Unanimously deemed one of the most controversial films ever made by all those who see it. Pier Paolo Pasolini delves into the abject abscesses of human spirit in his adaptation of Marquis de Sade’s 18th century novel.
Four fascist libertines bring nine boys and girls to an isolated mansion and subject them to obscene acts of sexual, psychological, and physical torment.
Firstly, we must contextualise the content of the film and why this is relevant to it’s highly explicit content. Salò is a town in Northern Italy and was the unofficial capital of Mussolini’s fascist empire during the Second World War. By all Italians it’s recognised as one of the most forgettable and wretched locations due to it’s connotations. Unlike the novel, Pasolini chooses to set the film here to create a synonymity between Mussolini’s reprobate control of Italy and the libertines’ evil control of the youths.
‘Il Duca’, a pseudonym for Benito Mussolini, and one of the names given to one the tormentors in the film is another evident nod to the film’s true meaning. The other three men are referred to as the Magistrate, the Bishop, and the President, a lack of real names creates a lack of humanity in the characters. The fact all the names are exchangeable hierarchal titles creates an imagine of a holistic object of superiority instead of four individuals.
Discussing specific plot aesthetics, the contrast of men and children are used for two reasons. Firstly, because the blend of masochism and misogyny in a male figure is one of the simplest ways to portray malevolence. Secondly, their superiority in terms of physical size, power, and intellect draws similarities with the Nazi and fascist reign over Italy not 30 years before the film was made. Intellect is also a point worth discussing as it links to the idea of terror and the horror genre. The enlightened tormentor is intrinsically scary because he reaches levels of philosophical understanding that propel him further away from convention. Hannibal Lecter falls into this category, much like the four libertines here, with their refined exchanges, insightful and analytical responses, and of course frequent references in French to Roland Barthes and others. Their intelligence reveals that the notion of intellect isn’t synonymous with strong moral integrity, instead we fear Hannibal and the libertines because they don’t follow a corrupt ideology but they create and live it. Though, Pasolini is aware of the commonly perceived idea that being smart also means being inherently ‘good’ and portrays these conflicting four characters so. Having the wisdom beside the salacious makes it that much worse.
In a generic sense, it’s difficult to class the film as a horror, undoubtedly it bears unparalleled graphic content, both sexual and gore, but it’s allegorical nature remonstrates this. It’s often said horrors with underlying political messages will damage the effect of the film, as Paul Wells describes it; ‘horror films should not strain too far after meaning for fear it might undermine the sensation created’. The natural human reaction will be to class the film as horror simply due to how it makes them feel. The squeamish and repugnant effect the film has, indeed being fairly similar to the plot of a finitely horror film like ‘Hostel’. Yet, by having meaning behind the lewd scenes it must be classed as an art-house film, extremist of course and incidentally similar to Piero Manzoni’s 1961 piece of art entitled ‘Artist’s Shit’ consisting of tin cans filled with the artist’s faecal matter; from the exterior a vulgar and coarse act that some would simply refuse to recognise as art but it’s message of consumerist culture dignifies it as just that.
The quartet of oppressors have a distinctly disturbing attitude towards sex and sexuality. Sex is presented through them as something primordial that transcends all established social conventions and boundaries, as well as age and gender for that matter. A dialogue scene could spontaneously be interrupted by a libertine pouncing on a youth and dragging them away for his personal pleasure. It’s portrayed as instinctual and deeply innate, to a Freudian point where they act upon every sexual impulse they get regardless of circumsatnce. It’s evident that Pasolini deals with some very heavy psychoanalytical material when it comes to sex in the film, material which can be linked to von Trier’s ‘Nymphomaniac‘, as the two treat sex as the fundamental motive for all human action as well as making all forms of sex seem socially acceptable. However, they also include sodomy and sadism, both would’ve included corpophagia but von Trier had to cut it from his film, which quite simply cast a dark light on the characters and mirror Mussolini’s regime.
The filmmaker contributes expertly by adding a deep rumbling sound of fighter planes over certain scenes, which the characters don’t explicitly acknowledge meaning it’s there to create exceptionally sustained tension and establish the time period. Furthermore, he sections the film into four: ‘Anteinferno’, ‘Circle of Manias’, ‘Circle of Shit’, and ‘Circle of Blood’. This can be viewed as inspiration for von Trier once more but it follows Dante Alighieri’s ‘Divine Comedy’ narrative structure as the character’s journey sees him travel further and further into pain and tragedy.
Following on from his ‘Trilogy of Life’, consisting of ‘Decameron’, ‘The Canterbury Tales’, and ‘Arabian Nights’, ‘Salò’ was intended to be the first film of his ‘Trilogy of Death’, but it was not to be. Sadly, Pasolini was murdered before the release of the film with expectedly a lot controversy.
This film is still banned in certain countries and was indubitably banned at some point in many others. I believe it’s important to watch this film in order to understand the difference between semantics and implicature of film text. The latter of course always meaning more but the former being what many audiences only ever see.