminate any hint of retribution and leaves us with the bleakest ending imaginable.
To downplay this somewhat, Pasolini said he tried to avoid presenting the victims sympathetically while directing the film. “I have in no way tried to arouse sympathy, and in fact the film would lose its sting if I had. I have not shown victims whose side viewers could be on. Pity would have been horrible as an element in this film; nobody would have stood for it. People who cry and tear their hair out would have made everybody leave the cinema after five minutes. In any case, I don’t believe in pity.”
Despite these remarks, one may not be able to distance himself from the film’s victims as easily as Pasolini suggested, but then a major crux of Salo is its ability to be both repellent and fascinating; sometimes difficult to watch but just as difficult to turn away from.
For a film so equipped to provoke violently different reactions in audiences, further discussion and a variety of fresh viewpoints would seem to be in order. Hopefully, the enthusiastic reception Salo received at last August’s Fifth World Film Festival in Montreal will inspire additional bookings through 1983.
Demonique. The Journal of Obscure Horror Cinema, n.4 1983