Although it is difficult to find anything thematically uplifting in what is arguably 20th Century cinema’s most blasphemous work, Mark Fraser – despite himself – discovers a very dim light at the end of its brutal tunnel.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
One truly intriguing aspect of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 swansong Salo o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom) is the fact the movie ends on a slightly optimistic note after wallowing in some of the worst kind of depravity humanity has to offer for the best part of two hours.
In any normal course of events it would be fair to say that optimism, no matter how meek its presence, really has no place in a world where pain, power, perversion, politics and persuasion are played out to their extremes as a quartet of bourgeois Italian fascists – men who together represent a twisted version of church and state – systematically abduct, imprison, humiliate, rape, torture and finally murder a group of provincial male and female teenagers in a lavish countryside villa towards the end of the Second World War.
And, until the movie’s closing moments, there’s nothing to suggest that its narrative is capable of offering any kind of hope – either to the hapless victims, too many of whom eventually suffer cruelly unbearable deaths, or its audience, whose members are expected to sit through one of the grimmest evaluations of the human condition ever committed to celluloid.
Salo, however, is not exactly a normal film, so it should come as no surprise that Pasolini (who co-wrote the script with Sergio Citti and an uncredited Pupi Avati, basing it on the Marquis de Sade’s infamous 1785 manuscript Les 120 journees de Sodome [The 120 Days of Sodom]) manages to end it all on a wholly unexpected note, concluding its final sequence of ritualised slaughter with a throwaway (not to mention darkly humourous) twist.
In doing so – just seconds before the closing credit rolls – the director effectively provides the movie with its only modicum of desperate relief, although this remains a dubious reward given the mental sacrifice one has to make to reach it.
Not helping things is the fact this moment’s execution (no pun intended) is fleeting. Furthermore, when one finally gets to the mind numbing end of Salo, it’s very easy to miss any kind of irony, let alone find something sickly funny about it. Moreover, it’s not particularly cathartic.
Nevertheless, it has sufficient bite in its tail to provide the movie with at least two identifiable positives – not only is the poor browbeaten viewer given something to cling on to (even if this comes in the form of bread crumbs rather than a lifeline), but it reinforces the argument that the film must be seen at least twice before any kind of objective judgement regarding its inherent worth can be made*.
If anything, the ending legitimises Pasolini’s claim that he wanted his movies to “approach the irrational as the revelation of life” (Snyder, 1980) and proves his last work was not (as some have purported) merely a depraved and sometimes self-indulgent fantasy which uses its portrayal of fascism as an excuse for sadistic homo-erotic excess and violent misogyny.
Set in north east Italy during late 1944 just as Benito Mussolini’s exiled Republican Government in the lakeside town of Salo is about to collapse, the film follows the exploits of four self-proclaimed libertines – The Duke (Paolo Bonacelli), The Bishop (Giorgio Cataldi), The Magistrate (Umberto Quinavalle) and The President (Aldo Valletti) – as they, with the assistance of the military, round up some rural youth in and around the village of Marzabotto before selecting a group to partake in a prolonged ritual of regimented humiliation, perversion and ultimately (for 15 of them at least) ritualised murder.
Eight of their male captives become either soldiers (armed guards) or “collaborators” (studs), the latter of whom are particularly well-endowed. All are encouraged to take part in the proceedings and, because of their willingness to participate in this legitimised form of terror, are given the opportunity to survive the ordeal physically unscathed. Meanwhile, another six are made servants. The other 18, however, are not so lucky. For no reason, other than possessing some form of youthful physical beauty, they are incarcerated and turned into submissive slaves, their predominantly sexual punishment becoming more extreme and humiliating as the story gruellingly crawls towards its bitter finale.
Their hosts – the murderous libertines – are so evil and profane that they even imprison their own daughters (whom they marry off to each other at the start of the movie) and force them to participate in the demeaning recreational activities. Later, during the film’s infamous final 10 minute torture sequence, one of them (Giuliana Oriandi) meets her death when she is anally-raped by the soldier Claudio (Claudio Troccoli) before being hung, while the other three (Susanna Radaelli, Liana Acquaviva and Tatiana Mogilansky) presumably die off-screen following their inclusion on their fathers’ final hit list.
Thrown into this mix are the narrators – signoras Castelli (Caterino Boratto), Maggi (Elsa De Giorgi) and Vaccari (Helene Surgere) – three particularly mean spirited middle aged prostitutes whose collective role is to excite the quartet of monsters by reciting vivid tales of their past perverted feats. Accompanying them is a female pianist (Sonia Savlange), who spends a good portion of the movie playing in silence.
The feminine presence in Salo – represented as being both the oppressor and oppressed – is significant given it underpins one of the story’s key subtexts, that being the overall physical and spiritual destruction of women.
It should be pointed out here that the inclusion of this high level of misogyny in the narrative was not necessarily Pasolini’s idea. In De Sade’s book, the author suggests: “The lives of all women who dwell on the face of the earth, are as insignificant as the crushing of a fly”, a notion the director vigorously pursues. However, the filmmaker also highlights the fact that, aside from the thick-as-thieves collaboration between the fascist libertines and the whores, there is a sense of betrayal amongst the female prisoners. As a result, while the drivers of this sick circus are men, it’s the women who are instrumental in making sure that the show goes on.
Although this grim depiction of the stronger sex is one of the reasons why Salo remains such a fatalistic work, it’s ultimately the feminine presence which serves to highlight the profundity of the film’s closing moment, during which Pasolini briefly capitulates by reminding his audience that a better side of humanity can still exist, no matter how far removed it might seem from the events just depicted on the screen.
Salo also features in our top 10 lists: 10 Fruitful Collaborations Between Non-US Directors And Their Cinematographers | Top 10 Films Dominated By Absolutely Horrible Men | 10 Movies That Are Literally A Pain In The Behind
One insightful critique of the movie which touched upon this, and was written within the first decade of its release, came from Dr Stephen Snyder in his 1980 book Pier Paolo Pasolini.
As part of his analysis (entitled Salo: Death Deco) the author argues that, at the end of the day, one of the film’s key thematic pursuits is “the elimination of femininity” and the “evaporation of feminine elements and femininity itself”.
While making his case, Dr Snyder cites numerous examples in the movie when a palpable “sexual division” is made between the genders – one which not only sees the subordination of females to males, but also “dissolves the natural bond between male and female spirits, creating an ever more sterile environment”.
“For example, we learn that girls have been used as bait to catch boys; we see that there are four female accomplices totally indentured to the four male rulers, and that among the captives the males are granted a superior status to the females, being granted sexual rights over them and being seated on chairs while the girls are normally forced to sit on the floor,” he wrote.
“In fact, prior to the end of the film, the most explicit tortures are practiced on the girls – nail eating (inflicted upon the eventually-hung Giuliana by The Magistrate), excrement eating, and immersion in a vat of faeces (in this case the victims are, again, the libertines’ four daughters).”
This list continues. After The Duke finds out prisoner Graziella (Graziella Aniceto) is hiding a photograph (of a teenage boy with a bicycle), for example, to save her neck the compromised girl betrays Antinisca (Antinisca Nemour) and Eva (Olga Andreis), who are having a lesbian relationship. To avoid retribution, this pair of lovers rat on one of the collaborators (Ezio Manni) and a servant (Ines Pellegnni), the only couple in the film conducting a standard heterosexual relationship. Caught in the act of coitus by the libertines, they are both executed on the spot.
As Graziella and Eva are not chosen for the slaughter (although Antinisca is), the implications of this series of events are clear – instead of there being some kind of female solidarity amongst the inmates, they are instead “driven to this extreme (of literally collaborating with the enemy) by the hope and final desire for self-preservation”; in effect, through their respective betrayals, they may avoid being killed, but they are still spiritually and morally decimated by the men who have enslaved them.
Then there’s poor Renata (Renata Moar), whose mournful whimpering over her mother’s death (and subsequent pleas to God for a merciful end, an act which well and truly puts her on the final death list) results in her being the first to eat human excrement after The Duke – who boasts how he had “never known such subtle pleasure when she closed her eyes for the last time” while describing the murder of his own mother and later watches gleefully from the libertines’ viewing chamber as his daughter is being raped and hung – drops his trousers in front of everyone and defecates on the floor of the recital hall.
Out of all the female victims, Renata’s suffering seems to get the most attention from Pasolini who, in the end, has her slain (partly through the burning of her breasts with a candle) by The President.
Additionally, there’s the suicide of the pianist, who – unable to live with her seemingly passive role in the whole thing – suddenly stops playing during the slaughter sequence and quietly jumps to her death. It’s at this moment the director shows Salo does have something of a hidden conscience, even if its manifestation comes in the guise of another dead woman.
In further consolidating his case that the movie is about the evaporation of femininity, Dr Snyder also mentions the film’s closing moment which, he argues, backs up his assertion that: “Obsession with control and sensuality is … defined as a progressive elimination of one half of the human personality, followed by an incestuous introversion of the male powers upon themselves”.
As The Magistrate solemnly watches the tortures through his binoculars from the libertines’ custom built box seat while listening to a radio broadcast of Carl Orff’s Veris leta facies (“The Bright Face of Spring”), Claudio switches stations, replacing the classical piece with an instrumental version of Eric Maschwitz’s/Jack Strachey’s “These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)” – the tune which opens the movie – and suggests to fellow guard Fabrizio (Fabrizio Menichini) that they dance.
After breaking into a slow waltz, Claudio asks: “What’s your girlfriend’s name?” “Margherita,” Fabrizio matter-of-factly replies, uttering what is the film’s closing line.
In this one quiet swoop Pasolini delivers the movie’s only glimmer of hope, showing that despite all of the pointless sadism, violence and carnage just depicted on the screen, there still exists the real possibility (for some at least) of a resumption to normal life – the mention of the girl’s name and the presence of dance music “signal(s) the imminent collapse of this short-lived ‘inferno’” (Witcombe, 1982).
And, by effectively including this moment as the film’s brief denouement, the director manages to undermine Dr Snyder’s argument that Salo is ultimately about the eradication of the female presence. If anything, the unseen Margherita is the light at the end of the film’s tunnel – she is not only the figurative soldier’s wife waiting at home for the safe return of her husband when the war is over, but also a reaffirmation that one day there will be a return to the kind of traditional gender interaction that the film’s four monstrous protagonists have so mercilessly set out to destroy.
Of course not everyone would agree with this analysis given Salo’s overwhelmingly pessimistic point of view.
In his 2000 critique of the movie, for instance, Gary Indiana suggests the film is ultimately about a “frightening reality produced by the intricate equation it proposes”.
“It would be a gross mistake to read the final shot as ‘hopeful’ since these two boys, who have, in fact, implicitly survived the storm, are completely the products of its ferocity, with lingering traces of their earlier, bovine existences,” he wrote.
“After the war they’ll get married, reproduce themselves and raise good consumers; their children won’t need fascism to learn how to think alike; just TV and the supermarket.”
While this is a reasonable observation, it is perhaps more applicable to other movies like Oliver Stone’s 1994 opus Natural Born Killers – in which the murderous couple do end up having trailer trash offspring (who no doubt will inherit some of their parents’ evil ways) – than it is to the Pasolini film.
Salo is, after all, about a particular time and place, that being fascist Italy at the end of the Second World War, a period in European history when power-crazed corruption, collaboration, incarceration and mass murder were all running rife.
For Pasolini, many lessons the film has to offer can be derived from the events of his partly allegorised past – which in turn reflect the present – not from any speculation about the future.
Whichever way one looks at it, Salo remains one of the most damning and potent cinematic indictments of war ever made.
Words by Mark Fraser
*This observation is purely personal and has no basis in rational thought. I first saw Salo in the cinema during the second half of 1993 after the Australian censors lifted a long running ban on it. When I walked out, I thought to myself: “Well, I probably won’t sit through that one again.” A couple of years ago, though, I threw caution to the wind and bought a Blu-ray of the movie. Aside from the fact there was, at the time, nothing else in the shop that I really wanted (plus it tickled me that a film like this was now available in a mainstream retail store after decades of censorship issues), I figured it would be fun to buy one of the most controversial films ever made – presented in a high quality format – for a mere $16 (some would argue I was ripped off, but it also included a disc of extras). After getting it I watched the extras, but couldn’t bring myself to sit through the whole movie again. Then, back in January this year, I had the house to myself and was all liquored up, so I thought: “What the hell!” It was nothing short of a revelation. Can’t say I’m entirely glad I did it, but it led me to the above-stated conclusion that if you are going to watch this film, you should probably sit through it twice just in case you miss anything the first time around (which, because of its disturbing content, is very easy to do).
Dr Stephen Snyder: “Salo: Death Deco” – Pier Paolo Pasolini, Twayne Publishers, 1980, p 165-175
RT Witcombe: “Fable and Phenomena: Pier Paolo Pasolini and Federico Fellini” – The New Italian Cinema, Secker and Warburg (London), 1982, p 152
Gary Indiana: Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom, BFI (British Film Institute) Publishing, 2000, p 89
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