Salò, o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salò, or The 120 days Of Sodom, 1975) is necessarily associated with director Pier Paolo Pasolini. His interpretation of The 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade is considered to be one of the most controversial films ever made. Honoring the spirit of the source material, and using a voyeuristic approach, it’s an honest statement from Pasolini as both a director, and a social revolutionary. However, Porcile (Pigsty, 1969), serves as the best reflection of who he was as an artist.

Openly criticizing the upper class and the dominance of the Catholic church, it’s a vivid expression of his personal outlook on postwar Europe. While the economic boom resulted in prosperity for many, Pasolini wasn’t enamored with those results. He found joy in the simple commoner, the person untouched by the excesses of modern society. In an interview conducted on Italian television, he described them as having a natural grace. An expression of his, “Poverty not misery,” reflected this. Porcile marked a stark departure from the confines of neorealism that had been a primary staple of Italian cinema in the early 1950s. The movement, which had shown Italy’s struggle in the postwar years, thrived on using locations still being rebuilt after the war, and casts made of primarily unprofessional actors. Films such as Roma città aperta (Rome, Open City, 1945) examined the oppression of the German occupation. On the same hand, Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves, 1948) gave a face to poverty during postwar reconstruction and the struggles contained therein. Pasolini had experimented with this formula in Mamma Roma (1962), and explored life in Italy after fascism. With Porcile, Pasolini examines the postwar years, but through an avant-garde method of storytelling, different from many of his colleagues and predecessors.  

Porcile is comprised of two parallel stories. The first involves a nomad (Pierre Clementi) wandering a volcanic countryside, and resorting to cannibalism to survive. It represents the directors’ abhorrence for modern society and parodies several religious motifs. Pasolini scorned modernism, and reviled television as nothing more than a medium of cultural alienation. The nomad, whose name is never revealed, takes the form of a heretic, challenging the rules of society in utter defiance. The segment opens up with him searching for food, first attempting to eat a butterfly, than killing a snake with a boulder. The snake is symbolic of the serpent found in the Garden of Eden found in the book of Genesis, and establishes the biblical theme within this segment of the film. A few moments later, a group of people begin to march by in a scene reminiscent to the conclusion of Ingmar Bergman’s Det sjunde inseglet (The Seventh Seal, 1957); the nomad subsequently hides from them, thus escaping society.

Bergman’s film, which deals with life, death, and the absence of god, was a very personal film for the Swedish director. Like Bergman, Pasolini’s Porcile is both introspective and observant. The nomad later comes to resemble a Christ-like figurehead, when he joins forces with a local thug, and takes on followers that mimic the disciples found in the New Testament. How the nomad and his group meet their end hammers down the religious subtext of Porcile. The surrounding village sets a trap in which a man and a woman stand naked in an open area to tempt the nomad and his followers. The pair, who could be seen to represent Adam and Eve, furthers the biblical theme. As the tribe approaches, soldiers launch an ambush and take them prisoner. The nomad, inexplicably strips bare and stands statuesque amidst the fray. When the nomad and his followers are brought before the town, they’re presented before a cross. While his right hand man kisses it, possibly in hopes of forgiveness, the nomad refuses—showing defiance in face of the church. The band is subsequently sentenced to death by being fed to wild animals. In the only bit of dialogue found in this sequence, the nomad reads his own last rites: “I killed my father. I ate human flesh, and I tremble with joy.” Furthering the motif of martyrdom, all are crucified to the ground in a Christ-like pose as they meet their end at the hands of wild beasts.

The second story of the film takes place in Germany during the economic boom of the postwar years. It focuses on two rival industrialists named Klotz (Alberto Lionello) and Herdhitze (Ugo Tognazzi). Aside from these two captains of industry, the story also involves Klotz’s young son Julian (Jean-Pierre Leaud) and his fiancée Ida (Anne Wiazemsky). Their relationship forms a contrast between complacency and a desire for change. With these two characters, Pasolini demonstrates the political mindset of the time period, and the separation between the social classes. While Ida speaks openly about demonstrations and political reform in Germany, Julian is completely absorbed in his sheltered lifestyle. Later, as Julian sits in a litter reminiscent of the old European aristocracy, Ida chastises him for not wanting to become involved with social changes occurring in Berlin. Julian looks up at her from his seat and remarks, “Even as a revolutionary, I conform,” his location symbolic of his sheltered existence. In what’s possibly the best shot sequence within the film, they address one another in front of Klotz’s villa. Many of their sentences end with “tralala,” imitating a nursery rhyme sung by children.

As someone who had been active with the Italian communist party, Pasolini was all too familiar with the demand for social change. A great deal of his literary works celebrated revolution, and this scene in particular is reminiscent of the director’s fiery passion. Ida’s descriptions of communists urinating on the Berlin wall appear to reflect this.

Much like Salò, o le 120 giornate di Sodoma, Pasolini paints those in power as degenerates. Julian, completely oblivious to the changes occurring in the world around him, is instead obsessed with the pigs in his fathers’ sty. During the scene in front of the villa, Julian pinches his nose to form a snout, then tells Ida he wishes to be an SS officer and “kill her with his secret.” The pigs in the film have often been equated to machines of manufacturing and consumerism, a motif that reflects Pasolini’s personal feelings towards the world he lived in. The pigsty is a consumerist society in its purest form. Its routine is mundane, and its occupants only exist to produce for the governing body. In Porcile, it comes to reflect the subjugation of the working class by those who are in power. Julian’s obsession can be seen as necessity for the exploitation of others to keep the machinery of consumerism moving forward.

Aside from the relationship between Julian and Ida, Pasolini focuses on the merger of Klotz and Herdhitze’s industrial firms. Moments before the two meet, Herdhitze’s true identity as a former Nazi is revealed to Klotz by his assistant, Hans Gunther (Marco Ferreri). As Klotz plays his harp, Gunther recounts Hirhitze’s previous war crimes, and his plastic surgery performed in Italy to conceal his true identity. Klotz bellows with laughter upon hearing about the decapitation of Jewish communists, and their skulls being sent to Germany for medical research. This whole segment, while presented as some sort of twisted satire, isn’t too far off from historical fact. Several German war criminals would go on to pursue successful careers in business after the war. Even men who had served in the killing squads of the Einsatzkommando easily found jobs as policeman at wars end. Herdhitze’s plastic surgery performed in Italy reflects the country’s complacency with their former fascist allies. Herdhitze later refers to his procedure as plastic surgery “Italian style.” Klotz himself bears a striking resemblance to Hitler, right down to the sloped haircut and Chaplin-esque mustache.

Klotz and Herdhitze speak with one another in a very unique style. As they both talk of their age and their profession, their conversation takes a darker tone. Herdhitze says, “so, to the health of the Jews, Mr. Klotz.” His counterpart replies, “To the health of Pigs, Mr. Herdhitze.” It has an underlying tone suggesting that the machines of industry run as efficiently as the mechanized mass murder of the Holocaust. Klotz even refers to Herdhitze’s last name as translating to “blazing hearth” in a colloquial dialect. Klotz asks him what blazes on the hearth, to which Herdhitze describes the “great fire” of Germany reborn, producing buttons, wool, and other items of industry. The fire Herdhitze speaks of could be interpreted as those seen in the crematoriums found in the concentration camps, only now used for economic growth. Pasolini links these two periods in history, objectifying the economic miracle in Germany (referred to as the Wirstschaftswunder) to nothing more than a new form of fascism. This them is touched upon in the theatrical trailer, which shows stills from the feature, while dialogue is heard from the two industrialists as a piano plays a rendition of “Die Fahne hoch” (“The Flag on High,” the anthem of Nazi Germany, composed by Horst Wessel).

While the segment in the wasteland thrives on imagery, the segment of the industrialists and the would-be lovers relies on the spoken word. A successful poet in his own right, Pasolini’s natural gift for dialogue had been a trademark in several of his films. Some of his most notable contributions can be traced back to his work on Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life, 1957). In Porcile, his use of the poetic metaphor represents what is quite possibly some of his greatest writing.

The conclusion of the film’s second half somewhat mirrors the story in the wasteland. Exploring another form of martyrdom, the pigs in his father’s sty devour Julian; the very machines he has grown so very fond of are the basis of his undoing. The scene in which the news of Julian’s death is revealed to his father, furthers Pasolini’s ongoing commentary about Italy’s role as subservient to Nazi Germany. As the merger of Klotz and Herdhitze’s firms occur, a group of Italian peasants who work for Klotz descend on the villa. As the workers enter, a quartet in the next room begins playing a song that sets the mood for the upcoming scene. An Italian worker named Marachonne, portrayed by mainstay Pasolini actor Ninetto Davoli, breaks the news. Davoli, with his prominent Italian features, such as olive skin and thick black hair, is the one actor in the film who comes to represent his country. The entire scene, in which Herdhitze belittles him, plays out much like Mussolini’s partnership with Hitler, underscoring Italy’s role as nothing more than peasants set to do the will of their German masters. As Marachonne concludes his detailed account, Herdhitze raises a single finger to his lips, and shushes the visiting envoy. He tells them “Not a word to a soul,” most likely to hide a scandal, and the film abruptly concludes.

While Porcile is complex, and at times difficult to understand, what it conveys Pasolini’s ability to hold a mirror up to society and force it to confront its past. As someone who had lived under the thumb of fascism, Pasolini saw something that so many didn’t, or at least chose to ignore. He lashed out at the establishment with a message that postwar prosperity came with a price. What he had started with Porcile would be carried over a few years later into Salò, o le 120 giornate di Sodoma. In an interview conducted a few hours before his death, he remarked; “We’re all in danger.” Considering recent political turmoil, it seems the message contained in Porcile is as relevant today as it was in 1969. It’s a prolific statement from a uniquely honest voice in cinema.