Salo, or 120 Days of the Sodom, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s resplendently grotesque swan song, was not among the Italian maestro’s best. Indeed, as the film’s subtitle, courtesy of Marquis de Sade (from whom the film also obtains its narrative arc) intimates, it was a debacle of Biblical proportions.
Upon Salo’s 1975 release, critics balked, censors censured and audiences bridled at Pasolini’s cavalcade of bad jokes, visceral horrors and authoritarian malfeasance. The film is, to say the least, unforgettable. As much a test of endurance as it is work of art, it remains one of the most audacious, if often unwieldy, evocations of evil in the twentieth century.
A canonical poet, critic, and activist, Pasolini possessed tremendous intellectual moxie. As an adult he remained both a committed Communist and a devout Catholic, determined to reconcile these two polarized worldviews. Contradiction enriched his oeuvre even as it plagued his personal life.
Indoctrinated into cinema during the final stages of neorealism, the mode de rigeur among socially conscious postwar Italian filmmakers, Pasolini evades strict classification. He was neither as formally rigorous as neorealism’s founder Roberto Rossellini, nor as romantically self-dramatizing as his onetime mentor Federico Fellini, whose celebrated fête Nights of Cabiria was also Pasolini’s entrée into the film world (Fellini hired the young man to serve as assistant director). Ultimately, the younger auteur would forge his own (highly unorthodox) approach to the medium.
Pasolini’s typical style wed classical grandeur with contemporary vulgarity. Most strikingly, for his 1965 rendition of The Gospel According to Matthew, the director scored the passion of the Christ to the spiritual yearnings of 20th century gospel music. No less contrapuntal, Salo exudes an Old Testament flavor. In the course of two hours, Pasolini condenses the sum atrocities of Italian fascism into a single, brutally orgiastic inferno.
Structurally, Salo is a volcanic allegory. Set in the waning years of World War II, the film opens in a quiescent Italian village. Hoping to consolidate power after the initial fall of Benito Mussolini’s ultra-rightist regime (fellow dictator Adolf Hitler would, in an ill-advised moment of congeniality, soon after reinstall the ousted Mussolini as leader of the Italian Social Republic, or Republic of Salo, a Nazi puppet state in the country’s Northern quadrant), four despots pulverize the provincial calm with a mutual pact of debauchery. After marrying each other’s daughters, the men subsequently abduct 18 nubiles from the surrounding community and transport them to a palatial country villa, where the captives are to undergo a litany of revolting ordeals.
With tyrannical precision, the despots force their victims to listen to anecdotes of perverse fetishes (including coprophilia and urolagnia) told by makeup-caked courtesans and satisfy increasingly strange sexual whims. Indeed, by the film’s logic, sex – more particularly sodomy – is tantamount to political power. So, too, are bodily functions. In the film’s most insufferably scatalogical scene, the youth are obliged to ceremonially feast upon their own feces–an effective, if overwrought metaphor for the rhetorical excrement that citizens under autocratic rule are coerced to consume.
By contrast, Pasolini’s visuals are stunningly elegant. As shot by cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli, a Pasolini regular, Salo’s symmetrical compositions, lavish cathedral lighting and lushly hued Tuscan color palate run counter to the film’s spectacularly grotesque subject matter. In early works like Mama Roma and Accattone, Pasolini displayed a knack for sussing out the beauty in life’s innate ugliness. Here, every exquisite exterior conceals some unspeakable monstrosity of human nature.
Within its artistic zeitgeist, Salo was by no means an anomaly. Impelled by the vogue political engagement of seventies arthouse cinema, the film was one in a large raft of works – among Pasolini’s compatriots, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist and 1900 and Federico Fellini’s Amarcord were among the most noteworthy – hoping to disentangle the lingering legacy of European fascism.
Nor was Salo the first of these to reimagine political conquest in terms of kinky pageantry. Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974) not only pondered the affinities of Naziism and sadomasochism, it also savagely inverted the hyper-patriotic and cinematically pure romance of the quintessential Hollywood production, Casablanca. Like Pasolini, Cavani saw Hegel’s master-slave dialectic playing out on a personal as well as a societal scale.
Salo suggests nearly the opposite: the repercussions of a political leader exorcising his or her personal demons on a public stage. Like the film’s lubricious villains, however, Pasolini conveys his point with extravagance. “All’s good if it’s excessive,” one despot blithely proclaims, perhaps paraphrasing the filmmaker. As its depictions of treachery escalate, Salo begins to appear less as a cautionary tale about man’s inhumanity to man than a misguided attempt to channel the fascist mindset in the hopes of understanding it.
In some ways, Pasolini’s endeavor is a noble one. A film as relentlessly experiential and ardently antifascist as Salo deserves viewers to, at the very least, be repulsed by it. Yet, the director arguably gives himself too much latitude. More accurately, Salo is a case study of what can happen when an inquiring artist takes a bridge too far through the warped looking glass of modern morality.