In 1975 Pier Paolo Pasolini executed the final blow of his long career as an artist, intellectual, journalist, philosopher, poet, and filmmaker before himself being brutally murdered: Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (1975) aka Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. A loose adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s seemingly unadaptable 18th-century novel Les 120 journées de Sodome, Salò is set in a fictionalized fascist Italy, in a version of Mussolini’s Republic of Saló populated by libertines and Nazis, clouded by an unmistakable aura of the Holocaust. Immediately following his bawdy, erotic Trilogy of Life, Salò is the first film in an intended, but never completed Trilogy of Death. While Pasolini’s three previous films, Il Decameron (1971) aka The Decameron, I racconti di Canterbury (1972) aka The Canterbury Tales, and Il fiore delle mille e una notte (1974) aka Arabian Nights, are all celebrations of life and sexuality, Salò utterly and bitterly rejects these themes.
Also inspired by Dante’s Inferno, the film is split into four segments. In the first, Ante-inferno, four powerful men in the Republic of Salò make a strange and debauched pact. A Duke (Paolo Bonacelli), President (Aldo Valetti), Magistrate (Umberto P. Quintavalle), and Bishop (Giorgio Cataldi) all marry each other’s daughters. They hire a number of guards and a handful of male “studs,” who are chosen solely because they have large penises. Then they kidnap nine male and nine female teenagers, forcing them all to an isolated palace. With them are four aged prostitutes, hired to supervise the teenagers and tell perverse, erotic stories. Between tales, the teenagers are subjected to a number of tortures and humiliations.
The film’s second section, Circle of Mania, concerns further adventures at the villa. One of the prostitutes tells detailed stories directly from Les 120 journées de Sodome. More debauchery ensues, including rape, anal sex, and a forced marriage between two of the captives. The grotesque wedding ceremony involves more rape – none of the captives are allowed to have pleasurable, consensual sex – and the Duke and Magistrate have anal sex with each other. The next day, they force the boys and girls to act like dogs and one of them is whipped to death when he refuses. Nails are hidden in their food.
The Circle of Shit, the film’s third segment, is fairly self-explanatory, as it largely involves coprophagia, or shit eating. Another prostitute tells a story about killing her own mother that excites the President and he begins sexually abusing some of the captives. When one of the girls resists, the Duke has the guards strip her naked and he defecates in front of everyone, then forces her to eat it. This is so arousing to the four men that they later serve giant plates of excrement to everyone for dinner.
The film’s conclusion, the bleak, infamous Circle of Blood, begins with a sinister group wedding between the four men and the well-endowed studs. Morale is at an all-time low for the captives, several of whom are dead by this point. Those remaining turn on one another, desperate to survive, but they are brought out into the courtyard for hours of torture – scalping, eye-gouging, tongue removal, branding, and more – and systematic murder, while the four men greedily look on.
Considered a masterpiece by many critics and filmmakers, Salò was banned in several countries because of its explicit subject matter, which includes kidnapping, torture, rape, anal sex, coprophilia, murder, suicide, and child abuse. Though the film was released during an unprecedented wave of films with Holocaust themes — from mainstream and arthouse to exploitation and even pornography — Pasolini certainly intended Salò to be alienating and uncomfortably graphic, the ultimate challenge for filmgoers. In some ways, it a response to the emerging Nazisploitation genre, which developed from American films like Love Camp 7 (1969) and its more famous cousin, Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (1975), and spawned ten years of mainly Italian produced Nazi-themed exploitation films that polluted the European grindhouse market. But even compared to these films, Salò stand apart, enduring as a cinematic howl of rage and anguish that is “as glacial and opaque as marble, as pure and cutting as diamond” (Marcel Martin, July 1976).
The powerful shadow of the Holocaust that falls over Nazisploitation and many of the WWII-themed arthouse films I’ve explored in the first two parts of this essay also casts Salò into its shade and the film likewise filters historical elements and factual events through a lens of fantasy and exploitation. Though Pasolini took care to specifically name and place Salò within the historical location of Mussolini’s Salò, the caricatures found in Nazisploitation films play an almost equally significant role in the visual and thematic context of Salò. In Passion and Defiance: Film in Italy from 1942 to the Present, Mira Liehm writes, “Not only had Pasolini arrived at the conclusion that making sex the centerpiece of cinematic populism brings one closer to exploitation than to liberation, but he was also reacting to the exploitation of sex in the Nazi-porno films that were flooding the Italian market at that time. In Saló, the substitution of the Italian fascist establishment for the Nazi-porno caricatures of German war criminals became an important part of Pasolini’s cultural commentary” (291).
Instead of responding directly to political fascism or the trauma of the Holocaust, Pasolini constructed his cinematic world around a visual language partly inherited from exploitation and erotica. Like his Trilogy of Life a few years before, Salò anticipated a new wave of cinematic sexual commodification. When Pasolini completed his Trilogy of Life, he was one of the first filmmakers to push explicit content farther than it had previously been allowed to go in Italian film. Perhaps inevitably, a series of pornographic and exploitation films followed in its wake. Such titles as I racconti di Viterbury: Le più allegre storie del ‘300 (1973) aka The Sexbury Tales (1973), I racconti di Canterbury N. 2 (1973) aka The Lusty Wives of Canterbury, Il Decamerone proibito (1972) aka Forbidden Decameron, and Le calde notti del Decameron (1972) aka Hot Nights of Decameron flooded the market (Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs, Immoral Tales, 32-34). Immediately after Saló’s completion and release, this trend was echoed with Nazisploitation films.
In his seminal study Reflections of Nazism: An Essay on Kitsch and Death, Saul Friedländer described a “new discourse” of Nazism, one where the Third Reich is no longer a symbol of pervasive, all-corrupting evil. Instead, it exists with a contradictory, dual function. Partly it is the kitschy shadow of a horror that is no longer imaginable in the current social and economic climate, a once indescribable trauma that is now explained over and over again, pinned down by language. Conversely, it lingers as a recurrent psychological hold for “a particular kind of bondage nourished by the simultaneous desires for absolute submission and total freedom” (Friedländer 19).
As Susan Sontag wrote, “Now there is a master scenario available to everyone. The color is black, the material is leather, the seduction is beauty, the justification is honesty, the aim is ecstasy, the fantasy is death.” With Salò, Pasolini responded to this new fascism. His recreation of Mussolini’s Salò, like any good fantasy, is replete with accurate details, but is otherwise removed from factual historical context. From 1943 to 1945, Salò was the seat of Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic or Republic of Salò, a puppet government run by the Nazis in the northern half of Italy. Fascist Italy had a historical reputation for being lenient on the Jews and Italy had one of the highest survival rates for Jews in Europe after the war (topped only by Denmark and Bulgaria).
This idea of a rosy Italian defense of Jewish people has been challenged recently, particularly in terms of the period of 1943 to 1945 when the Nazi government put its machine of hatred and mass extermination to work. Of course, anti-Semitic actions began before the German occupation. “During the years 1938–43, prior to the loss of Italian sovereignty, Fascist Italy waged a debilitating campaign against its Jewish population. The passage of anti-Jewish laws, introduced primarily before the Second World War and without German interference, dealt a sharp blow to the Italian Jewish community” (Joshua Zimmerman, Jews in Italy Under Fascist and Nazi Rule). By decree of King Victor Emmanuel III’s “Laws for the Defense of Race,” Jews were removed from schools, both as students and instructors, military service, state employment, from owning medium to large businesses and valuable land, etc.
It only got worse from there: roughly one-fourth of the Jewish population was forced to convert or emigrate by 1943. By 1944, Italian soldiers had arrested thousands of Jews on Mussolini’s orders. Saul Friedländer wrote in Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945: The Years of Extermination, “Throughout the country the roundups continued until the end of 1944: The Jews were usually transferred to an assembly camp at Fossoli (later to Risiera di San Sabba, near Trieste) and, from there, sent to Auschwitz. Thousands managed to hide among a generally friendly population or in religious institutions; some managed to flee across the Swiss border or to the areas liberated by the Allies. Nonetheless, throughout Italy about 7,000 Jews, some 20 percent of the Jewish population, were caught and murdered” ( 561).
While Italian concentration camps are generally not considered as gruesome or cruel as their Nazi counterparts, the fact remains that they did exist. Risiera di San Sabba was an Italian camp mostly used as a prison or killing center for political prisoners, but it was also a transit center that transported Jews and other “undesirables” to Auschwitz and occasionally other camps. Jews from not only Italy, but also neighboring countries Croatia and Slovenia were sent to their deaths through San Sabba. Other camps include the kinder Campagna, where prisoners were allowed to receive mail and food, and visit sick relatives. In 1943, locals helped the inmates escape before Germans flooded the area. They were hidden underground, in cellars, on farms, and in churches and convents, sometimes disguised as priests and nuns.
Friedlander related an anecdote about the brutal torture practices that Jews and partisans sometimes experienced at the hands of Italians themselves, by men like the soldier and secret police commander Pietro Koch. “In Milan a gang of Italian fascists outperformed the Germans in feats of bestiality; this was an uncommon achievement by all accounts, and an atypical one. Pietro Koch’s men had established their headquarters in a villa soon known as Villa Triste (“sad villa”), where they tortured and executed their victims, Jews and non-Jews. Koch’s thugs were assisted by two famous Italian actors, Luisa Ferida and Osvaldo Valenti, known as ‘the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of torture,’ who lent a macabre, surreal quality to Villa Triste that has made it a symbol of the decadent twilight of fascism” (612). The “Villa Triste” was actually a name used for a number of such torture centers throughout fascist Italy. In addition to the Milan headquarters, similar institutions could be found in Florence, Rome, Trieste, Genoa, and others.
Pasolini’s formative years occurred during the war and its effects on his life and developing philosophy are incalculable. In 1939, he began attending the University of Bologna. He joined a cinema club, published some of his poetry, learned Friulan — a rural Italian language that would become one of the great loves of his life — and had first affair with a male student. His experiences with Italian and German fascism were long lasting and escalated between 1940 and 1945. He was fired from a magazine by its fascist-leaning chief editor and a fateful trip to Germany pushed him towards Communism. Though he spent most of this time in a sheltered part of the Italian countryside, he was eventually drafted. He was soon imprisoned by the Wehrmacht, though he managed to escape by pretending to be a peasant. His brother was not so lucky, and died during a skirmish.
In many ways, Salò is the culmination of all these traumas and experiences. It does not reflect a single wartime memory, but is the sum of Pasolini’s ideas about the futility and toxicity of capitalism, consumerism, and fascism which began during the war and developed throughout this life. He wrote, “the reality of innocent bodies has now also been stained, manipulated, and destroyed by the power of the consumer society” (Liehm 290). Salò is not a specific film about the treatment of Italians during the war, but a brilliant examination of the total European experience: imprisonment, surveillance, control, torture, death.
And while Salò begins as a fantasy, this notion is cruelly dashed against the rocks of intellectualism by Pasolini. The catalog of perversions, monstrosities, erotic curios, and even vignette-like fairytales found within Salò are, if not the nuts and bolts of an outright intellectual exercise, at least steeped in a rich tradition of literary scholarship and philosophy. Astoundingly, he provides a bibliografia essenziale or reading list following the opening credits, which includes such thinkers as Roland Barthes, Maurice Blanchot, Simone De Beauvoir, Pierre Klossowski, and Philippe Sollers as his co-conspirators, giving book and article titles as well as specific published editions. Though this indicates some sort of explanation or possible warning for what is about to unfold on screen, in many ways it makes an indigestible film even more difficult to process. The lengthy scenes to come are difficult enough without Pasolini’s challenge to understand them in an isolated, intellectual context.
What Susan Sontag called the fantasy of death is critical to all violent exploitation films, particularly those fixated with fascism. In these efforts, death is frequently a stand in for orgasm, and though orgasms occur, none are as dramatic or eroticized as moments of death. While sex, sadism, and death are the primary motivators in Nazisploitation films, in Salò, sex is nearly devoid of value and the all eroticism is stripped away. The only actions that have any real value to the libertines in Salò are the carefully conscripted rules and rituals that separate public from private. As the Duke states in the beginning of the film, any perversion is accepted, if not encouraged. The unspoken implication is that sex, as well as any normally private, personal act — including defecation — is only acceptable in the performative sphere of the orgy room. This disavowal of personal space and identity is one of the elements that sets Salò apart from other Nazi exploitation films.
Though frequently intended to be disturbing, uncomfortable, and exploitative, sexuality in Nazisploitation is generally meant to be inherently erotic. But Salò’s intellectual rejection and repeated denial of eroticism provides no release from its world of torment, humiliation, and ugliness. In his theoretical work, “The Cinema of Poetry,” Pasolini states that a director “chooses a series of objects, or things, or landscapes, or persons as syntagmas (signs of a symbolic language) which, while they have a grammatical history invented in that moment… do, however, have an already lengthy and intense pregrammatical history” (Pasolini, Heretical Empiricism, 171). He purposefully chose a series of acts, sexual and perverse, that have direct origin in Sade and are explored in ’70s exploitation cinema. The concept of humanity as a crushing, churning machine, devoid of individual identity, began with Sade and found its fullest expression under Germany’s Third Reich. Pasolini united these themes in the ultimate rejection of sex and disavowal that death is an escape from the cruelty of life.
In Salò, the taboo, but familiar world of perverse sexuality is stripped of its erotic content, resulting in what critics have called the “funeral dirge” of eroticism, what Gilles Deleuze described as a “theorem of death.” There is no escape from this Inferno-like realm of torment. Salò never ends. It forces us to constantly relive past and present horrors without placing that trauma inside a specific historical framework. The specter of fascism is named, but never exorcised as it is in other Nazisploitation films of the era. Though the end of the film culminates in an orgy of violence, Pasolini simply focuses on the different libertines watching the scene through a window and binoculars, reminding us of our own voyeuristic complicity in the horror of sexual commodification.
In a 1967 interview, Paolini said, “It is only at our moment of death that our life, to that point undecipherable, ambiguous, suspended, acquires a meaning.” And there is, of course, another layer of death associated with Salò: Pasolini’s own. Several months after the film’s release in 1975, the director was run over with his own car by a young male prostitute in Ostia, a picturesque beach town in Rome. Nearly thirty years later, the man — Pino Pelosi — claimed that he was forced to make a false confession and a conspiracy has developed involving potential blackmailers who supposedly stole rolls of the film. Pasolini had long been the object of scandal in Italy due to his hard-line communist beliefs, insistence on unconventionality, and somewhat open homosexual lifestyle.
The murder was brutal. According to a 1995 New York Times article by Andrew Gumbel, “The corpse was severely mutilated, the thorax was crushed and the liver lacerated. Half an ear had been ripped away from the head… Was it really credible that a fit athlete like Pasolini would be overcome by one rather skinny boy? Could Pelosi really have inflicted such serious lesions with no more than his fists and a wet piece of wood? How come Pelosi had only a couple of small stains on his clothes, when all indications pointed to a furious struggle in a muddy field?” These later doubts were further problematized by shoddy police work, a lack of forensic evidence, and other questionable elements. His death has left a frustrating legacy, one that is inextricably bound up with his crowning achievement, Saló, which remains one of the most visceral, challenging, and taboo works of cinema.