Premiere Date — 112 minutes, color, 35mm, aspect ratio 1.85:1 — Horrific Drama
Pasolini’s 12th feature, dramatic and stylistic masterpiece, explores the darkest connections between politics, sexuality, and power.
WARNING! This is the most horrific, literally nauseating film I have ever seen but, for me, its profound insights into fascism make it worth the effort. I have not included any images of the most extreme moments.
*PLEASE NOTE* I am in the process of revising this Pasolini page, and all of my websites, to be completed in 2021. Thank you for understanding.
FILMS: Shorts and Documentaries | 1. Accattone | 2. Mamma Roma | 3. Gospel According to Saint Matthew | 4. Hawks and Sparrows | 5. Oedipus Rex | 6. Teorema | 7. Porcile | 8. Medea | 9. Decameron | 10. Canterbury Tales | 11. Arabian Nights | 12. Salo.
Pasolini’s final work, Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom, is one of the most controversial films ever made, and it remains banned in several countries. But it is the opposite of an exploitation film, let alone prurience: it’s a profound exploration of fascism, an ideology that remains sickeningly alive in today’s world, and the psychological and socioeconomic conditions that spawn it. Salo is also Pasolini’s ultimate work of art and, for reasons I’ll share below, one of cinema’s masterpieces. The Criterion Collection’s new two-disc release is exceptional in every way, from the quality of the transfer, the inclusion of both the original Italian and English dubbed soundtracks, to the wealth of supplemental materials, with several revealing documentaries a book-length collection of essays, and a detailed on-the-set diary kept by a friends of Pasolini’s (he even shares the secret recipe for the main course at the impossible-to-forget banquet scene).
As demanded by the theme, there is an escalation of horror in this film that many viewers, and I, find viscerally shocking. But the film also offers unique rewards, both as political analysis and cinema. The first Village Voice Critics’ Poll, whose 50 participants included Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell, lists it at number 89 among the 100 Best Films of the 20th Century, while Time Out‘s 2006 book, 1,000 Films That Changed Your Life, ranks it as the most controversial film of all time. Salo is NOT a film meant for all audiences.
ADVISORY ABOUT THIS REVIEW: Although you will not find any lurid images from Salo or graphic language (I draw the arbitrary line at the term “excrement”), there is a no-holds-barred examination of the film and its ideas. I focus first on the picture’s major connections with history, literature, philosophy, and cinema, then look at what makes it tick (visual, aural, and kinetic form), and finally speculate about what it might have meant for audiences at the time of its premiere in the mid-’70s, and what significance it might have for us today (a lot). In an instance of tragic irony, Pasolini was murdered after completing the film but before its polarizing release.
Although Pasolini’s film is vastly more complex, and rewarding, than its insufferable source, the Marquis de Sade’s 1785 novel The 120 Days of Sodom, both works share the same essential story and characters. Four powerful men, seemingly the pillars of their community — allegorically representing the aristocracy, religion, law, and finance — hole up in a hermetically sealed environment with young captives whom they systematically debauch, then murder. In Sade the locale is the Chateau de Silling, a remote Gothic castle (based on one owned by his family, near Lacoste) perched on a snowy peak in the Black Forest, around the time of the Thirty Years War (1618–1648); in Pasolini it’s a lavish villa in the Nazi-backed Republic of Salo, headquartered in the northern Italian town of that name, during the Mussolini regime’s last gasp in 1944–45.
Salo is worthy of serious attention — as opposed to the trash can — for two reasons: Pasolini’s aesthetic mastery of cinema, from design to photography, and because it remains film’s most rigorous psychological and socioeconomic examination of fascism, of what makes such self-proclaimed “moral leaders” capable of the most despicable violence.
As Pasolini knew, until we understand the nature of such traditional evil, we can never cast it out, or even keep it in check. Before dissecting Salo, let’s glance at the major artistic and philosophical traditions behind it, that Pasolini uses to give it form.
You can jump directly to an analysis of the film, or read the following background information, presented in chronological order, that briefly covers —in a whirlwind tour! — Salo’s connections to:
- Pasolini’s life and thought,
- Dante’s Inferno,
- the Marquis de Sade,
- Buñuel’s film L’Âge d’Or,
- Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty,
- postwar literary theorists on Sade, and
- violence in cinema, focusing on trends begun in the 1960s.
Since Salo is arguably Pasolini’s greatest film, it’s ironic that at first he was only peripherally involved. In the mid-1970s, he was helping his friend and frequent actor Sergio Citti, who played the title roles in Accattone and Oedipus Rex, with a screenplay based on Sade’s novel, that Citti was slated to direct. But when the project fell through, another friend and uncredited co-writer, Pupi Avati (as he noted in the documentary “The End of Salo”), inspired Pasolini to make the film himself. Salo was produced by Alberto Grimaldi (Fellini Satyricon, Last Tango in Paris, Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life, Scorsese’s Gangs of New York), Alberto De Stefanis (casting director for The Decameron), and Antonio Girasante. Pasolini shot the picture in the spring of 1975 both on location outside of Mantua, and in Rome on soundstages at Italy’s premiere studio, Cinecittà (ironically, founded by Mussolini in 1937 as a propaganda factory).
Pasolini’s imagination had been initially fired up by Baudelaire and Sade connections, that Avati may have pointed out, but soon his passion for Dante — and the links he saw between Dante and Sade — entered the picture. As Pasolini says, in archival footage in the documentary “Salo: Yesterday and Today,” “I gave the screenplay a kind of Dante-esque verticality and order.” Pasolini’s next flash of inspiration came when he realized that Sade’s text could be updated to a time and place of great personal significance: Mussolinii’s Salo. He knew the beautiful pre-Il Duce region first-hand from his youth; and his beloved younger brother Guido was killed near there in 1945 fighting the Nazis and fascists. Personally, the mid-’70s were a difficult time for Pasolini since his beloved mother Susanna, by all accounts a loving and religiously devout woman, was in failing health; whether or not this affected, and darkened, the artist’s worldview can only be conjectured. But there is no doubt that politically he saw how he could reinterpret the novel to explore themes much on his mind. Mincing no words, Pasolini considered Italy’s dominant Christian Democrat party to be worse than the fascists, because of how they used the narcotizing power not only of right-wing political and religious indoctrination but of consumerism, to ensnare the populace. Now, Pasolini saw everywhere (if I may paraphrase a line from his friend Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculine Feminine) the debased, and lovin’ in, “children of Mussolini and Coca-Cola.” Salo was his way of exposing the bases of both “classical” fascism and latter-day neo-fascism.
In more universal terms, Pasolini wanted to explore such interconnected themes as how “sadomasochism is an eternal part of man,” how sex can be “a metaphor for the relationship between power and its subjects,” how Sade’s masochism “reduces the human body to a commodity” (a concept that Pasolini pointedly compares to ’70s Italy) and, fundamentally, the horrific extent of “the anarchy of power,” that wants to end history and dominate nature. In other words, Pasolini was primed to explore perhaps the central theme of twentieth century politics and art: the problematic relationship between the individual, society, power, and freedom. He also liked the challenge of turning those ideas into drama and imagery. One prime, if stomach-churning, instance — that also shows how Pasolini was thinking as much about 1975 as Sade and Dante — was the banquet of excrement, that he intended to symbolize the rotten 1970’s “fast food” culture that he saw engulfing the world, destroying indigenous cultures, including Italy’s rural people — of course, we all know who came out on top. The Pasolini film that is closest to this one is Porcile (aka Pigsty), but it never quite manages to balance its politicized themes and too-convoluted form — while Salo shows Pasolini at the height of his genius on every level, from complexity of thought to cinematic mastery. In his twin role as social philosopher and artist, some might even see Pasolini as a kind of latter-day Dante.
Since the medieval epic poem, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), was a direct inspiration for both Sade and Pasolini, let’s enter Salo by way of hell — Dante’s Inferno, whose entrance motto could equally well serve that 18th century novel or 20th century film: “Abandon hope, all who enter here.”
Both The 120 Days of Sodom and Salo are structured after Dante’s allegorical circles that lead ever deeper into increasingly vile torments for increasingly damned souls. In Dante, the very bottom of hell, the Ninth Circle, holds Satan, a massive three-faced beast imprisoned in ice, who literally eats traitors and spits them out.
Sade never came near to finishing his magnum opus but his notes, increasingly sketchy, show the ever-downward spiral in which his tale was headed. Pasolini fleshes out, but scales back, Sade’s intended finale, with the climactic torture/murder of the remaining victims. Pasolini knew Dante’s works well, and drew inspiration from the less visceral Purgatory for his political farce Hawks and Sparrows, whose circular ‘walkabout’ structure is notably Dantesque. No character in either Sade or Pasolini could even aspire to reaching that central part of The Divine Comedy, let alone its conclusion in Paradise.
For Salo, Pasolini accentuated the Dantesque elements that were already in The 120 Days of Sodom, while basically focusing on three or four stories from each of the novel’s four parts that were centered on increasingly terrible “passions.” Sade names them “simple, complex, criminal, and homicidal passions;” while Pasolini includes title cards that are specifically related to Dante: 1) “Antechamber of Hell” (in the Inferno’s Antechamber, before entering hell proper, Dante sees the Opportunists, souls of people who in life did nothing, neither for good nor evil, in a no-man’s land where they now eternally run after a banner, while various insects sting them and drink their tears and blood, symbolizing their pangs of conscience and sin’s repulsiveness — in Salo, the “Antechamber” is the eerily deserted Italian village, beyond the villa, where soldiers round up the victims, including a few new recruits for their own ranks), 2) “The Circle of Obsessions” (in the Inferno’s Second Circle, the “obsessive” sin is lust: “damned because they sinned within the flesh,/ subjecting reason to the rule of lust” (canto 5.38–39): Pasolini also would have seen the parallel with Sade’s and Salo’s structure, since this circle is ruled by the monster Minos, once a mythical king who demanded an annual sacrifice of fourteen youths: seven girls, seven boys — in Salo the most terrible obsession is lust for power); 3) “The Circle of Excrement” (in the Inferno’s Eighth Circle, Second Bolgia [a “ditch” or sub-circle], Flatterers are mired in their own waste — in Salo the “excrement” refers, both literally and metaphorically, to what Pasolini saw as the end product of a capitalism’s unfettered consumerism) and 4) “The Circle of Blood” (in the Inferno’s Seventh Circle, Outer Ring, perpetrators of Violence, the murderers and bandits, are perpetually drowned in a river of blood — in Salo’s apocalyptic final scene, the victims who did not strictly obey the masters’ petty rules meet a no less horrific fate through a nauseating series of different punishments, reminiscent of both those meted out by the Catholic Church’s Inquisition, that lasted from about 1232 BCE until the 19th century, and — in a subtle jab at his own society — Italy’s preferred forms of capital punishment (now completely abolished): hanging, shooting, garroting, and electrocution).
Pasolini also saw links between Dante, Sade, and his own previous work, the celebratory Trilogy of Life — a critical and financial hit, consisting of adaptations of The Decameron (from Boccaccio’s 1350 The Decameron), Canterbury Tales (from Chaucer’s 1390 Canterbury Tales), and Arabian Nights (from The Thousand and One Nights, stories collected over centuries from many Middle Eastern and South Asian countries, first published around 900 BCE). All of those literary landmarks are so-called frame stories, in which a single ‘outer shell’ drama enables characters to recount many different tales whose themes are related, however loosely, to the overall work; of course, The Divine Comedy is also a frame story, but the later works offer more developed internal mini-narratives. (One outstanding example of a frame story film is the 1945 British fantasy anthology, Dead of Night, whose six linked segments are by Basil Dearden and three other directors.) Sade may have been influenced by all of these works, not least The Thousand and One Nights: Antoine Galland’s still-used French translation appeared in 1704. Consider its basic frame story in relation to Sade: in ancient Persia, King Shahryar is so obsessed with his wife remaining “faithful,” that he marries a succession of 3,000 virgins but then has each one executed the morning after their nuptials so that she can never cheat on him (!); finally, the ingenious Scheherazade keeps her head by telling the king riveting stories, including those of Aladdin and Sinbad the Sailor, but stopping each night at a new cliffhanger: if she dies, the story-starved king will never know what happens next. Sade creates an infernal inversion: the victims of 120 Days must remain totally silent (unlike Scheherazade), and while there is no description in The Thousand and One Nights of either the wives’ deflowerings or executions, in Sade that’s the main, um, attraction. One suspects that if Sade had been placed in Scheherazade’s position, he wouldn’t have lasted even one night, since his stories are fatally boring.
Now let’s leave Dante and the authors behind Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life, to spend some time — as little as possible — getting to know Sade.
So, who was this man who literally became synonymous with sadism? Born into a privileged family, Donatien Alphonse François, Comte de Sade (1740–1814) exhibited a violent temper from childhood, although it didn’t stop him from getting a plum post as a royal cavalry officer. He began his lifelong ways as a libertine in his youth, and married a fabulously wealthy woman who indulged him in every possible way — including his maniacal trysts with members of both sexes. His mother-in-law was less accommodating: in 1778, she had him legally imprisoned for life. He wrote his novels in jail, the infamous Bastille, with The 120 Days of Sodom scribbled in minuscule handwriting to fit on a massive 12-meter-long scroll, on the eve of the French Revolution. At its end, he wrote: “This entire great roll was begun the 22nd of October, 1785, and finished in thirty-seven days” — but the novel is nowhere near completed, with fully 90 of the intended 120 days merely sketched in outline. Sade believed that the work was lost during the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, but he hid it better than he knew. It was not published until 1904, and then banned in many countries.
One can speculate about the irony, or is it motive, of Sade fantasizing about (what he conceived as) absolute freedom while locked in a small, dank cell, with his entire society collapsing around him. Freed during the chaos in 1790, the now obese marquis found that his wife had left him for good. Napoleon was so scandalized by the explicit novel Justine that he ordered the anonymous author found, and confined to the mental asylum at Charenton. There Sade continued dashing off novels and plays, while having an affair with a worker’s young daughter, until his death. He left scores of unpublished manuscripts, that his son burned. His works remained out of print for a century, until the Sade revival in prewar France. He was seen as a harbinger of at least three key movements: psychoanalysis, for his focus on sexual pathology as a compulsive force; existentialism, for his radical depiction of “freedom;” and even surrealism, whose avatars revelled in his mind-boggling excesses.
In The 120 Days of Sodom, the mania of the four alpha males — and perhaps of Sade himself — for (fascistic) order is seen in how dictatorially they structure every aspect of life… and, if you break any of those rules, death. (I refer to them as the masters; others call them the libertines, the monsters, and even less flattering names, while in Salo they call themselves “the four friends.”) The masters, described as “lawless and without religion,” represent the four main branches of societal power — aristocracy, religion, law, finance/politics; they are obsessed with gratifying their insatiable urges for cruelty, lust and, above all, power. The foursome includes the Duke (Duc de Blangis), a 50-year-old nobleman who acquired his wealth by poisoning his mother; the Bishop (l’Évêque), the Duke’s 45-year-old brother with a “nasty mouth;” the Magistrate (Curval), a literally dirty 60 year old who enjoys sentencing innocent people to death (Pasolini cleans up his exterior, if nothing else); and the Banker named Durcet, 53, effete and short (instead of this character type, Pasolini has a President).
These four wannabe gods — whose fear of their own inner weakness is more apparent to us than to them, or perhaps Sade — surround themselves with a universe of their own design: it’s as rigidly designed, right down to the number symbolism (everything in multiples of four), as the world outside is chaotic, whether in Sade’s own life it’s the French Revolution, the novel’s Thirty Years War, or Salo’s disintegrating fascist regime. The four masters create an unyielding hierarchy, based on their own number, with themselves lording it over the four faded harlots turned storytellers, the four masters’ daughters (the men marry them off to each other in a mechanical rotation), eight “studs” (in Pasolini, he divides this group into four fascist collaborators and four guards), eight each of “physically perfect” youths and maidens, and servants (numbering five in Pasolini, who gets to break Sade’s tetramania). In Sade, the action is spread over four months, November through February. The raconteuses take turns telling five stories each night, in which they expose the fetishes of their most notable clients. (Had Sade finished all 150 tales for each month, the total of 600 stories would have put his opus midway between the 100 novellas in The Decameron and The Thousand and One Nights).
With ritualistic regularity, each night’s conclave runs from precisely 6:00 till 10:00 PM, during which time the storytellers’ concupiscent recitations “inflame” the four masters. Each month’s theme is dedicated to an increasingly violent “passion:” November is for “simple passions” (in the masters’ novel definition, this means nothing more than that penetration is avoided), December is “complex passions,” January is “criminal,” February climaxes with the “homicidal” (the masters murder even their own daughters/wives — although Pasolini spares us this), then comes the coda of March, the shortest, cruelest month — and the thinnest of Sade’s outlines — victims, including children, are finished off. The masters are the only ones allowed to suspend their own rules long enough to do with the victims what they will during, um, story time. Looked at another way, there is a built-in frustration, as the masters move from announcing the passion they are exploiting, to listening to the storyteller (some of whom go on and on and…), to finally indulging themselves with the victims. Notably, in Sade the act culminates in the expected spasm, but in Pasolini the masters invariably fizzle out.
ADVISORY: Sade’s unabridged novel, whose full title is The 120 Days of Sodom or the School of Licentiousness (Les 120 journées de Sodome ou l’école du libertinage), is freely available online but PLEASE NOTE that it is extraordinarily graphic, much more so than the film, and numbingly tedious — it’s available in both the original French at fr.wikisource.org and in English translation: chapter by chapter at globusz.com, and as a single PDF download at the Marquis de Sade Electronic Library.
To give a brief but representative taste of both Sade’s turgid prose and ideology, here is a key passage — without explicit imagery or language (which immediately follows this excerpt). Note the tension between that stylistic hallmark of Age of Enlightenment prose (as in Diderot, Rousseau, Jefferson) — a rational, almost legalistic, style of argumentation made point by point — and Sade’s inability to control his bombast, sophistry, and anti-human worldview. This excerpt comes from near the end of the chapter “The Twenty-Seventh Day,” when the Magistrate tells his peers:
“Voilà comme il faut penser sur les plaisirs, et sa philosophie me plaît infiniment. Il est incroyable à quel point l’homme, déjà resserré dans tous ses amusements, dans toutes ses facultés, cherche à restreindre encore les bornes de son existence par ses indignes préjugés. On n’imagine point, par exemple, où celui qui érige le meurtre en crime a limité toutes ses délices; il s’est privé de cent plaisirs, plus délicieux les uns que les autres, en osant adopter la chimère odieuse de ce préjugé-là. Et que diable peut faire à la nature un, dix, vingt, cinq cents hommes de plus ou de moins dans le monde? Les conquérants, les héros, les tyrans s’imposent-ils cette loi absurde de ne pas oser faire aux autres ce que nous ne voulons pas qui nous soit fait? En vérité, mes amis, je ne vous le cache pas, mais je frémis quand j’entends des sots oser me dire que c’est là la loi de la nature, etc. Juste ciel! avide de meurtres et de crimes, c’est à les faire commettre et à les inspirer que la nature met sa loi, et la seule qu’elle imprime au fond de nos cœurs est de nous satisfaire n’importe aux dépens de qui….
“It is truly incredible the way man, already restricted in all his amusements, in all his faculties, seeks further to narrow the scope of his existence through his contemptible prejudices. For example, it is not commonly suspected what limitations he who has raised up murder as a crime has imposed upon all his delights; he has deprived himself of a hundred joys, each more delicious than the other, by daring to adopt the odious illusion which founds that particular nonsense. What the devil difference can it make to Nature whether there are one, ten, twenty, five hundred more or fewer human beings on earth? Conquerors, heroes, tyrants — do they inhibit themselves by that absurd law? Do you hear them saying that we ought not do unto others that which onto ourselves we would not have done? Forsooth, my friends, I tell you frankly that I tremble, I groan when I hear fools dare to tell me that such is the law of Nature, etc. . . . [ellipsis in original text] Merciful Heaven! all athirst for crimes and murders, ’tis to see to it they are committed, to inspire them Nature has wrought her law, and the one commandment she graves deep in our hearts is to satisfy ourselves at no matter whose expense….”
Sade has constructed a fictive — and radically unlivable — universe of monumental, and nihilistic, self-deception: at least there is a reward for getting through the deadly dull 500 pages, and it is a fuller appreciation of Pasolini’s masterpiece. You might say that Sade is nihilism’s pimp, while Pasolini is society’s gadfly.
After World War II, Sade received critical attention from many of France’s intellectual luminaries, as we’ll see in a moment. There have been over two dozen film adaptations of his works, and he’s been fictionalized in dozens of plays, novels, and pictures, ranging from horror movies like cinematographer/director Freddie Francis’s The Skull (1965), to dramatist Peter Weiss and director Peter Brook’s avante-garde Marat/Sade (stage 1963, film 1967), to Philip Kaufman’s biopic Quills (2000).
BunueOf all the many films related to Sade, the most radical isn’t Salo: it’s Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s incendiary L’Âge d’Or (‘The Golden Age,’ 1930), that at its premiere inspired fascists to toss ink at the screen, destroy art works in the lobby by Dalí, Man Ray and other surrealist titans, and attack audience members. The film’s wealthy backer was so outraged that he confiscated the film, keeping it locked up for almost a half century. What was so shocking, at least to social conservatives? Basically, the film lays the blame for monstrous behavior on societal repression, very much including the church — as we’ll see, Pasolini also explores that theme, but subtly. Let’s take a quick look at Buñuel’s ending, that manages to condense all of The 120 Days of Sodom into four minutes, then tacks on an original tour de force ending unlike any other. L’Âge d’Or is available complete and free online; the hyper-condensed Sade adaptation begins at about 58:40 (you can move the slider to that point).
SPOILER ALERT for L’Âge d’Or virgins: Buñuel summarizes the whole of Sade’s tome in just one intertitle, then announces that the orgies’ survivors are about to emerge. First up is the ringleader, the sadist of sadists, the Duc de Blangis, who slowly pushes open a massive wooden door and… he looks exactly like Jesus Christ, in the traditional depiction with beard, long robes, and heavenly demeanor!! (more than two exclamation marks may be called for). He’s followed by the three other libertines, who act like saintly disciples. Then a terrified young woman runs out. The Duc seems to comfort her, leading her back inside the castle. The door closes. Peppy music comes up (there is no dialogue), and we cut to… a giant crooked cross, bedecked with women’s scalps blowing in the wind. The End… but not of Buñuel’s influence on Salo, whose climactic sequence, in its visceral surreal horror, shows us how those scalps might have been obtained, along with reminding us of the infamous eyeball and razor image from “Un Chien Andalou” (‘Andalusian Dog,’ 1928), and much more.
Another key inspiration for Salo is the theatrical director and theorist, Antonin Artaud (1896–1948; he also acted in Gance’s 1927 Napoleon playing Marat, and in Dreyer’s 1928 The Passion of Joan of Arc — the greatest film I’ve seen — as the monk Massieu). His concept of the Theatre of Cruelty remains influential even after 70 years. Artaud, like Pasolini in Salo, wanted to cut through the audience’s smug complacency that, as he said in his book The Theatre and Its Double (1938), “lies like a shroud over our perceptions.” To accomplish that, he created the Theatre of Cruelty, a sometimes violent but always highly ritualized dramatic form, to shock the audience awake “through the skin.”
Artaud’s theories were inspired by theatrical Balinese dance, that he admired for its exacting physicality. But perhaps he was also influenced by the ritualistc, and even nihilistic, aspects of Sade — whose fiction is notably theatrical, and who ended his days writing and directing plays within an insane asylum — whose works were coming back in print during Artaud’s formative years. (Artaud’s theories are most widely known through the 1963 play and film that embody its principles, dramatist Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade — its tortuous full title is The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade — directed as both a play and film by Peter Brook (1963 film Lord of the Flies; and the 1985 stage, 1989 film The Mahabharata); another Artaud-inspired work that may have been on Pasolini’s mind is Jean Genet’s 1956 play The Balcony, a psychodrama about politics, power and sadomasochism set inside a brothel, while outside the world erupts in revolution.)
While Artaud provided a key inspiration for Pasolini’s dramatic approach — with its emphasis on ritual, formalism, and violence to shock the audience awake — many of the ideas that run below the (Artaudian) surface of Salo are laid bare by the recommended reading list that Pasolini presents in the opening credits, in widescreen and his beloved Bodoni typeface: this “homework assignment” was, and perhaps remains, unique in cinema. Yet it’s more than just a gimmick. After suffering through reading Sade for this essay, I decided these eminent critics deserved equal attention.
These are five rigorous theoretical works about Sade, by some of the most renowned (or torturous, depending on your perspective) postwar French literary philosophers. Excerpts from everal of these works are freely available in English translation at Google Books — although they may be removed or further truncated at any time. Following is Pasolini’s complete, five-title Essential Bibliography, as he calls it in the opening credits. I’ve added both the original publication dates and links, and put the list — that Pasolini arranged alphabetically — into chronological order, since these works constitute an ongoing dialogue.
Pasolini’s intertitle for the Essential Bibliography
Roland Barthes, Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1971)
Barthes reveals a provocative connection between the seemingly disparate foundational sadist, utopian economist, and Jesuit saint. He sees each of them as the creator of a unique, autonomous, all-encompassing linguistic system that can separate the individual from the everyday world. Barthes sees Sade, “the evil writer,” as the mastermind of a language of erotic freedom, although one that is realistically impossible to live, not least because of how it “exhaust[s] the combinative of units.” Yet for that very reason, it is “a rare, courageous utopia because it appears to believe in the possibility of a subject-less” state. Barthes is fascinated by what it means to live “unglued” in an unreal universe created entirely from language. For Barthes, this is a rare form of pleasure, despite the radically different subject matter of each of the three “Logothetes, founders of language” whom he analyzes. (One wonders what religious fanatics, of all stripes, might make of Barthes’s ideas — their affinity for a literalistic use of Sade is well known.)
Maurice Blanchot, Lautréamont and Sade (1949 — the chapter “Sade’s Reason”)
Blanchot uses his review of Klossowski’s Sade, My Neighbor to analyze Sade’s corrosive — and inherently contradictory — form of “reason” as a contrast to the two main intellectual currents of postwar France that Sade, in part, inspired: surrealism and existentialism. Blanchot gets at the dark heart of Sade’s “philosophy… of complete egoism” when he writes about his view of life — does this also bring to mind a fundamental concept of today’s Neoconservatism? — “Sadean humanity is essentially composed of a small number of all-powerful men, who had the will to raise themselves above laws…, who feel naturally worthy because of the deviations nature created in them, and who seek satisfaction in every way possible…. [T]hey take advantage of their status, their fortune, the impunity that their situation assures them [including even] implacable despotism…” Blanchot penetrates even further into why Sade leaves the reader uneasy on so many levels. Sade’s “primary and main peculiarity [is] that, at every moment, his theoretical ideas release the irrational forces that are bound up with them…. The results is that everything said is clear, but seems at the mercy of something unsaid [that] is also again buried within the obscurity of unreflective thought and unformulatable moments.” Touché.
Simone de Beauvoir, “Must We Burn Sade?” (1953)
Philosopher and novelist Beauvoir, author of the feminist classic The Second Sex (1949), is fascinated by Sade for his (pun intended) tortured stance on the relationship between eroticism and ethics. Beauvoir never condones Sade’s violence or all-consuming egoism, but she appreciates what he reveals, for the first time in the history of ideas, about the limits of human sexuality crossed with unbridled power. Beauvoir also acknowledges Sade’s unprecedented “transgressiveness,” a quality that at its best — clearly not in Sade — can offer personal liberation. She pinpoints his failure in the fact, to which Sade seems oblivious, that there is no reciprocity, and hence no emotional connection, between the participants in the acts that he describes in endless variations on his narrow theme. Beauvoir also notes the vague, flat, and sickly would-be literary quality of Sade: “Not only do the orgies to which he invites us take place in no particular time or locality, but — what is more serious — no living people are brought into play. The victims are frozen in their tearful abjection, and the torturers in their frenzies. Instead of giving them lifelike density, Sade merely daydreams about them.”
Pierre Klossowski, Sade, My Neighbor (1947)
The philosopher Klossowski began the reevaluation of Sade, as a way to try to understand why reason and morality — the foundations of an enlightened civilization — had been shattered during World War II. Klossowski saw Sade as a harbinger of the cruelty, anarchy and destruction, the “moral nihilism,” unleashed by fascism. Klossowski sees Sade as a sort of equal-time nihilist, attacking both Christian religiosity and Enlightenment materialism. He also pinpointed what makes Sade so horrifying: he is, as the title reveals, our “neighbor.” Klossowski inspired all later writers on Sade, including the four other critics listed by Pasolini, as well as Bataille, Deleuze, Lacan, Derrida, Sontag and others. (Trivia buffs take note: Klossowski was the older brother of the artist known as Balthus; and in Bresson’s extraordinary “donkey film” Au hasard Balthazar (1966), he played the tight-fisted, lecherous miller.)
Phillipe Sollers, Writing and the Experience of Limits (1968 — including the essay “Sade in the Text”)
Critic and experimental novelist Sollers is fascinated by how Sade subverts the traditional relationship between nature and culture. Sollers distrusts what he sees as the arbitrary nature of “reality,” that is merely an ideological construct imposed by the dominant class. If perhaps a bit stylistically overripe, Sollers comments on Sade’s writing are provocative: “What appears beneath the savage mask of Perversion is the exact inverse of the Neurosis instituted by a civilization based on the deification of speech…. If there is a burning center of Sadean writing, surely it is this: the rejection of all causality which, after using Nature to refute God, immolates Nature in a ceaseless movement of words…. [S]ays Sade [in Justine]; “perhaps the causes do not determine the effects.” Sollers celebrates the culturally, and not just sexually, subversive nature of Sade, stating that Nature “is a hallucination of culture…. Sade’s text… continually unmask[s] the foundations of our knowledge, for the support of the natural, and norm, to be forever shaken and undermined….”
In Pasolini’s film, these ideas, which are both apparent and self-conscious — unlike in Sade (who despite his feeble attempts at ironic humor, such as calling us readers his “dear friends,” seems oblivious to what psychosexual Pandora’s box he’s opening) — are integrated into the dramatic structure (as we’ll see in the analysis section below). While it’s anachronistic to have the masters in 1945 quoting Klossowski and, three decades early, Barthes, they also summon up other relevant authors that these postwar critics analyzed in connection to Sade, including Baudelaire, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Proust, and especially Nietzsche.
As the undoubtedly grinning Pasolini knew, presenting this erudite bibliography is even more radical, in terms of movie history, than showing extremities of violence. More important than it’s novelty is that it helps to makes Pasolini’s aesthetic and political intentions clear. Of course, what gives the ideas maximum impact is how he embodies them in psychologically complex, if abhorent, characters. (Plato, two and a half millennia earlier, knew the effectiveness of putting philosophical arguments in the mouths of credible human beings, and then letting the emotional fireworks of their interactions reveal the psychological underpinning of the ideas: in a way, both Sade’s novel and Pasolini’s film are like an anti-Symposium, probing degradation instead of love.) There is a (necessarily) visceral impact of seeing these ideas depicted onscreen — Artaud, for one, would have applauded. In Pasolini, the ideas are literally made flesh (or chocolate and marmalade, in one instance), and there is a constant, unsettling counterpoint between what the characters say and do, and our perceptions of them as being sickeningly disconnected from their actions.
Besides philosophical theories, the newly ramped up tradition of violence in cinema is another notable part of Salo’s background. Of course, violence has been a ticket-selling part of movies from the beginning, its expansive tradition encompassing silent Keystone Cops shorts a century ago, to endless war movies and Westerns and thrillers, to classic Warner Bros. cartoons like Bugs Bunny, to such landmark films as Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969), Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971), to the slasher flicks of the 1970s and ’80s like Mario Bava’s 1971 Twitch of the Death Nerve and its American rip-off, er, homage, Friday the Thirteenth (1980). Later developments include the 1980s and ’90s ‘bullet ballets’ of Hong Kong filmmakers like John Woo in The Killer (1989), and high-grossing contemporary torture-fests like Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999), Hostel (2005) and their many knock-offs: a defining difference between Salo and these movies is that the latter are about sensationalism and boffo box office, untouched by philosophical/political ambitions — and there are certainly no reading lists anywhere in the credits.
Pasolini took his cinematic license to kill, and torture, from this tradition of cinematic violence, but his aim wasn’t just increased realism — and it absolutely was not prurient titillation, à la the snuff-movie crowd — it was to show the consequences of fascism in action: Pasolini never got over the murder of his brother by the fascists and Nazis. He was also disturbed by recent films that cast fascism in too pretty, or even sentimental, a light, including Louis Malle’s Lacombe, Lucien (1974 — about a sympathetically-drawn Vichy country bumpkin who happens to fall in with the Nazis), Visconti’s glossy The Damned (1969 — the sequence depicting the Night of the Long Knives in July 1934 — when Hitler had his homosexual paramilitary SA leader, Ernst Röhm, his men and their boy toys slaughtered — would certainly have topped the four masters’ video playlist), not to mention the Boy Scout-like singing Nazi — “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” — in Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music (1965), and many more instances of cinema ‘going soft’ on fascism. Pasolini also felt that even Bertolucci’s masterpiece, The Conformist (1970, from the 1951 novel by Alberto Moravia, one of Pasolini’s closest friends), did not go far enough in dissecting and damning fascism, although I disagree. That picture — about the self-destruction of a latent homosexual who tries to “save” himself by becoming an assassin for Mussolini — seems the other most penetrating film about fascism.
Now let’s see how Pasolini brings together, and transcends, so many diverse inspirations, to expose the social forces that unleash the horrors of Salo, even as creates a uniquely original work of art.
In Salo, Pasolini uses every element — narrative, editorial, visual, and sound — to explore his themes, and make them into dramatically compelling, and resonant, cinema. This is by no stretch an “entertaining” picture, but it is riveting, and provocative in the extreme.
The narrative form holds every aspect together, even as Pasolini uses it to analyze the complexly intertwined ideas. But before exploring that, let’s take a moment to honor Pasolini’s largely non-professional cast; these performers bring the drama and themes to life… and death.
Of the eight principal actors, several have distinguished filmographies, as noted at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). The four masters are: The Duke (the bearded leader of the pack) / Paolo Bonacelli (the 1979 Caligula, Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, Mission: Impossible III), The Bishop (clean-shaven and black-haired) / Giorgio Cataldi (only other film appearance was 1976’s Ragazza alla pari), The Magistrate (graying brown hair, with a moustache) / Umberto Paolo Quintavalle (he was an author, whom Pasolini cast because “your physical aspect… is perfect for the role of a decadent intellectual”), The President (a cross-eyed redhead — this character was the Banker in Sade) / Aldo Valletti (Frankenstein: Italian Style, Damiano Damiani’s I Am Afraid). The four women “entertainers” are: Signora Castelli / Caterina Boratto (Fellini’s 8-1/2 as the Mysterious Lady, Juliet of the Spirits, Bava’s Diabolik, mini-series The Far Pavilions), Signora Maggi / Elsa De Giorgi (Pasolini’s “La Ricotta” as the producer’s wife), Signora Vaccari / Hélène Surgère (Raoul Ruiz’s Time Regained and That Day, Merchant/Ivory’s Le Divorce, Claude Berri’s Hunting and Gathering), The Pianist / Sonia Saviange (previously co-starred with Hélène Surgère in Paul Vecchiali’s 1974 Femmes femmes). Of the three dozen additional performers, few did any other films, although both Franco Merli (who wins the ‘beautiful buttocks’ competition) and Ines Pellegrini (the African maidservant) had recently co-starred in Pasolini’s Arabian Nights, and each appeared in a few additional pictures.
Pasolini always cast performers, whether a professional actor or some kid off the street, based on one key quality: their ability to deliver what he called “that moment of truth” on camera. While Pasolini rehearsed his professional actors more than usual, because of the film’s precise stylistic requirements, he told the non-professionals only what they needed to know, then immediately shot the scene. Some of their shocked reactions are spontaneous because, like us in the audience, they didn’t see what was coming.
Actress Hélène Surgère recalls, in the documentary “Salo: Yesterday and Today,” that for large scenes Pasolini had four cameras running simultaneously. Set designer Dante Ferretti noted the momentum that Pasolini sustained, sometimes completing a hundred shots in a day, an almost unheard of feat. Despite the pace of filming, the crew and actors (whose actual first names are used) emphasized, in interviews, how kind and attentive Pasolini was. Apparently the major problem was getting the young non-professional actors to stop cracking up about the atrocities they were play-enacting. A running joke was getting backstage visitors to try the delicious confection — made of Swiss chocolate, broken cookies (biscuits), condensed milk, and orange marmalade — and then reveal that it was the main course at the banquet of excrement: gag — in both senses of the word. In striking contrast to the horrors onscreen, and to his credit, Pasolini had turned the production into a supportive and happy anti-Salo. When Surgère finally saw the finished film, she said that, “I wondered how we’d made something so awful without realizing it.”
Of course, “awful” can mean disgusting as well as filling one with awe… like this film. Let’s see how Pasolini uses narrative form as a key element in his paradoxical creation.
Perhaps the most striking formal aspect of the film, even on a first viewing, is how rigid everything is, from the purposeful stiffness of the acting (the masters’ inflexible body language reveals more than they know), to the obsessively balanced and static compositions, to the sombre, ritualistic pacing. As noted above, even the characters and dramatic structure are locked into hierarchical units of four.
In the background section we looked at the eclectic literary sources that Pasolini draws on, especially Dante and Sade, but he also, surprisingly, adds fairy tales to the mix. By having pared down the narrative — focusing on only four of Sade’s mercifully never-finished 120 days — Pasolini can, among other things, inflect the story as if it were a fairy tale; the primary storyteller, Signora Vacari, is even dressed in a flouncy gown that’s like a parody of the good witch Glinda’s in The Wizard of Oz. But talk about Grimm, in broad strokes we have — as in “Hansel and Gretel” and countless other fairy or folk tale — the capture of children, their captivity in the wicked witch’s, er, four masters’, secret lair, where they are subjected to clearly-defined trials and tribulations. But significantly, in this fable about fascism, there is no trail of bread crumbs to show the victims the way out — although Pasolni’s does leave markers for us, in every frame: the process of ferreting them out forces us to examine the nature of the masters’ twisted world. On a lighter note, you could add that Pasolini definitely got movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn’s memo: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union” — with its meaning hidden, albeit in plain sight, interpreting Salo is no picnic, and neither should it be, considering that it weighs nothing less than the underlying assumptions of our civilization, as we’ll see as we peel back its layers, one by one.
Perhaps surprisingly, the script employs conventional dramatic form, with each of its four parts being the same length, about a half hour. It moves from exposition (Antechamber of Hell), to rising action in the first two Circles, to climax (supply your own pun, if you must). But Pasolini fragments the classical narrative with the storytellers’ tedious would-be erotic tales that become increasingly violent, even as they make the masters feel increasingly frustrated at their own impotence. Instead of expanding the reach of the narrative, as in Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life, they do the opposite, making both their listeners and us feel more trapped than ever in a loveless, joyless, exploitative world where discharge clearly is not relief. Salo’s narrative is even more disturbing for what it lacks, namely a protagonist we can admire in any way. There is no hero or heroine, just sorry people who are either the young victims, the self-debasing guards, or the self-destroying masters. If you want a hero/ine, you’re going to have to do it yourself which, as we’ll see, is exactly the point.
In terms of structure, the resolution could hardly be more problematic. The film, like Sade’s book, ends with a cascade of torture/murders, but beyond the atrocities we see there is a secondary level of dis-ease generated by the narrative form itself. Dramatically, it could hardly be flatter: debauched middle-aged men taking turns sitting in a big chair and peering through binoculars, while below their friends routinely murder the “disobedient” prisoners. Not even the previously favored victims are spared in this penultimate scene, for which Pasolini strips away all ambident sound, most notably the victims’ screams and the laughter of the masters. Instead, we hear only a rip-roaring musical excerpt (the “Primo vere” / “Spring” movement) from Carl Orff’s 1937 dramatic cantata, Carmina Burana, that Pasolini called “typical Fascist music” (in the 30 years since Salo, this cue has become perhaps the most frequently used classical piece in trailers for action films without their own finished scores — where was Die Hard’s Bruce Willis when these victims needed rescuing?).
The narrative has been building, in a conventional ‘rising action’ manner, to its climax, but the resolution ends (as Eliot put it in “The Hollow Men”) “Not with a bang, but with a whimper.” The Allies never charge in, guns blazing, to mow down the monstrous masters and free the remaining nubile victims. And that’s the point. Pasolini has made us feel even more trapped and helpless now than before, like the victims… and like the masters, whose gaping internal emptiness has created this Dantesque/ Sadean/ fascist hell on earth. Although it seems distant, it is spring 1945 and soon the “four friends” may end up as Mussolini did on April 28, 1945: shot, hung upside down on a meat hook, and stoned by his own people. But at the end of Salo, all we can do, not unlike the masters — and voyeurs, maybe even filmgoers — is stare. (Of course, there’s still the final scene, that we’ll get to in time.)
But rather than gaping, Pasolini — like Artaud with his Theatre of Cruelty — wants our eyes wide open. He wants to make us aware not only that there is horror in the world — as if we needed reminding — but, more importantly, to understand its sources that obviously extend far beyond Mussolini’s Italy. Pasolini analyzes what he finds through every dramatic and visual/aural element. With that knowledge we, unlike the victims, might have a fighting chance.
One of Pasolini’s strategic elements is pacing, as seen both in performance and editing. The film is deliberately slow, yet riveting, partly because of what we see and experience emotionally. That stateliness also contrasts with the bursts of violence, making the effect even more powerful, at times overwhelmingly so. Although Pasolini was murdered before the premiere, he had completely finished the final cut — having trimmed 20 minutes, to achieve precisely the rhythm he wanted — with his long-time editor, Nino Baragli (who did most of Pasolini and Sergio Leone’s pictures, Fellini’s Intervista, and others). The meticulous use of pacing connects the film’s narrative to its visual and sound aspects, as we’ll see; it also connects the film to ritual.
The rigidly prescribed order and symbolic value of ritual, that first appeared millennia ago, is intended to control natural, or even supernatural, forces, even as it binds a group together. In the opening moments of Salo, we are introduced to the four masters sitting around a table in deep shadow, but then Pasolini cuts to a close-up of their bulging rule book — their bible of regulations and rituals — whose cover is the same color as the uniforms of Nazi Brownshirts, and excrement. Of course, ceremony at its most benign can give comfort to people. And it’s out of sacred ritual that all drama evolved 2,500 years ago: Pasolini loved the ancient Greek tragedies, even reinventing two of them in his films Oedipus Rex and Medea; Sade’s novel, for all of its misplaced exuberance, is as prescribed as a (pitch-black) mass; and Artaud based his Theatre of Cruelty on Balinese ceremonies. But here, the ritualism is primarily an anti-human constraint — a reflection of the masters’ (self-)destructive manias — rather than communion with anything spiritual.
The most overtly “liturgical” moment is also the film’s most blatantly parodic: the Monsignor — flanked by an eager-to-please altar boy who will never bring a lawsuit — “marries” the other three masters, all in haute couture drag (the only time they cross-dress), to three macho guards, while using an invisible holy book. Also notable is his enormous pagan headdress bedecked in mirrors, leaves, and massive ram’s horns — another of the masters’ unconscious reminders of their own phallic shortcomings — that must have weighed a ton; as an in-joke, it recalls the over-the-top headgear worn by Pasolini when he played a high priest in Oedipus Rex. (One wonders if some “traditionalist” group has ever used this grotesque image to showcase the “horrors of same-sex marriage.”)
More than the sanctity of holy matrimony is parodied in this film. It’s as if Pasolini has taken in all of the foundations of Western society, chewed them up, then excreted them in ironic form with vastly more insight than Sade: sexuality, family, religion, politics, law (that rule book), and economics. The world depicted in Salo is like some bureaucratic mash-up of Sade and Dante — but nobody is laughing. We end in a shrunken parody of Sade’s apocalyptic, and literal, bloodbath; Pasolini’s vision is even farther removed than Sade from the frigid justice of the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno, with Satan frozen except for his mouth that eagerly chews up and spits out traitors. But Pasolini is not just an off-the-cuff ironist. By pushing to extremes, he forces us to confront the nature and sometimes destructively repressive limitations of those institutions. His parodies implicitly contain analyses of the profound socioeconomic inequalities that only exacerbate the feelings of helplessness that thrive not only in the victims but also in the masters, which is why Salo is as horrific as it is ironic. Pasolini uses human, as opposed to Dante’s supernatural, horror to shock us into a fuller personal and political awareness.
Horror, like torture, is based on the vulnerability of the human animal: as if we need to be reminded that there are countless ways we can be hurt and killed. The masters are profoundly uncomfortable in their own skin, so they flay it off others — all the time wearing perfectly pressed suits like talismans against chaos. And as only death-dealing “masters” can be, they are terrified of mortality, foolishly believing that they can transcend it by torturing and murdering others. Victims of their own twisted logic, it’s as if they are trying to prove the belief that, If I can do this to them, then I’m more powerful than death, I’m a superman, beyond law and tenuous life. Not long after the final reel, when the Mussolini regime is defeated, they’ll learn otherwise.
Pasolini brillinatly accentuates the horror by periodically contrasting it with bursts of humor. This is perhaps surprising in a work about the nature of atrocity, except that many of the gags are more subtle than the mock “wedding” described above. Perhaps the most wry instance exposes the intellectual pretensions, and dangers, of the masters — who can’t even get their own pretentious intellectual genealogy right. Minutes after a girl has either committed suicide or been murdered for praying at (literally closeted) holy shrine, the four men lounge around and shoot the bull, like latter-day neoconservatives-in-training. Their topic, that exposes the foundation of their worldview, is the necessity of bloodshed. They try to impress each other with their spurious erudition. While the Monsignor is off in an adjoining room pondering “a question of taste and delicacy,” the other three masters are lobbing footnotes. In a dizzying whirl — unwittingly proving the truth of Alexander Pope’s line that “A little learning is a dangerous thing” — the Magistrate claims that the necessity of shedding blood for greatness was said by Baudelaire; then the President chimes in: No — Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals; now the Magistrate changes his mind: No— “St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans;” the Duke: No — Dada, finally cutting off this debate (that could have been resolved by just looking up the blasted quotation) by humming “dadadadadadada.” But this is not just a harmless little pastime: they use that “bloodshed” idea as a foundation for unleashing pain, and death, in the world they control: ideas do determine actions. (It turns out that the President came closest: in Nietzsche’s 1887 Genealogy of Morals — that attempts to deconstruct conventional notions of right and wrong — the Second Essay, “Guilt, Bad Conscience, and Related Matters,” has passages that are close in meaning, and clearly relevant to Salo: “When the human being considered it necessary to make a memory for himself, it never happened without blood, martyrs, and sacrifices, the most terrible sacrifices and pledges (among them the sacrifice of the first born), the most repulsive self-mutilations (for example, castration), the cruelest forms of ritual in all the religious cults (and all religions are in their deepest foundations systems of cruelty),” later adding, “[T]his world deep down has never again been completely free of a certain smell of blood and torture…”)
Humor also takes visual form, both in obvious elements like the President’s cross-eyes (that little red-headed Rumpelstiltskin clone is one of the creepiest villains in any film) and others that require a bit of behind-the-scenes knowledge, like the enormous — but fake — organs that the guards wear during the final torture/murders; yet more ironic reminders of the masters’ impotence. The film’s main running joke — that big book in which the masters write down every last petty infraction (of course, for “gods” like them every rule is sacred and must be obeyed to the letter) — stops being funny when we see that the punishment, death by torture, does not fit the “crimes.”
Before leaving this yuck-y theme, let’s take a closer look at the most redolent example of humor: the storytellers. Their wannabe bawdy stories may be duds, but their structural and thematic uses are a howl.
Like Sade, Pasolini has four storytellers, but one of them never tells a tale, instead she accompanies the others on the piano. Let’s be blunt: they all look funny — not because they’re middle-aged at best, but because they tart themselves up, trying to shave off 20 years, but fail pitiably. Countless times throughout the film, these women — who take the world’s oldest profession to new depths, by providing “entertainment” for wealthy rapists and murderers — all but hurl themselves at the masters, but with so many pulchritudinous lads and lasses, who can’t say no, the raconteuses come up as empty as their imaginations. The first two of the three “Circles” sections begins with one of the storytellers narcissistically preening in a mirror: do they really think it will help? And their attempts to hide their shortcomings behind elaborate gowns meets with the success you’d expect. The humor that Pasolini spins around the storytellers is unsettling at best: we laugh at them, never with them. They are emblems of sterility and powerlessness, not to mention bad story-telling. They are also a painful reminder of the ravages of time — that unseen enemy that implicitly terrifies the masters.
Pasolini gets a great deal of thematic mileage out of the storytellers. First up, in the “Circle of Manias,” is Signora Vacari, sporting Perrault/Doré fairy princess regalia in creamy white — her name, in Italian, refers to “cow.” Those are creatures bent to man’s will, destined for slaughter after they are no longer any good for “milking” — a variation on that hand action is the seed of all this raconteuse’s tales, about young girls forcibly trained to service rich old men. Next is the “Circle of Excrement,” represented by Signora Maggi, dressed all in black — the same color as the material for her coprophiliac stories — who has clearly spent too much time in cabarets; her name in Italian means the month of May, and it is, to say the least, ironic (her age is closer to October, maybe November). The final “Circle of Blood” is the domain of Signora Castella, a fat, mannish icy gray-blond — dressed in white but with furs — who regales the masters, and sickens everyone else, with (Sadean) tales of mutilation; her name literally means “castle” — a subtle reminder that this fortified villa is escape-proof (although the Allies will eventually prove that it’s not impregnable), and a sly joke on her capacious girth.
Pasolini also milks the storytellers for historical/ political humor, making each one a national stereotype that indicates the Axis’ reach: Vacari reads as (Vichy) French (played by the Gallic Hélène Surgère), Maggi as (Fascist) Italian, and Castella — the worst for last — as (Nazi) German (she sometimes even lapses into her native tongue). Not only are they figures of distorted “fun,” they remind us of the glitzy artifice that’s meant to cover the foul depths of fascism. The fact that they can’t generate any real erotic juice in their stories, as even the masters carp, reveals their lack of joy in sex. That’s one way that Pasolini suggests that under the floorboards of this renamed Hall of Orgies lies rancid puritanism that can never let the masters — or anyone — find pleasure or connection, let alone love, through intercourse. Even worse, that destructive repression is coupled with godlike dreams of omnipotence, generating enough frustration to destroy a world. So perhaps the situation here is not so unlike Dante’s Inferno after all, that culminates in Satan, the father of frigidity, violence and lies, frozen in the bottom-most pit of hell.
It’s no surprise that these women for hire would jump at the chance to combine business and “pleasure” by working for the masters, but one of the film’s most disturbing insights comes in how, little by little, the victims accommodate themselves to life in thrall. You can see it in their faces, that at first are blank with shock and fear, but then incrementally, beginning at the first of the two banquets (the one with the better menu), you see them loosening up, even smiling. Then everyone joins together, singing a heartfelt patriotic song (the Italian equivalent of Cabaret’s “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”). A little later, some of the victims begin cuddling up with the masters, as with the sweet-faced boy who’s all over the Duke, gently caressing and kissing him. But you have to wonder, is the youth just trying to stay alive — or is he using his captivity to discover an aspect of himself; and is the Duke actually expressing for the one and only time — although only the boy and the camera can see this private moment — affection? Isn’t he supposed to be just some old perverted monster — of course… but with Pasolini there’s almost always a “but…”
As the film winds towards its end, some victims become ever more desperate to please. When the Monsignor threatens punishment for an infraction, he unleashes a long chain of boys and girls ratting each other out, one on another, then another, then a lesbian couple is caught being tender and rather than die they lead the masters to an even more “terrible” crime: what the masters call “normal” heterosexual intercourse, involving one of the four young men whom Pasolini labels as a “collaborator” in the credits.
These collaborators are like the privileged Kapos in Nazi concentration camps, prisoners who police their own fellow prisoners in exchange for special privileges and (pseudo-)freedom. In the prologue, we saw them captured by soldiers, along with the victims proper. The four youths run the gamut from the scowling, curly dark-haired Claudio, who in the prologue all but slaps his mother away (she tried to give him a scarf) when the stormtroopers march him off (one can only imagine what his home life had been like), and who later spits on one of the masters’ daughters — while another collaborator, the blond and almost angelic Ezio, tries to console her by saying that they were ordered to do that.
Ezio, despite his impressed service as a collaborator, comes across as the film’s least reprehensible character. As the masters are about to shoot him, for having sex with a maidservant, Ezio makes the film’s sole gesture of resistance. Nude, with the chiseled body of a Greek — or Roman, or Teutonic, or Anglo-American — god, he gives the left-armed Communist salute. The four masters are so stunned — whether by his defiance or beauty or both, one can’t say — that there’s a long pause before they open fire. With just over two minutes of highlighted screen time, throughout the picture, Pasolini and performer Ezio Manni (this is his only film), have created a suggestively complex character that also serves the crucial thematic function of showing that corruption and weakness are not necessarily universal.
But… a less sanguine reading of Ezio would emphasize racial aspects of his relationship with a black woman — professional actress Ines Pellegrin was born in Italy, and who in striking contrast to her role here starred as Princess Zumurrud in Arabian Nights — and opine that we have a white man “colonizing” an “African” — perhaps meant to recall Mussolini’s conquest of Ethiopia in 1936. Such a reading might also question the ratio of genuine love to “animal” sexual gratification in Ezio’s possibly “exploitative” relationship — the only normative one, heterosexual or otherwise, in the entire film — with a woman who, as a servant, had not choice but to submit. Personally, I prefer a more exemplary reading of Ezio — but one of Pasolini’s defining strengths is the complex, and sometimes contradictory, layers of interpretation that he allows us in even minor details: there are countless more such paradoxes throughout his body of work, and life, if you wish to discover them — of course, how you choose to interpret those elements will reveal as much about you as the artist. One of the pleasures of Pasolini is that his work is essentially inexhaustible.
It’s not just the characters that disturb us: there’s also something wrong with time. Although the film begins with a title card specifying “1944–45 Northern Italy during the Nazi-Fascist Occupation,” there are several aspects that distort our temporal sense. For those viewers familiar with the centuries of works that Pasolini incorporates, there’s a constant queasy shift between Dante’s medievalism, Sade’s French Revolution, 1975… and beyond, considering how the masters are still very much among us.
More immediately, the film’s languorous rhythms, its claustrophobic confinement to the villa, and the unvarying flat lighting break down our sense of time passing, let alone whether it’s day or night. Also, we know from Pasolini’s subtitle, that was Sade’s main title, that the action occurs during 120 days — but it all seems like one endless night; as if we’ve been lost in an eternal ghastly present. (To indulge in an excessively speculative reading, you might begin to wonder if we’re watching ghosts: we begin in an empty, haunted landscape, then proceed to an eerie old mansion, where the restless wraiths reenact the same rituals over and over. To see them shot down at the end would be redundant: they’re all already dead. This fanciful misreading comes from having seen Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu and Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, both of which may have left their stylistic mark on Pasolini, and such exceptional post-Salo ghost pictures as Kubrick’s The Shining, Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others, and Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone.)
Pasolini uses not only time but space, and all of cinema’s visual and aural resources, to develop his themes. He worked with an exceptionally accomplished production team, including designer Danilo Donati (many Pasolini and Fellini films including Amarcord, Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet), production designer Dante Ferretti (most of Pasolini’s works, many pictures for Fellini and Scorsese including The Aviator, Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd), and set decorator Osvaldo Desideri (The Night Porter, Rossellini’s Messiah).
Ferretti helped Pasolini find the physical space he wanted for the main location, although the louche villa was in fact a large farmhouse outside of Mantua. As Ferretti notes in the documentary about his contributions, “We began stripping everything” so that the sets “could reflect what Pasolini wanted… Fascist style, Deco style… mirrors and chandeliers… carpets had to be recreated… [We brought in] furniture of the ’30s and ’40s, Italian and even French in style.” That highly stylized period architecture — Art Deco, and Italian knock-off Bauhaus — is in striking contrast to the prologue’s beautiful yet strangely empty landscapes and town. Those views are reminiscent of the eerie paintings of Giorgio De Chirico, such as 1911’s “Enigma of the Hour.” That emptiness also brings to mind, although by contrast, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934). As in that template for all propaganda films, the architecture of Salo is monumental — dwarfing the people, rigidly balanced, and fascist: after all, the Nazis were running Salo for Mussolini.
In terms of color, Ferretti points out that Pasolini wanted a lot of what he called “Fascist red.” I’d add that it also makes us feel like we’re inside some monstrous, fleshy body. Ferretti also helped select or paint the artwork, including the huge frescoes, that was in the style of the period, including the tube-like abstractions of Fernand Léger, who believed that not people but “the object [is the] main character.” Ferretti also said that Pasolini wanted “a whole series of images one on top of another” — and we can see barbaric modernity, on top of Renaissance models (as in the opening of Momma Roma, Pasolini ironically stages Salo’s banquet scenes to recall Leonardo’s “Last Supper”). Most ancient of all is the climactic courtyard that could fit into almost any era, from the Dark Ages to ancient Rome, or a primitive monarchy.
Beyond the physical location, Pasolini uses light itself to define, and reveal, the action. Notably, in the just-concluded Trilogy of Life, there was a wonderful — both literal and spiritual — luminous quality that, despite the periodic irruption of violence, was inviting. But here in Salo, the light is as uniform and dim as the masters’ self-awareness.
Salo also reveals Pasolini’s mastery of composition that is even more remarkable considering that he came to filmmaking relatively late, after critical and popular literary success, as poet, novelist, literary theorist, and philosopher. He again worked with cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli (who shot most of his earlier films, Malle’s Lacombe Lucien, Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, and many more).
In the archival interview in “Salo: Yesterday and Today,” Pasolini summarizes his visual approach, with its “obsessive use of shot / reverse shot; contrasting close-ups; absence of over-the-shoulder shots; complete absence of characters who leave and enter the shot; most of all absence of sequence shots.” He adds that Salo is like his earlier films “but more so.” His friend Gideon Bachmann, in his on-set diary, quotes Pasolini as saying that he never uses a “normal” 50mm lens, instead favoring the distortions (that I would add are both emotional and symbolic) that come with using either a wide angle or a zoom lens. Pasolini also remarked that he didn’t mind the shaky results, in a few shots, of using a handheld camera (the Steadicam was a year away). In fact, that quivering effect works as another subtle reinforcement of the tensions that define this world.
Throughout, Pasolini’s style meshes perfectly with his theme: that this is the utterly closed world that the masters want, no less prison-like for its jumbled, medieval to modernist, grandeur. The vast majority of shots reflect that crushing stolidity by being static, the camera — often in long shot — as fixed as the masters’ stares. When it does move, as in the prologue, it tends to pan laterally. Rather than suggesting an expansive world beyond the frame — as in pictures from filmmakers as diverse as Jean Renoir and Robert Altman — here, it just makes us feel more trapped. In the opening minutes, no matter which way the camera pans, all it shows is broad empty spaces, sometimes with tiny figures in the distance, invariably Nazi soldiers waiting to round up the victims.
As noted above in other contexts, the compositions of Salo are uniformly balanced in a rigid, airless way. Another example, that runs throughout the film, is the spatial contrast between the victims and guards, with each group squeezed into its own collective mass; the countless narrow doorways, halls, and staircases — that suggest a labyrinth — compress them even further. No safety in numbers here. Even when everyone is assembled in the Hall of Orgies or other huge chambers, they are framed to appear as small as possible against the looming walls and vast empty spaces — all this while the camera obsessively maintains symmetrical framing.
Yet, the would-be symmetry cannot hold: there’s always something out of place, a little off, that subliminally makes us twitch. In the very first shot, looking out at the actual town of Salo’s harbor, off in the distance on the left is a lighthouse (oh, do these characters ever need a warning light!), and it’s balanced perfectly on the right by a spit of land… but there in the foreground — shadowy, strange and ominous — is a looming bent tree trunk, off to the right, throwing the “neat” composition out of whack. We only see this image for a moment, as the camera pans left, but from the first second it sets up the dis-ease with which Pasolini purposefully infects every element of the film: “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ [masters]” can’t help but go awry.
Pasolini saves the most astonishing, yet subtle, visual device for the climax. The masters take turns watching the horrors unfold in the courtyard below, as they sit in a threadbare throne peering down through binoculars — an ironic twist on Hitchcock’s Rear Window — while the others get their hands dirty gleefully performing the tortures and murders. At one point, the Duke turns the binoculars around to get a “funny” myopically distorted view (the symbolism is clear). But what makes the close-ups of the Duke, and other masters, disturbing on yet another level is when they turn the binoculars directly at the camera. The reverse shot tells us they’re gazing at the carnage below, but the angle tells us that Pasolini has us voyeurs in the audience in his sights. Whether or not watching Salo somehow makes us complicit, and if so to what degree, is for you to decide: my response is working through the film, and what it might mean, in this essay.
Before turning to some overall thoughts on the picture, we have one more key element to explore: sound. Note the echoes that haunt the villa reminding us of how vast and empty the place is, despite its dozens of victims, guards, and overlords; it doesn’t take much of a symbolic stretch to see a comparison with the hollow masters. Also significant, although it never becomes more prominent than as background noise, are the radio broadcasts that Pasolini uses, including Hitler’s bombastic speeches and the American poet, who did so love the fascists, Ezra Pound reading from his maddeningly distended Cantos. The most important use of sound, in expanding the action beyond the final frame, begins at the start of the Circle of Excrement, when Senora Maggi is so disturbed by the sounds of fighter planes overhead, that she goes to look out the window. Increasingly throughout the rest of the film, and climaxing in the Circle of Blood section, we hear the planes getting ever louder, meaning that the twilight of these self-styled gods is coming soon. But the most unnerving sounds that we hear at various points, are the moans: are they cries of pleasure, or pain, or both? — one thing you can be sure if, they are never sounds of love.
Music is also integral. Pasolini worked again with his longtime collaborator, Ennio Morricone, one of cinema’s greatest, and most prolific, composers. His 500 scores, from 1959 to today, include many for Pasolini, Sergio Leone’s Westerns like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (who can forget that unique scoring for bells, harmonica, mouth harp, and female chorus), Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, Malick’s Days of Heaven. He receives credit on Salo as “musical coordinator,” but his original contributions are minimal. Instead he helped Pasolini put together the musical soundtrack, including a progression of piano pieces — pop tunes of the period, to Romantic pieces including Chopin’s Preludes in C minor and E minor, and finally dissonant modern works — that the fourth entertainer plays while the three storytellers do their thing. The lilting music stands in increasingly marked, and ironic (isn’t this salon music?), contrast to the oral tales, as they move from eroticism to, with Signora Castella at the end, atrocities that are even more horrific than what we see onscreen during the next minutes.
The most prominent use of music is, as noted above, Pasolini’s deployment of Carmina Burana in the climactic sequence — in which it both undercuts (with its melodiousness) and reinforces (with its stark driving rhythms) the horror. But the seminal piece used in the film is a popular British song composed within a year of Orff’s perennial favorite: “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)” provides yet another circle in the film, that it both opens and closes. The song, with words and music by Harry Link, Holt Marvell (real name: Eric Maschwitz), and Jack Strachey, was written for the 1935 London stage revue Spread It Around. In summer 1936, it became a number one hit in the US, with no fewer than nine separate recordings, although the jazzed Benny Goodman version comes closest to (presumably) Morricone’s arrangement. Although Pasolini used an instrumental version, the original lyric — about “no escape” from an emotional obsession — fits Salo like a chanteuse’s glove:
Oh, will you never let me be,
Oh, will you never set me free.
The ties that bound us are still around us,
There’s no escape that I can see.
And still those little things remain,
That bring me happiness or pain…
A cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces,
An airline ticket to romantic places,
And still my heart has wings…
These foolish things remind me of you….
The obsession in this pop paen, which is the same as in today’s achy-breaky-heart songs and those of the troubadours a millennium ago, is a light romantic version of the sociopathic drives behind the four masters, as we’ll see. Now, let’s look at how all of the film’s constituent parts relate to Pasolini’s overarching — timeless yet all too timely — insights into the heart of darkness, moving from social respectability to politics to powerlust and, sickeningly, beyond.
We’ve seen how all of the film’s dramatic, visual and sound elements both expose and reinforce Pasolini’s theme, but taken together they also recreate in us viewers the trapped, sickening feeling of the victims — and, although they refuse to admit it, the masters too. Salo is so powerful because you don’t just watch it, you can’t help but experience it viscerally. In a way, it functions as a torture chamber intended for us — but we’re lucky, since Pasolini’s intentions are the opposite of the masters’. He wants to shock us into a more comprehensive awareness not only of the nature of evil but of its roots; not only about what the masters are but, more disturbingly, how we belong to the same species. Salo is the opposite of a turn-on; at heart it is an analysis and a warning — and, implicitly, it’s a call for action made to each of us, to stop the masters of today, and the future.
Not to sound naive, but how could Salo be a work to “inflame” red-blooded passions, when sexuality is used never for love but only for degradation, as a means for the masters to lord it over the young people whose beauty, and at first innocence, is in such stark contrast to their own deteriorating flesh, and — in every way: physical, intellectual, spiritual — their impotence. Note that although the masters are running the show, not one of them ever takes a leading role (as it were) in sex; either they wail that their partner isn’t up to snuff (as the Monsignor does early on, shrieking for the boy to be “punished severely”) or they have one of the victims do something to them. This is in staggering contrast to Sade’s sexual super-athletes, and hence the most significant change that Pasolini made to his source.
We’ve looked at the wickedly humorous inversions of social institutions, from the family to politics and law, but in the end Pasolini is not laughing — he’s laying bare. The masters set out their plan in the picture’s first words, when the Duke says, “All things are good when carried to excess.” Pasolini, like any humane person, could not disagree more strongly, yet he uses the masters’ own devotion to “excess” to expose their monstrous self-loathing and its resulting destructiveness. That’s why this film must be so “excessive” in its revelations about what goes on behind the closed doors of power, after the rules have been rewritten to favor the worst extremes of the rulers, those erstwhile paragons of traditional civic morality — representing wealth, law, politics and religion — who were kept in power by the parents of the victims they now degrade and destroy. You can be certain that during their heyday the masters said all of the right platitudes about country, freedom, and God. (Fascism is God-fearing while Communism is God-less, but both can produce totalitarianism, although the former has had centuries longer to refine its grip.) But in Salo’s world, when the masters don’t feel they need to hide their manias behind a curtain any longer, since their Nazi-Fascist regime is crumbling, we find that Pasolini — using every cinematic element to flesh out his analysis — has already revealed these sanctimonious men in their true colors: drab gray, splattered with blood.
The sequestered world the masters create reveals everything about who they are, and what they fear. Their tragedy is that they never understand that, as Pasolini does.
Look at what happens to familial roles under the masters, who refer to themselves as “fathers:” women are always seen as grossly subordinate, even when they are their own wives or children. They think they are redefining the family, and strengthening the bonds between themselves, by marrying each other’s daughters: the Duke marries off his two daughters to his brother the Monsignor and the Magistrate, while taking the Magistrate’s daughter as his bride, and so on (full list below in the Cast section). But instead, they merely degrade their daughters — even having their collaborator Claudio spit on them — and turn them into exchangeable, whorish commodities. They become no better than the female victims, who are treated, along with the boys, as party dolls. The masters complete their degeneration of women by hiring, as the tale-spinning mistreses of eroticism, over-the-hill raconteuses in over-the-top gowns, who can’t begin to compete with a fabulous drag queen in the glamour department.
Pasolini in the Trilogy of Life celebrated the connections that can come from sexuality; and in Teorema bisexuality was presented as a force that was redemptive, perhaps divine. Salo shows the darkest opposite view: intimacy is always, and in the worst way, trumped by powerlust. The murder of the coupled collaborator and maid wasn’t the exception, it was literally the rule: the first morning at the villa, the Duke announces that only copulation “like brute animals… incest, adultery, and sodomy” are allowed.
Who and what are these masters, at once punctilious and nihilistic? As Lord Action famously put it, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But in Salo, Pasolini doesn’t just tart up the platitude; he probes long and hard beneath its well-groomed surface. Consider the implications of what the Duke tells the blond girl who’s crying piteously, because her mother died trying to save her: “Your tears are the most exciting thing I’ve ever heard,” then hurts her some more. Obviously this shows his lack of humanity, but more importantly it allows Pasolini to expose a key element of the master’s collective psyche: fear of weakness. Unconsciously, these men know that they are as empty as their cavernous villa, that they are no different in kind from their fellow human animals to whom they desperately want to feel superior — and as a result, they are scared to death. As Pasolini reveals, through every shot in the film, their “ideal” of the total “anarchy of power” is founded on a wimpering lie of catastrophic proportions. Perhaps the most sickening aspect of Sade’s novel, in utter contrast to Pasolini’s film, is that it glorifies the masters as super-potent demigods, who can indulge themselves over and over, instead of exposing them for the dangerous hollow men they are.
Fascists — by any name — want order and mastery at any cost, yet paradoxically their mania for control produces the opposite effect: not only anarchy (by definition, rule-lessness) but total disconnection both between people and within themselves — the unmooring of thought, action, and humane emotion. So, why does fascism exist in the first place? Studies like Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) show that there are many factors that feed it; troubling to some is that its roots may be embedded in ultra-conservative traditionalism, founded on an ugly, and perhaps self-fulfilling, view of bestial human nature that must be harshly reined in, often arbitrary rules (including strict codes for everything from hairdos to sexual positions), policed thoughts, and above all else, a blind obedience to authority — the four masters especially like that last part. This is what social philosopher Herbert Marcuse, in Eros and Civilization (1955), calls “surplus repression,” used by power elites — for their own aggrandizement — to manipulate the general population; he contrasts it with “basic repression,” self-evidently necessary for any society to exist, that includes self-control and consideration for others. So escalating levels of repression isn’t the solution to this nightmare, it’s a fundamental cause. But ongoing studies by neuroscients have some good news: it seems that basic fairness is part of our, and many other animals’ (including the bonobos), genetic makeup, even if we never crack open any “infallible” ancient rule book.
Look at fascists’ rigidly hierarchical, domination-centered family structure, underpinned by a “God-given” belief in the inherently “sinful” nature of man. It makes you wonder if the masters were acting out the view of themselves that had been forced on them, and their parents and ancestors, from birth: that they are bad to bone — and now, thanks to their top-of-the-heap position in a totalitarian regime (that the people had willingly, if not knowingly, elected), they were in a position to show just how sinfully bad they really are. They put up a self-blinding smokescreen, during the initial reading of their rule book to their assembled underlings, saying that any reference to religion will result in immediate execution. But these men are the opposite of atheists, or rationalist humanists; they have utterly internalized the self-hatred that comes from being reared to despise yourself as part of some “higher’ plan — major parts of which includes despising sexuality as pleasure, and prostrating yourself before an omnipotent infallible deity (like Father, from the time of their infancy). So is it any wonder that the first things these “atheists” do, when they have “absolute power,” is debase sex and set themselves up as gods? It’s shocking, but not surprising, the extent to which people who have been so crushed down by rules will want to smash them as soon as they have power. Caged animals have always been the most deadly.
The masters delude themselves, with a little help from Nietzsche or Sade, into thinking that by writing their own rules, seemingly in complete opposition to the ones they were raised under — instead of puritanism, debauchery; instead of humility, godhead — they are somehow “liberating” themselves from human limitations. But as Pasolini wants us to see, nothing is further from the truth. The masters are unaware that the extremity of their nihilistic “lifestyle” renders it, to say the least, unsustainable. Ironically, when such a boundless depiction of” freedom” is made public, it frightens the population into crying for its opposite — supposedly what the “supermen” are fighting against. And so comes not only artistic censorship (“Ban Salo Now!!” crusades) but the ever more stifling repression of personal and social freedoms, to protect the “bestial” masses from themselves… and that just keeps the whole sick system grinding forward. Talk about circles, within circles, of hell.
Of course, genuine freedom, as opposed to the mere word brandished by fascist politicians (whose name is legion), is not only livable but liberating in the true sense, encouraging freedom of thought and speech — even when a book is as foul as Sade’s or as superficially decadent as Salo — and the freedom to question any and all authority. Those freedoms are as lacking under fascist rule, whether secular (Stalinism) or sectarian (conservative religions of all stripes), as they are in Sade’s castle, let alone the masters’ villa.
On its slyest level, Salo is yet another test — some might say a trap — for the viewer: If you are excited by the torture and murder, get professional help now. Seriously. One can’t help but wonder what the motive was for those people bidding $500.00 or more on eBay for a (likely pirated) copy of Salo when for years it was out of print. Were they critical cinephiles, students of Pasolini… or persons seeking to rationalize their appetite for sexual degradation by having it stamped as an Art Film, trying to fool themselves that it’s OK to get off on the (make-believe) pain of others while missing the fact that Pasolini’s film is a mirror to show them as little masters in training.
Pasolini never for a frame glorifies the inherent evil of fascim; rather he exposes the interconnected economics, politics, sanctimoniousness, and psychology of evil that authoritariansim generates as surely as the human body processes food into excrement. Like Artaud writ large, it’s a technique that uses repulsion to encourage the insight needed to make ourselves, and our world, a better place: Pasolini lays out the problem, but we must generate the solution. And that makes Salo the most nauseating — yet affirmative — work of Art I know.
But wait… there’s a little bit more. In the quiet final scene, Pasolini creates not only one of cinema’s most unexpected — and unforgettable — endings but yet another challenge to us. After the literally stomach-churning “finale,” set to Orff, the picture ends, as it began in the opening credits, with the strains of that haunting ’30s pop tune, “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You).” Two of the guards, who have helped prop up the masters’ mini-hell, are relaxing, ignoring the horrors still going on down in the courtyard. Giggling a little, one of the boys asks the other if he’d like to dance, but he says he doesn’t know how. The first guard will teach him. And so they do, tentatively and tenderly, while reassuring each other of their mainstream, and Mussolini-approved, sexual orientation: “What’s your girlfriend’s name?” “Margareta.” Behind them, the the modernist paintings are equally ambiguous: their geometries want to impose order on the world but their energy and strangeness feel liberating.
What are these young men revealing about themselves, and how their experiences in the villa have changed them — or have they been changed? Is Pasolini implying that basically they’re the same as they ever were — and does that mean that they are oblivious, just going with the flow of history; or are they expressing resilience, maybe even suggesting some (untraditional) hope for humanity? Have they become numb to the horrors, or might they possibly be able to transcend them, hang on to the good human impulse to connect with someone else and, literally and symbolically, dance with them too?
It’s a brilliantly ambiguous ending that can be read in many different ways — as Pasolini intended — reminding us that, for worse or possibly better, Salo will go on.
- Directed by Pasolini
- Written by Pasolini, based on the novel by the Marquis de Sade
- Produced by Alberto Grimaldi, with Alberto De Stefanis & Antonio Girasante
- Musical Coordinator Ennio Morricone
- Director of Photography Tonino Delli Colli
- Edited by Nino Baragli, with Tatiana Casini Morigi and Enzo Ocone
- Sets by Dante Ferretti
- Costumes by Danilo Donati
- Screenplay Collaboration with Sergio Citti
- Makeup by Osvaldo Desideri & Alfredo Tiberi
- Hair Stylist: Giusy Bovino
- Special Wigs by Carboni & Rocchetti
- Production Managers: Renzo David & Alessandro Mattei
- Assistant Directors: Umberto Angelucci & Fiorella Infascelli
- Sound Department: Fausto Ancillai, Giorgio Loviscek, Domenico Pasquadibisceglie, & Giuseppina Sagliano
- Special Effects by Alfredo Tiberi
- Camera & Electrical Department: Sandro Battaglia, Deborah Imogen Beer, Emilio Bestetti, Giancarlo Granatelli, & Carlo Tafan
- Pianist: Arnaldo Graziosi
- Paolo Bonacelli as the Duke
- Giorgio Cataldi as the Bishop (the Duke’s brother)
- Umberto P. Quintavalle as “His Excellency” the Magistrate
- Aldo Valletti as the President Caterina Boratto as Signora Castelli
- Elsa De Giorgi as Signora Maggi
- Hélène Surgère as Signora Vaccari
- Sonia Saviange as the Pianist
- Sergio Fascetti as a Male Victim
- Bruno Musso as a Male Victim
- Antonio Orlando as a Male Victim
- Claudio Cicchetti as a Male Victim
- Franco Merli as a Male Victim
- Umberto Chessari as a Male Victim
- Lamberto Book as a Male Victim
- Gaspare Di Jenno as a Male Victim
- Giuliana Melis as a Female Victim
- Faridah Malik as a Female Victim
- Graziella Aniceto as a Female Victim
- Renata Moar as a Female Victim
- Dorit Henke as a Female Victim
- Antiniska Nemour as a Female Victim
- Benedetta Gaetani as a Female Victim
- Olga Andreis as a Female Victim
- Tatiana Mogilansky as the Magistrate’s Daughter (married to President)
- Susanna Radaelli as the Magistrate’s Daughter (married to the Duke)
- Giuliana Orlandi as the Duke’s Daughter (married to Bishop)
- Liana Acquaviva as the Duke’s Daughter (married to Magistrate)
- Rinaldo Missaglia as a Guard
- Giuseppe Patruno as a Guard
- Guido Galletti as a Guard
- Efisio Etzi as a Guard
- Claudio Troccoli as a Collaborator
- Fabrizio Menichini as a Collaborator
- Maurizio Valaguzza as a Collaborator
- Ezio Manni as a Collaborator
- Paola Pieracci as a Wife
- Carla Terlizzi as a Wife
- Anna Maria Dossena as a Wife
- Anna Recchimuzzi as a Wife
- Ines Pellegrini as the African Maidservant
- Marco Lucantoni as the First Male Victim (Uncredited)
- Marco Bellocchio — voice dubbing for Aldo Valletti (uncredited)
- Laura Betti — voice dubbing for Hélène Surgère (uncredited)
- Giorgio Caproni — voice dubbing for Giorgio Cataldi (uncredited)
There are currently several Pasolini video releases, to own (on DVD and Blu-ray), rent, stream, or borrow from your library, as well as Paolini books. NOTE: If you use my Amazon Affiliate Pasolini link for a purchase, I may receive a commission that helps support this site, at no additional cost to you. Regardless, I stand by my opinions.
Original Video Release (Used for This Review)
The Criterion Collection‘s two-disc special edition features excellent image and sound quality, better than any that of any thearical screening I’ve seen. Besides an exceptional transfer of the film, featuring both the original Italian and optional English dubbed soundtracks, the set contains perhaps the best Pasolini documentaries of any release, as outlined below. NOTE: Criterion has also released a Blu-ray of this film.
- Special Edition double-disc set
- New, restored high-definition digital transfer
- Aspect ratio of 1.85:1, anamorphic”Salo: Yesterday and Today,” a 33-minute documentary featuring interviews with Pasolini, actor-filmmaker Jean-Claude Biette, and Pasolini friend Nineto Davoli
- “Fade to Black”, a 23-minute documentary featuring directors Bernardo Bertolucci, Catherine Breillat, and John Maybury, as well as scholar David Forgacs
- “The End of Salo“, a 40-minute documentary about the film’s production
- New interviews with set designer Dante Ferretti and director and film scholar Jean-Pierre Gorin
- Optional English-dubbed soundtrack
- Theatrical trailer
- A booklet featuring new essays by Neil Bartlett, Catherine Breillat, Naomi Greene, Sam Rohdie, Roberto Chiesi, and Gary Indiana, and excerpts from Gideon Bachmann’s on-set diary
Reviewed August 26, 2008 / Revised October 19, 2020