My first viewing of Salò is one of those memorable experiences that I’ll never forget. It was shocking, disgusting, disturbing, and at times even humorous. I did not go in expecting an artistic statement on politics or society. I expected something so shocking that it would be difficult to watch. It was a test of my stomach rather than my intellect. While I could not say that I “liked” the film, I did find myself impressed with it. Having seen it once, I never expected or wanted to revisit, much less write about it.
As I embarked on this project, Salò lurked in the back of my mind. I purchased it when working to complete my collection, and promptly stuffed it under a number of other discs. Even though the Criterion arrived in a nice Digipak case, this was not one I wanted to explain to visitors.
The decision to revisit it came when I saw that The Wrong Reel (link) did a live commentary track. These are guys that I’ve vibed with on Twitter, partly because of their sense of humor, and partly because of their film taste and knowledge. Since I knew I was going to revisit someday, I figured I would take the plunge with some company, so to speak. We made a few jokes after I decided to try it, yet I still dreaded revisiting and was not expecting to change my opinion. That said, I approached this with an open mind and a willingness to reconsider it as a work of art.
In case you are not in the know, Salò is a fictional story of some Italian fascists who, toward the end of the Second World War incarcerate a group of young men and women. They play sadistic games with the children, some sexual, some violent, and some flat out cruel. They exhibit absolute power over their prisoners and this gave them pleasure. In case you have not seen it, be warned that there is nudity, violence, torture, homosexuality, sadism, etc. If you can think of something terrible, there’s a good chance it is in this film. Salò is not for the faint of heart or stomach.
The Wrong Reel commentary was exactly what I needed to take the edge off. They approached it with humor, yet they also took it seriously in many instances and brought up some thought provoking questions. I’m going to springboard off of some of their points before delving into my own analysis.
Early on in the movie, just when the children are being rounded up and we introduce their captors, The Wrong Reel guys have a discussion about how these Fascists arrived at such a place of depravity. The answer is in the question. These people had been through the war, seen and probably already done terrible, inexplicable things, far worse than they would force on their subjects over these 120 days. One of these sick individuals references his “frustrated desire.” He has been through so much that it takes atrocities in order for him to get aroused. He is just as much a product of the war as his victims. While he and his cohorts may appear to take pleasure in these acts, there are moments of weakness where they show hints of incredulity and shame at what is taking place.
Another point that impressed me was that many of the jokes (which included references to Woody Allen, South Park, and many others) were either sexual or toilet humor. They were funny, and that made it easier to endure the film again, but the guys pontificated as they were joking as to what that says about our culture. The fact that we can laugh at something this provocative and gruesome through infantile jokes speaks to our own immaturity and the puritanical nature of America. I’m not indicting the Wrong Reel guys because I laughed right along with them. They were more than aware of this double standard and wondered whether their reaction is a product of their own culture and upbringing, acknowledging that they cannot take consciously distance themselves from their background. Since sexual topics are taboo, a graphic film from the 1970s still allows us to get the giggles in a playful, embarrassing way. While the film was seen as graphic across the globe, it is telling that it was banned in Italy for the political themes, whereas it was banned in NYC for the adult content. They and I were not offended, but instead looked for humor within the taboo.
Another interesting topic was the contrast of James and Mikhail. James is close to my age, so we grew up at a time when nude magazines were rare and taboo. Mikhail is the “token millennial,” as they called him, so he has grown up with access to pornography throughout most of his life. This was his first time viewing the movie, and a recurring question was whether growing up in the Internet age would desensitize him to the sexual decadence. Surprisingly, he was not as fazed by some of the content that James and the others were. Sure, there were some scenes that got to him. There was a certain “circle” where they all pretty much lost it and the ending is hard for anyone to watch. In other scenes, the desensitization was apparent. During some of the sex scenes, he was the one to point out when things were obviously fake, like with prosthetics and sexual positioning. The illusion was shattered for him, whereas even with the second viewing, I was still disturbed and not as discerning.
The overarching theme of Salò is the mad, damning influence of abject power. The class in power has the ability to subject a lower class to whatever behavior they desire, and they derive pleasure from their supremacy. The response of their subjects is of mostly that of submission. There is some rebellion, some collaboration, and even some romanticism, but they are for the most part mortified as they are subjected to horrific acts against their will. The same is true of a tyrannical government and their subjects. A repressed population has no human rights and has scant options. In the case of Salò, it was basically to submit or die.
The most powerful scene is unquestionably that of absolute rebellion. Someone is caught breaking one of the rules, and rather than protest or plead for his life, he uses his final moments on this earth to make a statement. His oppressors have humiliated him, but he still has his honor. His final action against them, however futile, is powerful, tense, and one of the few optimistic moments of the movie. His captors even react to it, hesitating before they take his life away.
One technique that Pasolini uses frequently is the use of space and long shots. In many respects, this puts the audience in the perspective of the captors, on board with those in power. He turns the tables on us and makes us the voyeurs that are visually engaged with the terrible things happening onscreen. The most notable example is in one of the final scenes, when the Fascists are outside torturing their prisoners, but the view is from upstairs and inside the house. We even see it through binoculars within the camera. While this is the most overt example, there are other similar vantage points throughout the film. We are often placed inside the eyes of the Fascists. During the long shots of large rooms, we see what they see, and by extension, are party to it.
From a filmmaking perspective, Salò is a masterwork. The shot selections, cinematography, performances, and locations are all top-notch. The Wrong Reel guys notice this as well, and they are correct when they say that if this were an amateurish film, then it would be dismissed as yet another 1970s porno. Pasolino, having already completed many well-done movies, like The Gospel According to St. Matthew, which made my top 10 of 1964.
On a second viewing, with or without the commentary, Salò is an easier film to stomach. With the shock value minimized, it is easier to understand the message and appreciate the film, even if it is not something that can be easily “enjoyed.” I came into this film expecting to be disgusted yet again. When it ended, I was impressed by such a provocative and startling political allegory. I still cannot rank it among films I like, yet I now have a greater understanding and respect for it as a piece of art.
Film Rating: 6.5/10
Salo: Yesterday and Today: This is a short documentary that shows some behind the scenes interviews intercut with interviews, including some with Pasolini.
In a grainy black and white, they show the overhead shooting of the final torture scenes with Pasolini interacting with the actors. One of the fascists asks: “do you have anything nasty for me to do?” Pasolini responds to “wait until next scene,” which we later find out is the candle burning scene.
Pasolini talks about the genesis of the project. He gave it a Dante-esque structure when working on the screenplay for another director, Sergio Citti. This was the division of the story into circles. Citti became lost interest while Pasolini became more engaged with the project, and wanted to use to to bring Marquis de Sade to 1944-45.
Pasolini says that the sado-masochism “reduces the human body to a commodity.” It is about the anarchy of power and the nonexistence of history. All of the schools of thought do not exist in the world of Salo. It is a metaphor of power to the people subjected to it, while also is a statement about capitalism. Man is a conformist, and we see that Pasolini indicts people who join forces in the subjugation of others. They do this out of self preservation, but it is not noble or right.
Pasolini was murdered right before setting up the French dubbing of the film. This of course was a shock and frightened everyone. It is still very much a mystery, with some believing that he was murdered because of Salo.
Fade to Black: This is a 2001 Nigel Algar documentary that disputes that Salo is pornography. By the time it was released, nobody had ever seen a film like Salo. Bertolucci saw it just after Pasolini was murdered, and couldn’t bear the film because of the tragedy. He hated the film initially, but it came to him that “there was something sublime in the nightmare.” It was considered by many to be pornography because there was no other way it could be categorized. The key difference is there is nothing pleasurable or sexually stimulating when watching the movie. In many ways it is an “anti-pornographic” and political film, which continues the traditions of Rome Open City, The Night Porter, and The Conformist.
The End of Salò: This is a 40-minute documentary, mostly interviews with people involved with the project. It begins with them talking about the “Circle of Shit” scenes. The substance was made of chocolate, and the actors ate it with gusto. “The greater the gusto, the more shocking the scene,” says one of the actors playing Fascist royalty.
They had long meetings with the script, de Sade’s text, and Baudelaire, so there was quite a bit of sadistic material to work with. They pitched terrible ideas to each other and they formulated the film. One shot that was cut was a dance sequence with an ensemble that was to be the ending. Personally, I think the true ending is far more appropriate.
Dante Ferretti: – This is a 12-minute interview with the Production designer about Pasolini’s films and their relationship. Talks about his origins in film and how he met Pasolini, worked with him first on The Gospel According to Saint Matthew., which was Ferretti’s second film. He really respected Pasolini after Accatone. With Salo they were going for minimalism. He said it should not be pursued as a painting, but as a graphical way of highlighting symbols. He intentionally did not move the camera much.
Jean-Pierre Gorin: Interview with film scholar. He talks about how the film is not realist, but an adaptation of Sade to the Italian republic. Pasolini was using the past to reflect his present, the end of the 1960s.
The story, while grotesque, is deliberately meant to incite laughter. He does not mean this in an infantile sense, or out of fear or terror, but someone who sees these “elements of the machine so exposed, and see that it is never going to stop.”
Gorin compares it to In the Realm of the Senses because they both reflected the ideals of the 1960s. Both can be considered pornographic films that question society, yet they both have a historical perspective.
Lastly, he says that there is a lot of love in Pasolini’s films. They are tougher to find in Salo, but there are moments of tenderness, especially the ending.
Even though Salo is a polarizing and difficult film, the story behind it is fascinating. Criterion did a fantastic job with the project, with a wealth of supplements and a booklet with several essays. Even though the film is disturbing, the release is recommended.
Criterion Rating: 8.5/10