My Big Fat Italian Guilt Trip or Identification and Accusation in Pasolini’s Salò
For many cinemaphiles, the 1975 film Salò o le 120 Giornate di Sodoma, written and directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini and based on 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade, bears a reputation that precedes it. For some, this pertains to the mysterious death of Pasolini shortly after he completed the film. For others, it has more to do with Pasolini’s body of work as a whole. Many of us, however, know that this film has been banned in numerous countries and cities, officially and unofficially, in its entirety and in various other forms, before we know almost anything else about it. Alternately, we might hear about people who vomited while viewing it or read reviews calling it “unwatchable” and advising against sitting through so much as a second of this film. With these scant bits of information, we might ask: why? Why and how did this film earn such overwhelmingly negative responses? Often a film receives this type of reaction for one of two reasons. One reason concerns the actual production and quality of the film. Poor acting and sloppy editing may certainly ruin a movie, and if the director fails to turn the images in his or her mind into a cohesive whole that the audience can understand, audiences often reject it. This is especially so for a film containing violence, sexuality, religion, or any other controversial issue. Salò has all of these, and more, but Pasolini had made numerous films with which
2 to hone his craft prior to Salò. He was not a novice director guessing his way around the set but an accomplished film-maker working with a veteran crew. Another reason concerns the presence of violence, sexuality, religion, or other controversial issues even when they are presented skillfully, if the political climate or some other issue makes the audience hostile or unreceptive to any film dealing with the particular subject matter. Factors outside a film-maker’s control might render an audience unable or unwilling to look beyond the surface of a given film and examine its merits objectively. Pasolini certainly broaches a politically-sensitive topic, but this alone cannot account for the vociferous objection to the film, as such objection occurred in many places at many times, not merely in one isolated situation. Australia in 1998 and Italy in 1976, for example, differ enough to present two separate audiences, each bringing a different perspective to Salò. So, again: why? Perhaps so many people in so many places in various years revile Salò because the film represents an accusation that transcends time and place. It draws from de Sade’s 18th-century text in its content, which references Dante’s 14 th-century text The Divine Comedy, which in turn proves exceedingly referential in its own right. In Salò, characters spout Nietzschean one-liners, quote other philosophers from various eras, reference 20th-century critiques of de Sade, and echo Dante again. Most obvious among the ways this motion picture extends its range into the past, it is set not in the 1970’s world in which it was filmed but during the final portion of World War II in Italy. Salò can reach nearly anywhere in the Western world, into practically any period of its history, and point an accusatory finger. Because humans have a knack for allowing history to repeat itself, this critical hand also extends into the
3 present and, more likely than not, the future. Pasolini forces the vast majority of the audience to identify with the passive audiences of the film, and then lifts the curtain on the horrible consequences of that passivity. We are left with two options: reckon with the guilt, or hate the film for making us feel guilty in the first place.
Identification emerges as vitally important to Pasolini’s accusation. Motion pictures often depend on identification, so much so that many members of a given movie audience sit before the screen eagerly awaiting the first meeting with “their” character, fully prepared for, if not expecting, catharsis (which, importantly, never arrives in Salò). In Casablanca, for example, the final scene on the airstrip only works as well as it does because we identify with Rick and Ilsa. Director Michael Curtiz surely framed many scenes specifically to further this goal. In Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, the power and effectiveness of the shower scene endures mainly because we as an audience identify at least a little with Marion Crane and don’t expect her to be murdered, especially not so early in the film. With whom, then, do audiences identify in Salò? The options are the captors, the aging prostitutes who assist them, the guards and soldiers, or the unfortunate victims. No other characters receive significant screen time or figure prominently in the action. The captors receive an unflattering portrayal from Pasolini. They are not attractive. They are not sexy. They do not get close-ups with indirect lighting and soft filters. Indeed, close-ups of one of them reveal a mouthful of rotting teeth and bare patches of gums. Things do not improve much when the camera grows again more distant. Their possessions and fine clothes cannot hide certain truths, specifically, that
4 they are repulsive in appearance, demeanor, and behavior. Although we first see them undertaking some sort of negotiation, a normal activity for dignitaries, quickly enough they begin behaving in disturbing ways. Almost immediately, they marry their daughters off to one another to seal a pact, and because two of the captors are brothers, this presumably involves some incest. Soon after, they undertake even darker actions. The captors commoditize human life, rape, and torture, all without joy or remorse. They offer no catharsis, as their endless pursuit of sexual gratification bestows no fulfillment, instead building to acts more and more extreme until there remains only one possible release for all that tension: death. Pasolini’s camera puts distance between itself and the awful deeds the captors perpetrate—there is no intimacy, only desperate grasping at control and power. The captors are ugly, and their lives are suffused with futility. Few people ascribe to themselves characteristics such as fascist, despotic, ugly, inhuman, cruel, joyless, power-hungry, impotent, and coprophile. Perhaps even fewer think of their lives as pointless exercises in viciousness and excess. Fewer still may consider human feces a delicious and savory aphrodisiac. If we are to identify with the captors, we must see ourselves the way Pasolini shows them to us, and even some people who actually are cruel and inhumane prefer to think of themselves otherwise. Surely the vast majority of a given audience would not identify with the captors in Salò. The prostitutes fare little better before Pasolini’s wide lens. Somewhere in the pecking order between the captors and the soldiers/guards, they are less ugly (in both appearance and action) than the captors but more pathetic than fearsome and more obsequious than the guards, though less vulnerable. The scenes centering on them are
5 shot the most theatrically in a film full of ritualistic pageantry and displays. That is to say, they appear most like scenes from a play as viewed from seats with sight lines down the center of the theater. We see halves of the room at a time, giving the sense of space and dimension roughly corresponding to what one expects of a stage, sometimes accomplished with shot/reverse shot cuts providing a uniform sense of distance. There are no over-shoulder shots of them during their performances, no notable instances of a prostitute walking in and out of a shot, few changes in camera level and position, and limited visual elements breaking up the lengthy, static compositions that constitute the bulk of each section of the film focusing on the prostitutes. It often feels as if we are among the audience of captors, soldiers, and victims, watching and listening to the bizarre performances of these sycophantic women. With meticulously even lighting, exaggerated gestures, and even theatrical blocking, the â€œstory timeâ€? the prostitutes conduct seems nothing more than staged, literally and figuratively. The audience, therefore, will only easily identify with these characters if its members consider themselves servile, insipid, and one-dimensional. Aside from the fact that they are aging prostitutes (in every sense of the word), they have precious few endearing characteristics. Really, they are only endearing compared to those of the captors. Taken on their own, the prostitutes as a group are neither the upstanding citizens many of us imagine ourselves to be, nor an exciting face of danger that ensnares the imagination the way Catwoman from Batman Returns or James Deanâ€™s character in Rebel Without a Cause do. Of the four prostitutes, only one (the musician) seems to have any depth or personality beyond her role as entertainer, and she eventually leaps from a window once
6 she realizes what’s happening in the courtyard; what she helped make possible. Earlier, Pasolini showed her intervening on behalf of the victims, rushing in to perform a silly skit when their despair has enraged the captors, and pausing at her piano when the subject of murder first enters the story times. She is the only prostitute who is not a fawning storyteller, a one-dimensional toady, which classifies her as something closer to an inactive spectator with minimal participation in the events the captors orchestrate when compared to the other three. That minimal participation, however, seems enough to fatally bother her conscience once the captors reach the logical extreme of their philosophy of commoditization. The only one of the prostitutes we identify with, even a little, cannot live with the guilt of her complicity in these events. Those who do identify with this character might feel guilty simply for being alive. The victims earn neither our sympathy nor the identification of most of the audience. Pasolini avoids the typical filmic treatments of victims of terrible acts. He doesn’t follow them with the camera, he doesn’t light them differently than their abusers, he gives them sparing dialog, and he tends to group them together rather than allow them to develop individual identities. When clothed, Salò’s victims are a drab, gray mass against smoldering orange walls, without any appeal to the audience—the wall is literally more interesting than these people. When there are close-ups of their faces, the camera usually moves on to another area of the body soon enough, panning down to parts more interesting to the captors. Failing that, Pasolini uses focus to draw attention away from distinguishing characteristics. He does not encourage the audience to remember their names or consider them as individuals, even in the kinds of shots that in other films help accomplish those
7 objectives. The most notable example of this occurs when one of the female victims is forced to eat feces. While the camera seldom leaves her during this ordeal, the focus makes her indistinct compared to the captor we saw a moment ago, and naturally all eyes are on the excrement anyways. Pasolini could have used this scene to make us feel for her. He does not. Additionally, Pasolini sometimes shoots around and over the victims just as he does with furniture and statues. He shoots up and over a particular table more than once, and later shoots up and over a group of kneeling victims, whose backsides the captors examine as part of a demented competition, in a strikingly similar way. Money bought them, and now they are commodities for the captors to expend like any other goods. They are, for the most part, powerless. They are the only characters who never bisect a composition as a fulcrum of power or center of attention, except when posed in such a way by the captors or when allowed a taste of control through ratting out fellow victims. Few in the audience, even those with exceptionally-low self-esteem, classify themselves as furniture or cattle, or as any type of commodity to be bought, sold, and treated as an arbitrary owner sees fit, much less as disposable or worthy of this type of treatment. Pasolini depicts them as no more human than the captors, and so we cannot readily identify with them, either. The audience knows it should feel sympathy for these unfortunates, but because the camera works against this at every opportunity, it probably doesnâ€™t, which alone stirs up some feelings of guilt. The guards and soldiers, meanwhile, elude such easy categorization. When we first encounter these young men, they are kidnapped and taken against their will, much like the victims. Initially, their role, and precisely why theyâ€™re being kidnapped, remains
8 unclear. One seems cruel, dismissing his mother as she weeps over his presumed fate, but human, exchanging a sad “ciao” with a child in the street. Soon we see another soldier exchanging meaningful glances with a maid he’s sent to dismiss from the courtyard, the only image in the entire film that approaches romance. This same soldier is also the first character to express remorse, explaining to a captor’s daughter receiving crude and rough treatment that the soldiers don’t mean it personally and are only following orders. Pasolini allows some personality and individuality to come through these characters, when everyone else in the film generally displays little or no humanity. Eventually, the passive soldiers become more active. While they are mostly part of the audience during the story times, they are privileged to initiate sex acts both publicly with the victims during meal times and privately with the captors. One of the soldiers anally rapes one of the victims as everyone else watches, to the delight of one captor who demands to be sodomized next. Pasolini establishes primary differences between the audience of the victims and the audience of the soldiers and guards: one has a degree of power, while the other does not; one may assure themselves preferential treatment by ingratiating the captors, while the other will be treated cruelly for compliance and more cruelly for noncompliance; one is shot with a variety of camera angles, while the other receives a one-dimensional depiction as furniture. Essentially, Pasolini imbues the soldiers with depth and humanity while the victims might as well be chairs. Given a choice, we would rather be soldiers or guards than victims. When we enter the Circle of Blood, the guards and soldiers have clearly undergone a change. One of them feels comfortable enough to laugh and joke as he mock-sprays the victims with bullets. Another one, the most human of all, who had
9 expressed remorse earlier in the film, grants himself full personhood and transgresses the captorsâ€™ rules by engaging in intimate, vaginal intercourse with a woman in a private setting. When confronted by the gun-wielding captors, this soldier does not cower or beg for clemency. Arguably the best-looking character in the film, he stands tall in the perfection of his youth, his fist unapologetically raised over his head. With this confrontation, we see the captors hesitate for the first time. They do eventually shoot him dead, but he dies on his feet rather than on his knees, something of a hero. Who else in the film can make such a claim? The final portion of the film proves most telling. Groups of captors take turns torturing and executing those victims who have committed infractions of the rules while one of them watches from a distance, through binoculars. Surviving soldiers accompany each captor in turn as he becomes a passive audience himself. Any traces of discomfort or unease with the grisly acts unfolding in the courtyard have disappeared from the soldiersâ€™ faces. In the beginning of the film, it could just as easily have been they who were bound to stakes and scalped, but clearly now they have either transcended that possibility or are no longer disturbed by it. One soldier even offers an erection to his captor, aroused by the cruelty to which he was once merely apathetic. As for the captors themselves, we now see what they see. Shots of the courtyard as seen by the soldiers through the unobstructed window cut to shots of the courtyard as seen by the captor, framed by binoculars. Our view alternates between distance and closeness, soldier and captor, until we stop noticing perspective and struggle to decide whether to watch the tortures or turn away from the screen. The lines between soldier and
10 captor, between performer and audience, blur beyond recognition. The captor in the audience will soon swap places with one in the courtyard and burn off a victim’s nipples. The soldiers change the station on the radio, and we hear a sentimental melody, “These Foolish Things.” When left alone, the soldiers make small talk and join together in dance, their uniformed bodies pressing together. That this casual and relaxed attitude continues even when the captors are gone reveals the character shift—for once we see acts that come naturally, rather than acts performed for show or survival. Nobody is forcing the soldiers to do what they’re doing in this final shot. What once disturbed them has become normal, and it’s clear they’re now more like the captors than the victims. Soon the bloom of youth will fade, and they will replace the dying generation that brought them to Salò. The lack of catharsis stands out as another important element of this final scene. We never see the captors achieve orgasm or otherwise attain ablution or relief after a single one of their depraved acts. While we hear the sounds of warfare periodically throughout the film, we never witness the captors get their comeuppance. None of the victims escape in the course of the film, and Pasolini provides no dénouement of any kind. If anything, the soldiers’ dance suggests cyclic continuity. The end references the beginning, because the diegetic music from the radio is the same as the music over the opening credits. Nobody gets any release; it’s all going to happen again in another time, in another place, with a new audience. Moreover, catharsis often plays a purging, cleansing role, and it might exculpate the audience. Salò is meant not to purge and clean but to sully the conscience.
11 Because they were the only characters in the film that seemed really human, the audience more than likely identified with the soldiers and guards. The audience expects them to deliver the catharsis that never arrives. Hence, when the soldiers allow their passiveness, apathy, or desire to ingratiate themselves to the captors to transform them, this reflects upon the audience. Viewing the tortures through the same wretched binoculars as the captors drives this home. No matter how removed the passive audience may be from the action, Pasolini shows the audience its allotment of guilt: one captor flips his binoculars to increase the visual distance between himself and the scenes of torture he’s enjoying, but this does not make the torture cease or even render it less excessive. Moreover, the already-mentioned lack of catharsis creates a lingering, unsatisfactory feeling after the film’s ending, allowing the accusation to spiral through our minds.
This would feel troubling enough to an Italian audience in the 1970’s, because on the surface the film is about a specific time and place: Italy in the 1940’s. Much of the audience who first viewed the film would have been alive at that time and quite possibly witnessed or was involved in some unpleasant aspect of the war. This original audience perhaps included some of Mussolini’s supporters, some people who simply looked the other way as their neighbors disappeared, and some of those who had thrown rocks at Mussolini’s dangling corpse. For them, Salò may have felt like a slap in the face or like salt poured upon an open wound. Pasolini assures, however, the posterity of his accusation in very deliberate ways.
12 Quite obviously, this film refers to two iconic texts. The first, 120 Days of Sodom, was once thought destroyed during the storming of the Bastille in the French Revolution. Written on one huge length of paper, it is a desperate, unfinished, unedited text composed not in the waning days of war, but amid the growing tensions that would soon enough fuel bloody violence. Its setting is, like the setting of Salò, a remote estate. The action occurs, too, towards the end of a historic European war, the Thirty Years’ War. The sounds of battle we hear outside the two estates carry the same threat to both sets of captors, and in each case this threat does not stop or slow their transgressions of the boundaries of humanity. Also, Pasolini extracted the characters themselves, and many events in the film, more or less directly from de Sade’s text. A primary difference arises when we consider that corrupt fascist German and Italian leaders truly did run sections of Italy during the time the film takes place, and abuses of power certainly occurred. While no evidence exists showing that any specific activities depicted in the film transpired, there is documentation that Nazi labor camps did force individuals into sexual slavery. (For more on this, see the January 15, 2007 article in the online edition of Germany’s Spiegel or the 1955 book House of Dolls.) In contrast, scholars consider de Sade’s novel an exclusive product of his imagination. This dimension of the film, the truth that lives in this fictitious account, makes it more terrible. Pasolini references the second iconic text more subtly, but the implications of its depth and richness resonate throughout Salò. Dante’s Divine Comedy, particularly the “Inferno” portion, lends the film its structure and helps it reach back through the ages. The circles into which Pasolini divides Salò resemble the circles in Dante’s hell. This
13 allows the film to run in repetitive cycles, and this repetition reinforces the feeling of futility hanging about the captors and the victims. For example, each circle (Obsession, Shit, and Blood, respectively) begins with somebody, a prostitute or the captors, gazing into a mirror before embarking upon some instance of communal theatricality. The first time we see this shot, the room is practically littered with mirrorsâ€”we see mirrors in the mirrors in the mirrors, but none of them reveal additional information the first mirror did not provide. Mainly, the audience looks into the mirror and sees the masks of artifice, pretty (sometimes) decorations hiding the reality of the situation. The second time we see the shot, an older prostitute primps before the glass, and we see the veneer worn a bit thinner. The third time, the captors stare at their reflections, and they wear absurd, high-fashion drag (complete with veils) that would be funny if the people bedecked in these ludicrous getups werenâ€™t heinous despots about to rape some teenagers. Now the veneer appears so thin, it remains mostly as a mockery of itself. If the nature of these characters, the captors and the prostitutes, did not cause the audienceâ€™s failure to see themselves within such cretins, or the cretins within themselves, then such reflections might. Again and again, Pasolini shows us where their cycle begins and ends, and each time it becomes less and less something we want for ourselves, either as an audience or as individuals. These mirrors also pervade each cycle in other, less obvious ways. Pasolini often cuts, flips the camera 180 degrees, and then shows a nearly-identical composition. Many buildings, items, and garments the captors and prostitutes inhabit or possess display the same evenness and symmetry Pasolini constructs from behind the camera in shot after
14 eerily-similar shot. Dante’s text finds repetition advantageous, placing the word “stars” at the end of each section in the Divine Comedy. One can view its poetic rhyme scheme as mirror-like and reflective to an extent as well, as it follows a repetitive aba, bcb, cdc, etc format. Because we always expect to look into a mirror and see ourselves, such devices personalize things a bit, which feels somewhat unsettling in a film shot as impersonally and filled with as much brutality as Salò. Excrement is another cyclic aspect of the film. While it’s probably expected in the Circle of Shit, it pops up again in the Circle of Blood. There, those victims awaiting their ultimate punishment sit in a tub full of it. Compare this to Dante’s hell, where flatterers sit neck-deep in a river of feces. Defecation is itself a cyclic activity, so the emphasis upon it here seems fitting. When people actually eat it in Salò, defecation becomes not only the beginning but also the end of the cycle. Less glaringly, urine also fills this role in one seen, where a captor situates himself beneath a victim’s skirt and drinks her waste liquid. Pasolini both reinforces the status of the victims with oft-replicated literal images of human waste and further establishes the repetition that roots the audience to a certain circular, trapped feeling. Additionally, the communal meal times all resemble one another. While the specific events in each of the scenes vary, Pasolini shoots them all the same way, using many long, still shots with a wide-angle lens. They appear so similar that they almost seem like one long scene split into sections, almost as if the 120 days of the film could really be any amount of time. The lighting and narrative pacing makes discerning day from night very difficult, as does the infrequency of either a soundtrack or diegetic sounds such as traffic or birds. Again, this distortion of time adds significantly to the
15 overall effect Pasolini ultimately achieves. Not content to leave this sense of non-specific time frame within the film, the compositional grouping at the captors’ table recalls Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting, The Last Supper. The frame of reference, then, visibly (rather than merely metaphorically) extends back to the Bible and therefore also to the beginning of Western Civilization as a JudeoChristian entity. While Salò offers limitless fodder for discussion regarding its portrayal of religion and the role of a just God in such a world, the Bible may just as easily serve as a document of some very ancient conflicts. Through Dante, the film also accesses any number of wars that establish a cycle in the history of Europe and, by logical extension, of the United States and Australia. Visually, Pasolini sets his characters in the Second World War, but for de Sade’s original characters, the sounds of impending doom that echoed through their lavish courtyard were those of the Thirty Years’ war. In Dante’s text, the tragic conflict of his lifetime--the Investiture Conflict and its wars between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines-stands alongside much older struggles. Through his guide, the poet Virgil, we access Virgil’s Aeneid and the Trojan War. The Homeric account of this war, The Iliad, is chock-full of debased actions, such as innocent people being seized and forced into slavery, and Hector’s corpse being mutilated and dragged through the dust by a horsedrawn chariot. It dwells not on love or romance, like the section of the Aeneid telling of Dido the Carthaginian queen, but on power, force, and pain. Dante’s journey may also be said to mirror the journey of Aeneas to the underworld in Virgil’s text just as Salò mirrors de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom. Dante references the military campaigns of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, various
16 papal conflicts, and numerous small-scale local skirmishes in Europe spanning from Ancient Greece to the author’s own era. In this Hell, every space reverberates with the sound of war upon war upon war. The audience may then see Pasolini’s war as just the latest of many in a long and terrible cycle.
If a cycle, by that standard, is a series of succeeding related events, and if Pasolini’s film is built on repetition and circular action, surely Salò does not suggest to its audience that this blame, this guilt, exists only in the past. As long as we are guards and soldiers, and as long as we are passive bystanders who agree to follow the captors and their rules, we always become to some degree like the captors, whether or not we eventually become victims ourselves. The eerie, still compositions in Salò, combined with the way the film distorts time by returning to the same point in its cycles over and over again, lend a sense of timelessness. These tortures are of a time and place but transcend their moment in history because of the way Pasolini shoots them. Pasolini certainly knew, when he shot this film, how years after his death these scenes of torture would resonate with a generation not yet born at that time. While he couldn’t have known the specifics, couldn’t have known that the naked, kneeling victims of Salò would so resemble the naked, kneeling victims of Abu Ghraib, the similarities between the two different sets of torture images surely haunts the American audience of the present. (The web sites antiwar.com and Salon.com are two of several web sites that continue to displaying many of the disturbing images that serve as excellent sources for comparison.) While the two groups of mocking guards, who are “just taking orders,” stand separated from one another by a gulf of about sixty years, so
17 little has changed. The impersonal shot of nude Iraqi bodies face-down on the ground seems almost a replica of the shot of nude Italian bodies face-down on the ground. Consider also the bleeding mouths. Consider also the Nazi symbolism. Consider also the mangled corpses. One feces-smeared human reduced to an object could in some shots actually replaces the other, if one swaps the uniforms and model of firearm to fit the correct historical period. One weeping commodity on a leash costs the same as any other, is the same as any prisoner ordered to forsake their religion and family, becomes equal to any victim forcibly sodomized, murdered, and reduced to furniture. So, too, could one group of apathetic or disinterested citizens be any passive audience. These disturbing images from an Iraqi prison so uncannily mirror some of the images in Salò that an audience unaware of its rareness at the time the tortures were photographed might think the United States Military had, in fact, sent copies of Pasolini’s opus to the Middle East as an instructional film. While most soldiers probably hadn’t viewed Salò, they did know the Americans were not the first to use the prison for such purposes. Saddam Hussein had, not long before, used the facility for torture and executions. With the full knowledge of this history, the American soldiers perpetrated odious deeds and continued the cycle. It becomes increasingly easy, with another viewing of the film, to image the American guards dancing across the bloody floors of Abu Ghraib or laughing as higher-ups feed victims a meal full of sharp objects. Pasolini’s captors tell their victims they have no hope of escaping and that nobody knows their location, saying, “Our will is the only legality. You are already dead.” The spirit of this speech sounds remarkably similar to the famous inscription at the entrance of Dante’s hell, “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.” In Abu Ghraib, soldiers told
18 incoming prisoners, who were often rounded up on specious grounds, that if they left the prison they would leave “handicapped,” according to the Taguba Report. Salò implicates the yes men and toadies--both those actually present at the prison and the complacent masses at home in the states--who made such atrocities possible through apathy, “just taking orders,” or outright eagerness to torture. Having seen this motion picture, it becomes impossible to look at the photographs from Abu Ghraib without transposing one audience with another, one group of soldiers for the other, and a guard with a captor. As the soldiers from the final scene dance across the audience’s mind, the sense of culpability feeds a growing unease. At this moment in history, Salò feels oddly prescient, but nobody knows what events have yet to occur. Moreover, while currently the film reads like a scathing indictment of Europe or America, its culture, and the inactive audiences therein, new tragedies may occur that broaden this horizon to include any number of people and places. There may exist facets of the film, obscured or hidden by or amongst the many layers, that Pasolini saw, but which the audience will only realize when those elements are thrust onto the world stage and left to linger before our eyes like a banquet of excrement. This, then, is the ultimate measure of success for Pasolini’s film. Its accusation, made perhaps before some members of the modern audience were even born, proves just as effective as it was in the 1970’s, when the film was new, and it appears this trend will continue. The Rotten Tomatoes web site lists a TV Guide review from 2007 that calls the film “nearly unwatchable,” similar to the “abhorrent” tag Australia’s censorship board
19 gave the film in 2008 when they refused to lift the ban on Salò, according to Australian newspaper The Age. It earns the same reaction in generation after guilty generation. In shot after accusatory shot, Pasolini perfectly captures the essence of a cycle he traces back to Ancient Greece and to Biblical times and shows how it can continue anywhere, at any time. Because he makes the audience watching Salò identify with the passive audience within Salò, because he shows the consequence of that passivity in such a direct, cold, and ruthless manner, because he harps upon his historical references, and because he confronts the audience with the issue of complicity, practically anybody can feel terrible after watching this film. Just as the footsteps of fascist torturers echo through the silent halls of a secluded villa, the screams of their victims carry far into the future. As long as complacency and apathy allows these patterns to repeat, people will hate Salò for making them see this truth.
An analysis of the film, the methods its director uses to achieve specific effects, and why those devices have made him almost universally h...