It’s difficult to recommend Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò to, well, anyone. Just talking about the sort of things depicted in the film—rape, torture, degradation of all varieties—is likely to get you shunned around most watercoolers and the film remains banned in several countries. Even in an age where you can search up footage of almost anything online, it still carries a transgressive charge. If Salò were merely concerned with transgression, or titillation, it would be of little interest; it certainly wouldn’t be coming out in a typically deluxe, new two-DVD Criterion Collection edition. But there’s more going on here than exploitation.
The full title is Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom. The 120 Days of Sodom is a half-finished novel written by the infamous Marquis de Sade in 1785; Salò was a state-within-a-state in Fascist Italy in the waning years of World War II. Up to the time he made Salò, his last film, in 1975, Pasolini’s ouevre had been largely defined by its roots in literature (a writer himself, he adapted everything from Greek drama to The Canterbury Tales to the New Testament) and his leftist-intellectual politics. Thus the genius stroke of transferring Sade’s festival of sadomasochistic baseness to the director’s own country’s recent Fascist past.
As in the novel, four wealthy and powerful men (Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle, and Aldo Valletti) use their influence to kidnap a group of teenage boys and girls and drag them to an elegant chateau. Order is enforced by a small squad of young soldiers; light entertainment is provided by a pianist (Sonia Saviange) and three middle-aged courtesans (Caterina Boratto, Elsa De Giorgi, and Hélène Surgère) who smilingly narrate tales of abuse and sodomy as a warm-up for each day’s main event. The four men then proceed to abuse and degrade the kidnapped youths, individually and en masse. The teens are relentlessly abused and terrorized and tortured and ultimately maimed by the men, who get up to their own perverse shenanigans, including marrying each others’ daughters and donning drag to mock-marry their guards. Thus it continues until it stops.
Despite the rampant nudity and sexuality, there’s nothing erotic about Salò. As noted by several of the string of illustrious commentators on the second disc of extras, Pasolini tended to frame almost everything that happens in static tableaux, shooting at a remove missing from pornography. The viewer is presented with the entire scene—the transgressors, the transgressed upon, those watching the transgression silently—at a certain distance. And while Pasolini cast the men with an obvious eye toward their capacity for repellence and the young soldiers for their tinge of cruelty, the actors playing the kidnapped are curiously affectless when not in distress. Rarely does one of the victims have the frame to his or herself; they are individuated by the filmmaker no more than they are by their captors.
Their passiveness speaks to the themes underpinning all this misery. While auditioning their captives, the men discover that one young girl’s mother died during her kidnapping. As she sinks to the floor, naked, sobbing, they all rise from their couches like a line of erections, stimulated by her pain. Their motives are plain and taken for granted: as their domain crumbles around them, they have decided to exercise their power over the citizenry to its brutal extreme, and so power is exercised. The film’s first salvo is fired when one of the young soldiers says impassively, “Sorry, we were ordered to do this,” then spits in a young woman’s face. He apologizes, but he follows the order and does so with evident zeal, picking at a conceit of deniability that has lingered since the Nuremberg trials. Power is enforced by those who could choose not to. And then there are the youths themselves, who submit to such treatment without significant protest, who, as the film wears on, even show some affection for their captors, and inform on their fellow captives for breaking the rules. Power is accepted. And as the film and its 120 days culminate in a festival of open-air torture, the men take turns in a bizarre throne, watching the proceedings with binoculars through a window, implicating those, like the viewer, who simply watch power being abused.
Extreme? Yes. Difficult to take? By design. Still relevant today? Indeed.