BluRay/DVD Reviews

SALO, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM

By • Sep 28th, 2008 •

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Pier Paolo Pasolini’s SALO has long been considered the most collectible of out-of- print Criterions. Last year copies of the original disc were selling for $500 and up on eBay. Inspired by the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, a novel from 1789 concerning the systematic degradation and destruction of innocents by a group of aristocratic libertines, the director changed the setting to 1944, the final year of Mussolini’s republic in the northern Italian city of Salo. (“I had a flash of inspiration when I decided to transpose Sade to the Spring of 1944,” Pasolini said. “That’s when I saw the choreography of Fascism.”)

A dispassionate yet politically provocative allegory, SALO features goose-steeping Nazis, Fascist-deco decor and a mysteriously detached mise-en-scene that seems to find emptiness in the midst of a room full of people. Stylistically, it’s a cross between a comedy of manners and a horror film: say DINNER AT EIGHT meets NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Banned for many years in England and Italy, SALO generated a firestorm of controversy when first released for its mixture of aberrant sexuality, clinical violence and camp theatricality. Criterion has renegotiated the rights and released a stunning new transfer–there were some authoring issues the first time around–along with hours of supplementary material placing SALO in context as a landmark of Italian cultural and political history. The folks at Criterion have also described Pasolini’s film as a “masterpiece…his last, and some would say, greatest, endeavor”, which I find problematic.

Watching SALO again after 31 years is a little like being the wolf in a Tex Avery cartoon. In SWING SHIFT CINDERELLA (1944), for instance, the Big Bad Wolf, having ended up by accident in the wrong cartoon, decides to chase Cinderella around Grandma’s house. They run back and forth through a series of doors, until the wolf opens one and runs into a brick wall bearing the sign: “Sorry. Wrong Door.” In the case of SALO, just like the wolf in question, opening what appears to be a door to pleasure turns out to be something different.

When I first saw SALO at the New York Film Festival in 1977, the film seemed like an attack by Pasolini against his own audience. In particular, this was an audience the director had attracted over the course of his previous three films–THE DECAMERON, CANTERBURY TALES and ARABIAN NIGHTS-warm, painterly works with an intimate sensibility that celebrated sensuality and hedonistic living. From the perspective of 1977, SALO was generally so confusing (even for those sympathetic to its political message), the final scenes so awash in blood, it felt like one was being purposefully punished. The fact that Pasolini was brutally murdered by a Roman street urchin just after finishing SALO made the violence in the film seem all the more personal and prophetic. (In 2005, after serving a long term in prison, Pasolini’s murderer recanted his confession, saying his family had been threatened by persons unknown. The case was reopened, but not enough evidence could be gathered to make a determination. The fact that Pasolini was murdered while trying to buy back footage stolen from the set of SALO, however, does suggest a political motive.)

The 120 Days of Sodom is a difficult book to read, just as SALO is a difficult film to watch. In fact, one might say that by using such explicit and extreme material, both Sade and Pasolini negate the serious point they are trying to make, or are simply pandering to the baser natures of a certain segment of the audience. I personally find both works repellent, yet there’s something in them that resonates.

One comes away from reading The 120 Days of Sodom with the impression of black and grey, of dark cells and dank prison corridors, even though the novel is set in a richly appointed chateau. Sade wrote the novel while he was imprisoned in the Bastille, 38 days before the onset of the French Revolution. The last third is a list of grotesque tortures and obscene copulations, made by an author running out of time, that in the attempt to catalogue every perversity known to man seems like a parody of the documents left behind at Auschwitz and Trebl inka. Sade apparently wrote his novel to illustrate a point that in a society where property rights were tantamount above all other concerns, there was no real freedom. The obscene goings on in the novel, it seems, are an extreme case example of an inherent possibility. Sade’s stated intention was to shock reasonable people into a realization of the true nature of their political system. Whether this is something you agree with or not, I think Pasolini made SALO with the same intention.

The film begins at dawn with Nazi soldiers getting into trucks in an ancient Italian city identified by a road sign as Salo. Then we see boys bicycling along the Po River, with the low-lying fog still lingering about the water’s edge. The grass of this rough, agrarian landscape (the film was shot near Mantua) seems to have taken on a shade of ochre, evocative of betrayal and death. Suddenly, soldiers seem to rise out of the marshes, cutting off the horizon line. The boys run for it, but it’s too late. One youth jumps off the truck trying to escape and is shot in the back. “First there were nine and now there’s eight,” a soldier says, laughing. The young people are taken to an isolated country house, the decor dominated by the color red. There, the group is met by four fascist officials (parallel characters to the duke, president, magistrate and bishop in Sade’s novel) who tell the young people there is no hope of escape. They are placed in a lavish sitting room where majestically-dressed women tell sexual stories to arouse them. Their only chance of remaining alive is to cooperate.

There’s a disturbing moment when Helene Surgere, about to initiate with her tale-telling the sexual orgies that comprise a major section of the film, half smiles with the sunlight highlighting her fringe-like hair. Recently walking through the Metropolitan Museum, I came upon Antonello da Messina’s “Portrait of a Young Man” from 1470, which presents nearly the same image. People often smile, but somehow this particular smile, transforming the space between the canvas and the viewer, linked Ms. Surgere’s glance with my recollection of something troubling yet otherworldly. Pasolini studied Renaissance painting under Roberto Longhi, so this reference can not be entirely haphazard or accidental. Rather, I think Pasolini was trying to present a sense of beauty that provoked terror for him, especially in the context of what is about to happen.

Pasolini, in an interview on the supplement disc, says, “Clearly, the motivation came from the fact that I detest the power in today’s world, which manipulates the body horribly, and rivals Himmler and Hitler in every way. It manipulates the body by transforming it into conscience, establishing new values that are alienating and false. Consumerist values that fulfill what Marx calls a genocide of vital and real earlier cultures. For example, it destroyed Rome. Romans no longer exist.”

As noted by Jean-Pierre Gorin in his interview on the supplement disc, SALO, though based on a novel written just before the French Revolution and set during World War II, is really about the end of the 60’s. Specifically, SALO’S theme concerns the so-called “sexual revolution”, which brought in its wake an extraordinary conformity based on consumerism, destroying what was left of Europe’s traditional regional cultures. (According to Pasolini, the long sequences of the victims eating their own feces-which, for the record, was made of chocolate, candied fruit and cream-was intended as a comment on fast food.)

Watching these scenes “in the comfort of my home,” I found myself crying, not only for what the victims in the film have to go through, but especially for Pasolini. There’s this overwhelming sense of sadness, turning the array of incidents into a two-dimensional coil that circles around itself, strangling hope. (“I don’t think there will ever be a society where man is free,” Pasolini says in the interview. “We shouldn’t hope for anything.”)

I must confess I’m not a fan of SALO. Still, I’m fascinated by its methodology, as well as certain moments where an overwhelming humanity bursts through the facade of ritualized death, creating images as powerful as anything I’ve experienced in the cinema. I think you have to look at SALO in the way Jean-Luc Godard wrote about Nicholas Ray’s THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE J AMES (a film that was re-shot and re-edited against Ray’s wishes), as a series of brush strokes that contain, in their moments of individual beauty, a key to the director’s vision that we can reconstruct in our minds. Perhaps this was Pasolini’s intention from the beginning, to make a film that, in its disunity, is a series of possible films that each viewer can contemplate in silence.

Where SALO is very successful is in creating this all-pervasive silence that is ultimately unexplainable. Catherine Breillat, in her essay, compares Pasolini’s film to the cave paintings at Lascaux. Like these markings from the dawn of man, there’s something primordial, mysterious, grimly fascinating and unknown in the game of death and negation that unfolds before our eyes.

The only problem is, none of these elements seem to work together very well. As Pasolini died during post-production, it would make sense that there might be scenes missing. Except the whole film seems unfinished, like a first draft without the fine tuning and pacing necessary for an audience to comprehend the meaning of things. There’s just enough plot and characterization in the beginning to make the absence of continuity and character motivation throughout extremely frustrating. Much of the film-for instance, the long pans of the countryside in the beginning or the interminable shots of the victims eating their own feces-comes across as filler. There doesn’t seem to be any visual oomph, though Pasolini was operating the camera. Characters are introduced in the beginning, with their names read on the sound track over faces in close-up, and then mostly disappear until the end when they are killed. As klezmer clarinetist Mickey Katz used to say, it’s a mish-mosh. When the violence finally happens, it seems tasteless and exploitative. (I don’t believe it was intended that way, though in one of the documentaries, Nino Baragli, the editor, states Pasolini was killed after the Italian dub was completed.)

When Pasolini died in 1975, I didn’t consider him one of the great directors. Instead, I thought of him as a writer and poet who made films; films that struck me as being more successful as provocations then inherently cinematic. The exceptions were ACCATTONE (1961) and THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW (1964), two beautifully composed yet seemingly slapdash movies, simultaneously earthy and transcendental, derived from the neo-realism of Rossellini and De Sica. Then I found myself out of work in the early 90’s at the same time MOMA was having a complete Pasolini retrospective. I went every day and fell madly in love with his work, even films such as THEOREM (TEOREMA) (1968) and PIGPEN (1970) that I hadn’t liked all that much previously.

It’s hard to describe the experience of watching Pasolini’s films. There’s a flow of feelings accentuated by colors, images existing both in the moment and referring to things one can only imagine. For me, this particularly has to do with the individuals one meets in Pasolini’s films, not so much the characters these non-actors play as something essential in their beings, reiterated in the way they walk and talk. Because the director was his own camera operator, the movement of his lens through space as he discovered the outlines of his story in the physiognomy of his actors was unique, and makes the experience of viewing very intimate. Let’s say that at their most evocative, Pasolini’s films build a “grammar of living” inside one’s head, beyond their ostensible subject.

SALO has very few of these qualities. As the director noted in his last interview, “I put a boy who’s never acted before in front of the camera and I keep him there while I collect material. It means a lot of work in the editing room, to eliminate useless material and select instead that moment of truth that flashed in his look or in his smile. But that doesn’t happen in this film because this isn’t raw material reworked in the editing room. This film is being edited as I shoot it. In general, it’s all more planned than usual.”

Unlike many Italian commentators when SALO was initially released, I don’t see a problem with using World War II as a metaphor for contemporary issues. It just doesn’t work here, partially because the period aspect of the film is so well done. One really buys into the reality of the Republic of Salo and the characters in the context of 1944. Then, when the film shifts into an allegory halfway through, one feels confused and loses interest in what’s going on. The historical milieu is essentially abandoned, and the style it’s replaced with – harsh, theatrical and spare – seems without a real political or social context.

Sade and Mussolini also make strange bedfellows. Sade’s libertines are supreme egotists who have wrested the function of God. They murder based on pure whim, but through a structure that is a parody of limitless state power (with illogical or contradictory rules). Pasolini’s fascists, on the other hand, are petty bureaucrats who vanish into the bric-a brac of the art direction, leaving a void from which the film never recovers. (The fact the fascist officials look like inept businessmen from a Nino Manfredi comedy doesn’t help either.) Based on self-interest, they round up their young victims in order to punish the parents who are “subversives.” They seem more interested in desperately maintaining political power (one can hear the sounds of Allied bombing in the distance) than in obliterating God. Because of this, there’s a disconnect between the realistic World War II setting and the Sadean universe that is the film’s underlying basis. The way the characters look and behave comes from one specific historical period,, while the words they speak, often taken directly from the Sade novel, don’t seem to fit the time or place. Once the machine of anarchy gets going, however, it gobbles up bodies with the same ferocity that an unregulated stock market recently decimated Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch, realizing Pasolini’s intention to capture the “anarchy of power” on film.

Jean-Pierre Gorin, with his usual sense of pungent irony, calls SALO “a puritanical film about sex.” In fact, Pasolini’s film makes any activity connected to the body, including eating and defecating, seem undesirable. The orgy scenes, inspired, according to the director, by Dante’s “Inferno”, have bodies arranged horizontally like in a marble relief sarcophagus, the gestures fixed for time immemorial. They seem to form a huge Rube Goldberg device, a many-faceted machine of aspiring but unsatisfied desire. In this respect, the director has succeeded in transforming what should be the most human aspect of our lives into another product. (Of course, Pasolini’s film is also a product, expensively produced by Alberto Grimaldi –THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY; LAST TANGO IN PARIS–with the intention of turning a profit. There’s this contradiction throughout the film between the gloss of the production design and the steadfast refusal of the director to allow an audience any visual pleasure. Again, because the film seems unfinished, this contradiction simply adds to the confusion rather than imparting another layer of meaning.)

I suppose I should talk about Pierre Klossowski. He’s referenced in the opening titles of SALO, and Jean-Pierre Gorin spends a great deal of time on him. Klossowski was the brother of the painter Balthus, and wrote an extraordinary work of erotica – for want of a better word, I would call it existential erotica – entitled Roberte Ce Soir. Klossowski also wrote Sade, Mon Prochain (Sade, My Contemporaray), one of the first books to rehabilitate Sade and see him as the one 18th Century figure opposed to the idea of the Enlightenment, and therefore close to the philosophy and attitudes of post-World War II writers. For Sade, according to Klossowski, democracy and the “social contract” was just another, if more hidden form, of exploitation and corruption. Pasolini, having come to the point of rejecting his hopes in egalitarianism (he was a member of the Communist party for a time), seeing “social democracy” used as a front for the corporate destruction of Italy’s culture, drew on the ideas in Klossowski’s book for SALO, especially the notion about the repetition inherent in sex, and how this can lead to the rituals of sadomasochism. I think this caused Pasolini to see a connection between sadomasochism and consumerism, especially a company like McDonald’s, which triumphantly advertises “More than 5 billion sold!” (There’s also a link in the film between homosexuality and sadomasochism that I find unfortunate, though it’s probably unconscious on Pasolini’s part. Sade attempts to list every possible perversion, but Pasolini only had 120 minutes, not the 120 days of the novel.)

As for me, I listened carefully to the interview with Pasolini, but I still do not see a critique of consumerism in SALO. What I do see is a different allegory, that of the filmmaker and his performers. One could read the rounding up scenes of victims as an audition. The romantic piano music played during the orgy scenes reminds me of the piano playing on the set of silent films. The protagonists even have a leather-bound book which they consult during the many orgies and tortures – in other words, a scenario. This cinema-based allegory is made explicit when one of the fascist officials watching the torture turns his binoculars around, creating a distorted frame like an early cinemascope lens, inscribing the audience in the action while dissolving any sense of identification with the victims. This might even be seen as a self-confession on Pasolini’s part.

I have little interest in owning SALO, but the extras, both in their breadth as well as the extraordinary craft that went into their making, comprise one of the best sets, intellectually stimulating and visually exciting, that Criterion has released so far this year. I would especially point out “The End Of SALO”, a 40 minute documentary which manages, through overlapping interviews enhanced by visual morphing, to give a sense of community and loss in Pasolini’s friends and colleagues, as well as reconstructing through collages and staging of unfilmed scenes from t he script what a final version of SALO might have looked like if Pasolini had survived. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen about films and filmmaking, and comes highly recommended as a stand-alone feature.

Rather than a masterpiece, SALO falls into the realm of what the French call cine maudit, a film of missed opportunity, but still full of possibilities. Attempting to make a film that is impossible to watch in the same way that sections of Dante’s “Inferno” are impossible to read, because of their overwhelming power and vision, Pasolini, possibly due to his untimely death, ended up with an ambitious but chaotic work that is just as likely to put an audience to sleep as shock it. Because of this, SALO is Not Recommended, but suggested, with caution, to those interested in European avant-garde and political cinema, fans of Dario Argento & Tinto Brass, and especially Criterion collectors.

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4 Responses »

  1. This is a thorough and accurate analysis and an enjoyable read. Brilliant, many thanks.

  2. Laughable rubbish, is what I call this film. Unbelievable actions by the captives, sexual perversion which is rediculous and reflects the sick perverted mind of the director, who was incidently killed by a male whore!!!

    This is what a BBC critic said of the film and i could not agreed with it more:

    “But why the British Film Institute should re-release Pasolini’s “Salò” (which was awful in 1975, and is still awful now) is anyone’s guess. Perhaps, at a time when promotional budgets for non-mainstream films are almost invisible, the BFI knows all too well that a film stuffed with brutal demonstrations of power and perversion of every kind will at least get noticed.

    Yet the re-launch of “Salò” is, just as the making of it was, a sad, if spectacular, waste of energy. Notionally a metaphor for Fascism (it is set in Italy in 1944), and specifically about the connection between politics, violence, and sexual excitement, “Salò” has in fact no meaningful link to Fascism whatsoever, but is simply a display of twisted lust, spun by the fantasies of four extreme perverts, not to mention the director himself. Clearly Pasolini (who could either be exceptionally inspired or – as here – absolutely dire) had hit the creative buffers, and so – in his tale of four power-mad, sexually-warped members of the ruling elite – seems to relish serving up endless examples of the most gruesome conduct, which include the forced consumption of food spiked with nails, nipples being branded, and – most ghastly of all – the consumption of excrement. Needless to say, the young men and women horrifically abused by the four condescending establishment tyrants are treated like so much available meat.”

  3. This is one of the best reviews I’ve read on this site and very well researched ! I agree that while this is an important film it is not one I ever wish to see again. I find Pasolini one of the most difficult directors to appreciate…it took several viewings of TEORAMA for me to begin to admire him and then of course watching the rest of the canon afterwards…..well done Mark…

  4. Brilliant review at capturing the elusive nature of Pasolini’s Salo.

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