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
I knew going in that The Night Porter was controversial. What I didn’t expect was for it to be so perplexing, confusing and illogical. It is certainly artistic, brave and creative filmmaking, but it is also needlessly provocative, tasteless, and in some ways insulting. I’m not referring to the nude or sexual scenes, most of which are tame given the Italian cinematic landscape of the time (see any early 1970s Pasolini film for an example). What is unsettling is the way two people deal with their tragic memories of captor and prisoner.
From a filmmaking perspective, Cavani is right there with her art house Italian peers from the era. The film looks tremendous, especially in this restored Blu-Ray version. She uses crooked angles for many of her shots, which adds to the disturbing nature of the narrative as it unfolds. She shoots in a darker hue, with lots of muted blues, greys and blacks, which looks great, yet is consistent with the mood of the primary characters.
Most of the early film consists of a back-and-forth between the war years and a Vienna hotel, where one of the Nazi camp leaders, Max, works as a night porter. He encounters one of his prisoners, Lucia, who recognizes him and that triggers some terrible memories.
The flashbacks are of the harsh realities of the war. There is one scene where Germans are taking shots at kids on a swing set, disturbing because it combines a playful, jovial activity with atrocity and murder. There is another scene where a large group of prisoners are stripped naked in a room and examined by the Nazis. This is not an erotic scene, but instead one of abject humiliation, not just of Lucia, but all of her imprisoned companions.
The best and most effective scene comes about a third into the film, and is a strong example of contrasting horror with beauty. Both Max and Lucia are attending a performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. They see each other in the audience, and again the memories are triggered. The wonderful, uplifting music continues in the background as we see a woman’s dormitory, crowded with cots a few feet away from each other. Lucia is lying in one cot as a German soldier is raping another woman within earshot. There are other powerful flashbacks, such as an instance where her captor inserts two fingers into her mouth, simulating fellatio. She looks fearful and apprehensive as this happens, still with the joyful music playing in the background. When we see her in the audience of the performance, her face is solemn and she looks distracted. This is not a pleasant memory to re-live.
From there the plot takes a left turn into the perplexing territory that I noted above. There are a group of former Nazis that Max belongs to. Most of them are proud of their deeds, yet Max feels shame. They know of the “witness” to their crimes and agree that she needs to be eradicated. The audience would expect Max to act according to the orders of his peers, but he defies them. Soon enough we will discover why.
This is where I have problems with the film. Max and Lucia are in love. He calls her “my little girl,” confesses his love, and they rekindle their romantic and sexual relationship in the hotel. Lucia reciprocates the love, yet there are still grossly disturbing flashbacks, like her singing a song bare-breasted for the German soldiers, and receiving a severed human head as her reward. This is what is baffling. The Stockholm Syndrome is a real thing and may have happened to a certain extent during the war, but being a captor of the Nazis is not the same as Patty Hearst being captured by the SLA.
Together they rebel against the Nazi conspirators that want to silence Lucia. He wants to save her, while she does not want to expose him. They want to live together even if circumstances, society, and their wartime past makes that an impossibility. They become the prisoners, and the post-war society is their captors.
Even though this turn defies logic, I am willing to forgive it to a certain degree because Cavani is using the horrors of war and imprisonment to make an artistic point about post-war society. She goes out of her way to reveal Max’s shame for his actions, and how he is protecting his “little girl” as a sort of penance, while Lucia is masochistically re-living a version of the worst years of her life in order to support him. They suffer in the hotel room because of their isolation and inability to escape. They starve, just like the prisoners during the war were starved. This could be read as society being imprisoned in 1958 by not being able to come to terms with the terror, with some who participated in the torture quietly being prideful of their actions, and the sufferers still haunted and unable to deal with the transformed world.
In this last paragraph I am going to spoil the ending, so please stop reading here if you have not seen the film.
Lucia had no option to leave her captivity during the war. The Germans, including Max, would not allow it. In 1958, he even chains her to the room, which is unnecessary since she is committed to remaining with him. Together, they have limited options. If she goes to the authorities, Max will be discovered and punished. Max has no options that do not involve killing Lucia, since she is the witness. Their only avenue is to leave willingly, famished, with barely enough energy to move one leg in front of the other. Their ending is inevitable and tragic, as they are shot in cold blood as they try to cross the bridge. We can tell from their body language that they have accepted this ending as inevitable. In some respects, this is also Cavani attempting a form of closure. The captor and the prisoner are gone, however tragic, but life goes on. The world needs to accept what was terrible and move on.
Film Rating: 7/10
Introduction to Women of the Resistance – Cavani introduces the film and says that The Night Porter originated with this documentary project for TV. She had watched a lot of western footage between 1940-1945, but could not get any footage from the Eastern Block. She says it is the only resistance documentary that focuses on women.
Women of the Resistance, 1965
Much of the documentary consists of archival footage and interviews with women who were directly involved. The images are not sharp, but that probably has more to do with the TV format rather than any restoration issues.
As with anything about the war, this is difficult and not altogether pleasant to watch, but it is rewarding. There are difficult issues that the women discuss, and one simply refused to discuss her own situation because it was too difficult.
The film begins with letters that imprisoned women write to their family hours before they are to die. All of the letters are powerful. One example: “Don’t think of me as being any different from any soldier on the battlefield.”
The resistance began in France and united all against the anti-fascist parties. Many were killed in the resistance, men and women. The women that participated were sometimes in service roles, but they also served as effective partisan fighters. Just like with the men, they suffered harsh treatment and persecution if they did not go along with the fascist regimes. Of the female resisters, 623 were shot while 3,000 were deported to Germany. The captured women were beaten, had their hair pulled out, starved, and suffered countless other tortures. One lady tried to make earplugs out of her clothing in order to not hear the screaming. They did not work so she tried to kill herself.
There are many topics in the documentary that would form the narrative of The Night Porter. While many of the subjects did not describe the sexual torture on camera, Cavani likely heard many such stories and chose not to broadcast them. Starvation of course becomes a theme, as Lucia and Max are unable to obtain food, not even from their neighbors, yet they live in a free society and have money. In the documentary, the ladies talk about how they were starved and many would die from hunger. One way they were tortured was by being tantalized by delicious food that they would not be allowed to eat. This comes into play in The Night Porter with the jam that Lucia eats ravenously. She sees it on the counter and cannot contain herself. The only difference is that in this captivity, she is allowed to eat what is in the room, but nothing else.
Most of the stories are tragic and painful, but there is an undercurrent of gratitude towards women who served and satisfaction from the participants. After the war, these women are remembered for their service and bravery. One person states that the women were sometimes sent in with the front lines because they simply had more courage than the men. All women that survived are proud of their experience and their service, even if the memories are filled with sorrow. Most importantly there is still a sense of duty to be watchful and wary of the potential of fascism and racism to come back. We know from history that it does not happen again, at least not anywhere close to the extent that it happened in the war.
Film Rating: 7.5/10
Liliana Cavani 2014 interview – She knew right away that she wanted Rampling or Mia Farrow to star in the lead role. She made the right choice as Rampling was brilliant. She did not want the female character to be Jewish because she did not want it to be about race or the Holocaust. Instead, Lucia was the “daughter of a socialist.” She had to make the movie as a tragedy because of the era. It was not possible to make a happy film about this topic.
She speaks about the controversy surrounding the film. Catholics came out against the film, although they were not bothered by the torture or misogyny. They were simply against the sex.
Criterion Rating: 7.5/10