Friday, June 12, 2009

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975, Pier Paolo Pasolini)

Nearly every discussion of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom begins with its content. On the one hand, this is only natural. After all, when a movie is as notorious as Salo is, you don’t bury the lead. Yet on the other hand, doing so creates something of a mistaken impression among those who read reviews of the film. When the first thing someone hears about a movie is how “extreme” and “controversial” it is, too often one jumps to the conclusion that it’s some sort of geek show, something to be avoided by all but the most thrill-seeking of moviegoers. I know that the impression of Salo that I’d harbored for years was that it was some kind of high-toned exploitation classic. But now that I’ve seen the film, I realize how far off base my impression was. Make no mistake- Salo’s characters engage in some of the most terrible acts of brutality and degradation I’ve ever seen onscreen. But exploitation this isn’t.

One of the most surprising thing about Salo is how little Pasolini depends on visceral shock- no mean feat for a film that subjects its characters to rape, torture, coprophagy, and many other sorts of humiliation. But then, “characters” doesn’t seem to be the right word for Salo’s young victims. For the most part, Pasolini has no desire to make us care about, let alone identify with, the teenagers who are kidnapped and enslaved by the quartet of bluebloods known as the President, the Duke, the Bishop, and the Magistrate. Occasionally, some humanity will shine through- for example Eve, the girl whose mother was murdered- but these tiny glimpses of personality merely tease the audience to feel for the people onscreen before being stomped out of them.

The preceding paragraph might sound like I’m criticizing the film, but I’m not. Pasolini’s lack of character investment doesn’t make Salo a bad film, but rather a fascinating one. By not rubbing our faces in the brutality onscreen, Pasolini instead asks us to ponder the ideas behind the story. Many of these ideas deal with Pasolini’s depiction of social class. Pasolini was an avowed Marxist who throughout his career demonstrated contempt for Italy’s bourgeoisie, and Salo isn’t remotely subtle in the way it shows its upper-crust characters exploiting their social to their own ends. Pasolini has no love for this outmoded system which places a few above all others and more or less grants the privileged carte blanche to trample the others as they please. In a strange way, Salo feels like a Marxist corrective to films that depict the noble aristocracy with warmth and nostalgia.

But Salo is actually more complicated than that. On one level, Pasolini is depicting the perversity of the aristocracy, as when The Duke says, “the only true anarchy is that of power.” Yet the film also invites us to consider the pathology behind the powerful. Consider two central scenes of the film’s infamous “Circle of Shit” set piece. The first comes when The Duke berates the aforementioned Eve for crying for her murdered mother then forces her to eat his feces. It’s clear in this scene that The Duke relishes the power he has over his victim, especially when he says, “that whining’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever heard.”

But what to make of a later scene in which the entire group- both captors and captives- sits down in the dining room to eat the shit they’ve collected especially for the occasion, with the captors clearly enjoying the meal? And how about the ecstasy on the Duke’s face when another girl pisses on his face, or the storytelling sessions in which aging prostitutes regale the group with tales of their own youthful humiliations? From the time The Bishop states his philosophy that “all’s good if it’s excessive,” there’s more going on in with these characters than a straightforward power trip. It’s as if by sexually abusing the teenagers, the bourgeois are saying not “you’ll take your punishment and enjoy it,” but rather, “you’ll take your punishment and enjoy it as we do.”

In researching this review, I discovered that Salo is a town in Italy that served as a puppet republic for the Nazis near the end of World War II. Because of this, it’s not hard to read Salo as a condemnation of Italy’s collaboration with the Hitler, even if the events we see on the film were inspired not by real life but a novel by the Marquis de Sade. In the first few minutes of the film, we see young men being taken away by the aristocrats not to be prisoners but guards, and from that point they much of their retainers’ more menial tasks. One of the men even calmly explains, “we’re only following orders,” just before he leads four of the captors’ daughters to be married to their fathers. In the film’s final scene, while one of the captors watches his colleagues torture the teenagers through opera glasses, we see two of the soldiers sitting off to the side, bored. They strike up a conversation about on of the soldiers’ girlfriends before getting up and lazily dancing to a tune on the radio.

It’s not the subtlest depiction of the way people become desensitized to brutality that isn’t happening to them, but then, Salo isn’t a subtle film, nor does it mean to be. Nonetheless, it’s typical of Pasolini’s strategy throughout the film- to provoke the audience in a way that incites them to think once they get past the so-called “gag reflex.” Is it any wonder the film is a favorite of both Michael Haneke and Catherine Breillat? Far from the gross-out cult object its reputation would suggest, Salo a movie that demands to be taken seriously, full of ideas so potent that it remains as controversial and shocking now as it was three decades ago.

Incidentally, I wasn’t able to find a good place to mention this in the review, but this is my first exposure to Pasolini. As always, I’d be happy to hear any recommendations of which of his other films are especially worth seeing.

Also, for another take on the film, check out my bud Andrew Bemis’ review.


cameron said...

The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Accattone, Teorema, and Porcile are all great. Also, all very different from Salo.

E. Martin said...

I think Salo also has another layer underneath: Pasolini partially indentifies himself with the executors, either because he's recreating their crimes or because he understands that every on of us, including him, could eventually fantasize about dominating others.

There's a moment during the final massacre where the Major, looking out through the window, turns the binoculars around to change the perspective of what he's looking at, akin to changing the lens of a camera. In fact, there's a picture of the shooting with a camera put in that same spot and Pasolini looking through it.

L. Rob Hubb said...

His "Trilogy of Life" - THE DECAMERON, THE CANTURBURY TALES, and ARABIAN NIGHTS. SALO was the first film in his intended "Trilogy of Death"

DECAMERON is on DVD -- CANTURBURY TALES and ARABIAN NIGHTS are harder to find, but they are out there.