“The bourgeoisie has never hesitated to kill its children”
As drenched in infamy as it is, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film Salo remains a dedicated feature of film criticism, with articles written to this day about the film’s place in the canon of cinema.
Quite possibly the most debauched film in history, Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, is a narrative of fascism inspired by the writings of the Marquis de Sade (a name from which we derive the term sadism).
But sadistic is a questionable word to describe Pasolini’s film. It is less sadistic, and more indifferent.
Following nine young men and women who are captured by Italian soldiers and subjected to the height of sexual torment at the hands of bourgeoisie fascists in the Republic of Salo, Salo is about two hours of pure visual perturbation.
As such, it is irresponsible for me to recommend Salo to anyone who is not already a student of the cinema of cruelty. And to those who are, the film is already common knowledge.
This said, the film illustrates Pasolini at a level of visual refinement that is so antithetical to the lack of refinement in the narrative that it is perversely fascinating to behold. Even if the film is nearly impossible to watch.
This is perhaps the driving force behind the longevity of Pasolini’s film. People discuss the allegorical approach that the film takes, using its extremity to illustrate the heights of fascism and the cruel indifference of the bourgeoisie. But Pasolini’s visual take in the film is a culmination of a long-standing career.
Take, for example, the shot of two characters urinating. A statue of a praying peasant sits at the forefront of the frame, looking as if it is observing the act from a place of bitter sympathy. Religion, in the broken world of this mansion without government, is prohibited by punishment of death. Yet in this single shot religion re-centers itself into the depraved world. It does not intervene. It cannot. But Pasolini reminds us that it exists in spite of all of this oppressive indifference.
Pasolini’s visual style also complements its vicious narrative by desecrating the sophisticated facade of the upper class. He frames the fascist captors in ugly, animalistic positions, thereby stripping away the presumption of refinement that is attributed to the bourgeoisie.
Whether this spells a Marxist interpretation of how cultural reliance on the upper class leads to fascism or merely condemns what is easily condemned, Pasolini presents his allegorical nightmare with a cinematic emphasis that only heightens the distaste of the film.
The most disturbing aspect of the captors’ execution of this torture is the aforementioned indifference. At the onset of the 120 days, one of the captors mentions impassively that the captors look on with “equal parts passion and apathy.” They are driven by perversion but carry out their perverse desires with an almost calculated apathy.
Although the film takes place in Italy, this combination of seemingly paradoxical emotions feels reminiscent of the rise of the Third Reich in Germany. The rise of the Third Reich was one of violent passion and anger, a swift rallying of the people through passionate rhetoric. How they carried out their genocidal plan, however, was with cold calculation.
Near the end of the film, Pasolini also grapples with the vicious circle of scapegoating that also pervaded Germany under the Third Reich. This sequence is the film’s most intriguing, in that it elevates the themes to a fascinating place. Not to mention the scene in which a prisoner caught breaking the rules stands defiant with a fist in the air as he is faced by a firing squad, his captors looking on horrified before shooting him. This image of martyrdom and defiance to fascist rule is the most memorable image of the film, even as the film sears its most depraved moments into the viewer’s skull.
Salo is a hard film to watch, let alone appreciate. But it is one of Pasolini’s most electric films, both for its subversive themes and strong visual style. It is easily argued that the film need not go to the extremes that it does to illustrate these themes, but in a way its extremity is what has given the film its longevity.
The first line of the film posits the captors’ thesis: “All’s good if it’s excessive.” While a despicable line, it contains the film’s resonant goal, which is to carry out the excessive for the sake of something that is thematically good. In an essay for Criterion, Neal Bartlett writes that as much as audiences might want to forget Salo, it is a film about forgetting. Perhaps this is why Pasolini makes the imagery of the film so unfortunately unforgettable. In a world where Holocaust deniers exist, Salo is a film that strives to make the horrors of fascism a brutal, visible reality.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)