“Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ll keep saying we’re all in danger.” The words spoken by Pier Paolo Pasolini in his final interview seem prophetic considering their circumstances. A few hours later he would be dead, run over multiple times by his own automobile. “We’re all in danger...” Coming from a director who had challenged social class, sexuality, and religion, they came across as a stern warning. At the time of the interview in question, he had recently finished work on what would be his final film, Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, 1975). As one of the most controversial works of art ever created, it’s fitting that Pasolini’s final contribution to a world-changing in drastic ways would be so abrasive. Dismissed by some as filth, with feminist author Andrea Dworkin claiming it made her physically ill, there are others who look past its shocking exterior. The magnum opus provides an unrestrained commentary on fascism, consumerism, subjugation, and the hypocrisy of those who hold positions of leadership.
To fully understand the film, one should start at its source material, written by the Marquis de Sade. To the average person, the authors’ name conjures up thoughts of sexual sadism, perversion, and unrestrained debauchery. While his words have carried a stigma with them since they were first put to parchment, there’s more to the man and his writing. Much like the film he inspired, those who simply dismiss them as just being vile and pornographic without considering their other attributes are normally purveyors of lazy thinking. If anything, de Sade held a mirror to a world less civilized than it claimed to be. In his characters Juliette and Justine in particular, he formed a complex study of human nature, one that’s resonated throughout popular culture to this very day.
While imprisoned in the Bastille, de Sade set out to write what he described as the “most impure tale ever written.” The result of this effort was Les 120 Journées de Sodome ou l’école du libertinage (The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinage). One of the definitive works on libertinage that reflects the corrupt nature of the ruling class he was born into, its since gone on to be honored as a national treasure of France. The story, in which four libertines, a Bishop, Magistrate, Duke, and Judge retreat to a villa secluded in the Black Forest with 18 adolescent children, remains almost unrivaled in its depravity. Within the estate, victims are forced to take part in the libertines’ self-gratifying desires. “The four friends” as they refer to themselves are the physical embodiments of religion, law, and justice. The hypocrisy possessed by the so-called beacons of morality and power is what lies beneath the lecherous deeds of the text.
From its opening pages, de Sade strips down the barrier separating the reader and the book, going so far as to address his audience as ‘friend reader.’ This unique aspect wasn’t lost on Pasolini, who continually makes the viewer complicit with the scenarios that play out within the film, and continually forces a perspective from the libertines’ point of view. By transporting the tale of impurity to Italy (circa 1944), a portrait that depicts fascism in all its wretchedness is thoroughly presented. He also makes a case for the dangers of consumerism, which had risen during the post-war era. Establishing a correlation between fascism and libertinage, Salò provides an expose on the abuse and hypocrisy of power that’s existed throughout time.
Despite the similarities between war-torn Italy and Libertine-era France, there’s a difference between the respective artists that can’t be ignored. As writers and thinkers, Pasolini and de Sade couldn’t have been more different from one another. While both were unique in philosophical thought and creative output, their upbringing and outlook on the world were about as comparable as night and day. Pasolini had been born into poverty and had continually expressed an idea of ‘poverty not misery’ in his work. He despised television and what he described as conventional culture. As someone who had witnessed the oppression of fascism, he saw a degeneration emerging from the economic boom that had followed the Second World War. In contrast, de Sade had been born into the wealth and privilege of the French aristocracy. From an early age, he had witnessed the hypocrisy of the clergy and the depravity in which many of the upper classes engaged in. He would separate himself from his religious upbringing through his work and behavior, even going so far as to describe himself as ‘atheist to the point of fanaticism.’ Despite their differences, Pasolini honors the spirit of de Sade’s source material and offers a glimpse into a world that’s rotten to the very core.
Aside from an adaptation of de Sade’s text, Salò is told through a narrative inspired by The Inferno, written by Dante Alighieri. As the first installment of what’s known as The Divine Comedy, Dante’s piece, although from a different time period than de Sade and Pasolini, contains imagery of degeneration and suffering that coincide with the directors’ artistic vision. The Inferno depicts the nine circles of Hell and divine punishment reserved for “…those who have rejected spiritual values by yielding to bestial appetites or violence, or by perverting their human intellect to fraud or malice against their fellowmen…” With each particular segment of the film inspired by one of Dante’s circles, the audience is plunged into a gradual descent, as the behavior of the libertines degenerates with the assistance of storytelling from a group of courtesans. The juxtaposition of Dante’s seminal work coincides with the indictment of fascism and seems appropriate considering how the parable of Christ was utilized by Pasolini to explore Marxism in Il vangelo secondo Matteo (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, 1964). The biblical epic provides another example of the stark contrast between him and de Sade, especially when one takes into consideration the writers’ devout atheism as opposed to Pasolini’s strained relationship with Catholicism.
As Salò progresses, we find ourselves becoming complicit with the actions of madmen who have complete control over their subjects. As the first installment in what was to be a “Trilogy of Death”, left incomplete due to Pasolini’s murder, the previous works of the director are acknowledged, yet there exists a departure from the artistic vision commonly associated with his body of work. The film is a stark contrast from his previous efforts in the Trilogy of life. (Three films consisting of Il Decameron (The Decameron,1971) I racconti di Canterbury (The Canterbury Tales, 1972) and Il fiore delle Mille e una Notte (The Arabian Nights,1974.) The vibrant colors have been replaced with drab tones, which seem to indicate the bleak subject matter he’s addressing. The whimsical and lighthearted method of erotic storytelling is also gone. Pasolini’s use of sexuality is cold, distant, and stripped bare of its titillating elements. The human body is reduced to a commodity that exists solely to provide for the governing body of the libertines.
Salo begins with a meeting of the four libertines, which establishes a ruling party and its laws that will become central to the film. The surrounding landscapes establish a world in which impurity is about to occur. It’s in this setting where we as the audience bear witness to the mechanics of victims being procured for the libertines. While one child is abducted after attempting to escape on a bicycle, one is seen willingly going into captivity, reassuring family members not to worry about him. As the libertines examine the children for their sordid pleasures, we’re shown their perspective of the human body as a commodity. In Teorema (Theorem, 1968), Pasolini had introduced a motif of undressing to illustrate liberation from the sheltered complacency that exists within the ruling class. In Salò, a similar motif exists in the form of the mirror, which establishes itself in the first act. This object comes to play an important role throughout the film as an indictment of the artists’ own countrymen. The mirror shows that this is a film that forces inner reflection, looking back to the past as a warning, and holding Italy accountable for their actions from years gone by.
Before the audience journeys into the Circle of Manias (the first of three Dante-esque levels contained in the film), the setting that will contain cruelty is introduced. The estate, named Silling in de Sade’s text, ultimately takes the form of a self-contained fascist country. With the libertines assuming the form of a governing body, and a small troupe of guards to serve as its army, the rules in which it’s governed by are enforced in the strictest ways possible. From this point forward, we descend into the inferno. As Dante mentioned in his book, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
The Circle of Manias is where indoctrination and subjugation are thoroughly introduced into the film. Any regime that subscribes to an extreme ideology must instill its values and beliefs in the younger generation to ensure that they’re maintained. An example of a regime indoctrinating its subjects for their own benefits is illustrated in a scene where two children are taught to masturbate and forced to take part in a wedding ceremony. Mirroring the pomp and ceremony found in fascism, the wedding soon gives way to the children being forced to fondle one another but halted by the libertines before they can fully consummate their union. Much of this scenario is shown from the perspective of the libertines, thus forcing the audience to witness the whole spectacle from their point of view. Once again, the mirror makes itself known in a scene that’s indicative of how an oppressive government treats its subjects. As the children are forced to act like dogs, begging for food and groveling like slaves, sexuality to used to depict the subjugation of the masses. The Duke mentions being content in not being one of the scum he calls the people, further showing the gap between the populace and the ruling class. The whole sequence illustrates a lack of empathy that a fascist regime has towards its own citizens, relegating them to simply being a means to an end.
Further reducing the children to a commodity continues in the Circle of Shit, which also contains the most notorious imagery within the film. While it would be easy to dismiss a scene involving coprophagia (the consumption of feces) as nothing more than exploitive, it becomes a way to illustrate consumerism forced upon a regime. The libertines set forth a rule of not allowing the children to relieve themselves in order to provide fecal matter for a feast. While much has been made about the feast itself, it’s the composition of the scene preceding it, which illustrates the point that Pasolini is attempting to make. The image of four girls, lined up for an inspection, chamber pots in hand, mimics an actual assembly line. Like a fascist society, the populous must produce for the governing body and comply with the strict regulations contained therein. When one can’t conform to this standard they’re punished for their shortcomings. This depiction of consumerist machinery as a filth-ridden mechanism is a call back to Porcile (Pigsty, 1969), in which industry was equated to the filth of a pigsty and its inhabitants. Comparing both films becomes essential in any discussion, especially in regards to how consumerism is placed on the same level as something being thought of as unclean and detestable.
In the circle of blood, the journey into Hell reaches its conclusion, and Pasolini further ties de Sade’s text on libertinage to fascism. The final act of the film, while known for its barbarous and grotesque imagery completes the indictment against Italy’s past that was established earlier. If we assume for a moment that Pasolini is addressing us as ‘friend audience’ then it’s here where we’re made the most complicit with the actions of a fascist regime. As the children are put to death in a carnival-like setting, a reading of “The Cantos” by Ezra Pound can be heard. Pound, a poet who Pasolini deeply admired and even interviewed at one point, was a fixture of Italian Fascism. The audience is given a first-hand account of the atrocities as each libertine views them through a pair of binoculars. This forced perspective, while present throughout the film, is at its most powerful here. As Pounds’ reading ends, Veris Leta Facies by Carmina Burana can be heard as the orgy of violence reaches its crescendo.
It’s also in the third act where the guards of the estate to go through a transition. In both Porcile and Teorema, Pasolini showed his audience images that depicted someone being complicit in regards to their social situation. Illustrating complete complacency with the enormous amount of violence occurring around them, the guards now wear civilian clothes as opposed to the uniforms they wore earlier in the film. This could possibly be alluding to someone being conditioned to rejoin contemporary society after committing wartime atrocities. Salò is almost completely devoid of a soundtrack, and Burana’s piece hides a clever deception. As one of the guards shifts a station on a radio to the films’ opening theme, it’s revealed that every sound we’ve heard is occurring within the scenarios as they happen. The opening theme repeating itself cements a modern tragedy, with events beginning and ending with a similar moment. The final scene in which two of the soldiers dance a waltz with one another further depicts them as being completely desensitized to the violence that the audience has been made a witness to. As Salo ends, we’re left with a moment of tenderness and tranquility, and a reminder that undiluted evil lurks just outside of our own personal comfort.
Despite its intended message, which lurked beneath the imagery, Salò wasn’t well received from certain critics. Despite directors such as Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Gasper Noe praising the artistry, critics Vincent Canby described it as repugnant, and Roger Ebert refused to watch it, citing its transgressive reputation. In retrospect, the importance of the message Pasolini attempted to convey to his audience far outweighs any transgression abrasiveness of the content.
In a perfect world, Pasolini would have lived to see his vision accepted for its honest depiction of the world we live in. However, history is cruel and full of bitter unfairness.
As he left the interview that night, not knowing the full scope of the words he had spoken or the artwork he left behind, it must have been impossible for him to grasp just what he had done. In some ways, he seemed to predict his own death when he remarked, “I pay for my experience in person.” Much like the guards dancing that final waltz, we as a society have become all too complacent with the state of degeneration and hypocrisy that both de Sade and Pasolini depicted through their respective mediums. Although the content might not agree with everyone’s sensibilities, the message is as relevant no as it was in 1975. If we learn anything from Salò, it’s this–we’re still in danger.