The sleep of reason breeds monsters.—Goya
The quote has multiple interpretations. One, which seems the most likely and obvious, is that without reason mankind is damned to the netherworlds of irrationality and vice. The other and more incendiary interpretation is that irrationality and vice come about despite reason, mankind being what it is. I suspect Goya had the second interpretation in mind when he painted his infamous picture, and it seems a fitting subtitle to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò: or the 120 Days of Sodom.
Salò has probably been banned, censored and suppressed more often than any other film intended for mainstream release. It succeeds so completely at mortifying the viewer in accordance with its plan that it leaves little room for any other reaction. It is not required that you like a piece of work in order to understand it, and so in the same way I despise and respect Salò, both at once.
Salò is a loose but not unfaithful adaptation of the Marquis Sade’s infamous encyclopedia of evil The 120 Days of Sodom. The film diverges from the source material as much as it pays homage to it and extends on it, and that was probably a good idea. I read 120 Days in college and found it uninteresting, a repetitive catalog of tortures. Sade has been hailed as the precursor to everything from Nietzsche and existentialist thought to post-modern nihilism, but in much the same vein as one of those bands that are always called “important” or “influential” but are never really all that interesting on their own.
Pasolini’s treatment of Sade has, somehow, more of Sade in it than Sade was able to put into own work. By bringing the action closer to the present day, and by grounding it in a specific historical reality, it becomes more than just a ludicrous fantasy of excess. Pasolini sets his movie in Italy, near the end of WWII—specifically, the “Republic of Salò,” which was created in northern Italy in 1943 by Hitler for Mussolini after his rescue from prison by SS commandos. The director himself grew up in such surroundings and was aghast at the way men turned against each other—precisely the sort of “enlightened animalism” that Sade preached as a virtue.
The story concerns four men of privilege and power who kidnap several young men and women to their palace, then proceed to put them through every imaginable debauchery over the next several days. The rules are simple and immutable: Obedience is paramount. Any form of defiance—sexual, spiritual, or verbal—will be punished. The only possible way to survive is to collaborate with your tormentors. Each day becomes a “circle” in the manner of Dante’s Inferno—the Circle of Manias, where perversions of every sort are indulged in; the Circle of Feces, where excrement and urine become the objects of obsession; and the Circle of Blood, where the “guilty” are finally punished with scalpings, brandings, whippings, hangings, tongues sliced out, eyes gouged out.
The torturers in Salò only have three reactions to everything: faint boredom, faint amusement, and impotent spluttering rage. Their words are lectures on power as a means to joy, and vice versa, but their works are maddeningly unsatisfying. No torture will ever satiate; no vileness grand enough. At one point one of the tormentors tells his victim, “Killing you once would never be enough. I intend to kill you a thousand times over.” What they want is not something that can be captured in any one act. Small wonder they spend a good deal of time listening to a cadre of prostitutes reciting, one after another, the laundry lists of depravities that Sade himself enumerated. When reality fails them, they can let their imaginations take over—at least until the next time they choose to indulge themselves for real, and be (inevitably) disappointed. The torturers start off as self-declared gods and end up victims themselves, slaves themselves to their own passions.
If the tormentors have a narrow range of responses to the goings-on, the audience’s response is singular: disgust. They flinch when the adolescents have their clothes torn off, or are paraded about naked like cattle in an auction. They squirm when the fecal banquet is served, cringe when one of the girls is raped, cover their eyes when the final massacre unspools. When the images onscreen aren’t openly incendiary, they’re as clinically removed as a morgue photo—or are overlaid with spoken texts straight from Sade, depicting things no camera should ever capture. Even the few remotely consensual sexual acts that are shown in some detail make the audience turn away, because they know all too well what they see is about to be devoured by the movie’s relentless modus operandi.
Salò disgusts only because its creator knew all too well it had to be disgusting. Obviously, by moving the action from 18th-century France to 20th-century Fascist Italy, Pasolini gives the atrocities in the film a modern veneer. But outside of that, the movie already feels eerily timeless. Other people have already made the easy comparisons to the piles of naked flesh seen here, and the photos of the tortures of Iraqi prisoners. But Pasolini wanted any age to be able to look into the film and find its own depravities of power mirrored there. The most crucial parts of the story don’t belong to WWII or the Age of Enlightenment, but mankind in any time and place.
“I simply plan to replace the word ‘God’,” Pasolini said, shortly after the film’s release, “as Sade uses it, with the word ‘power.’ The sadists are always the powerful ones. … 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.” With the death of God, then, comes the rise of Man—not Man for his fellow men, but Man-as-God—the cruel, Jacobean god of yore, tearing the wings off flies and setting fire to them.
In his essay on Sade (from The Rebel), Albert Camus stated: “If God kills and repudiates mankind, there is nothing to stop one from killing and repudiating one’s fellow men.” And even one murder is not enough, as Camus points out, and soon “the executioners eye each other with suspicion.” Pasolini does not go this far in his own film, but only perhaps because his attention is focused on the relationship between the torturers and the tortured. If he followed the road to its true end, the whole screen would have been strewn with the corpses of all the players, innocent and complicit alike, in a hideous Jacobean spectacle. It also would have been thematically wrong: Pasolini doesn’t want release in any form, either for his audience or his characters.
“This film is a mad dream,” said Pasolini, “which does not explain what happened in the world during the 40s. A dream which is all the more logical in its whole when it’s the least in its details.” In short, Pasolini was not trying to make a historical explanation for how the Fascists seized power in Italy, or anything that superficial. He was digging to find the root of why Fascist power was so attractive to those that wielded it. For such people, the human being was simply a means to an end, whether pleasure or war, and once used up it was summarily discarded (think of the endless newsreels of corpses being dumped like so many garbage bags into pits). The use of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana at one point is also fitting—Orff’s music was used to fuel Nazi rallies. Even today it’s used to pump up action-packed movie trailers, often slammed in some circles as being part and parcel of a kind of Hollywood-homegrown Fascist fetish.
To a frustrated individual (not always frustrated sexually, either), power is sexy. Seen coldly and objectively from the outside, as Pasolini does, such power becomes appalling, because we have no reason to relish it. A bank robbery in a movie can be vicariously exciting: who wouldn’t want to be rich? But if you see someone or something to empathize with in Salò, Pasolini seemed to be arguing, you are missing the point. His victims are cowed and pathetic cannon fodder, not revolutionaries just itching to give their oppressors a taste of the same boot. The oppressors themselves are just as deplorable, if only because they can think of nothing truly interesting to do with all their power.
I saw Salò for the first time when the British Film Institute produced a DVD of the film in 2003. All I had seen of the film up to that point was a fragment of the ending, used in a documentary about Pasolini’s life and death. That tiny bit of the film alone rattled my eyeteeth: it was like accidentally peeking through the window of that one house on the block that people crossed the street to avoid. The film acquired for me exactly the sort of transgressive–bordering on criminal—aura that it probably held for a great many other people.
Before I was to watch Salò again I saw a far more recent film that couldn’t have been more dissimilar in both its means and ends, even if it sported its own hefty share of on-screen atrocity. That film was Hostel, made by and for people who didn’t begin to understand the implications of what they were bringing up. Hostel was only too happy to leer at its audience; to use cheap eye-for-an-eye horror-movie moralism (and with a straight face, no less); and worst of all to serve up not only carnage and torment but xenophobia and misogyny, all in the “it’s-only-a-movie” guise of cheap (and nasty) thrills.
If this had not been Pier Paolo Pasolini’s last film, it might as well have been. It was the first, and last, installment in what he had intended to be his “Trilogy of Death”, a series of films to complement his earlier “Trilogy of Life”. Maybe even to wholly negate them as well, since after the bawdy joy of The Decameron and Arabian Nights he felt he had done nothing more than become a part of the larger consumer-culture apparatus that was smothering and homogenizing the world. Pasolini’s murder became the most gruesome punctuation mark possible for the film. The making of Salò took so much out of him that his colleagues openly wondered where one could go from making such a thing except straight into the grave.
In the liner notes to the BFI release of the film, Roger Clarke wrote: “The film has made few friends. Yet it remains one of the greatest poetical and cinematic diatribes ever made, with an oneiric ability to shock even the most jaded viewer…” John Powers, in the liner notes to Criterion’s original pressing, called it “a one-of-a-kind project that takes no little defending, and may indeed be indefensible. It’s the cruelest, most obscene, and most intellectually toxic work ever made by a major director.” Me, I remembered the tagline from The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle: “The Film That Incriminates Its Audience”. It fits Salò far better. It is the one film I have seen that despairs completely for ever having to be watched in the first place.
Other Lives Of The Mind