Saturday, June 04, 2005


Disparate thoughts about Pasolini's "Salo"

This is a film a friend of mine, not a particularly squeamish type, warned me of - but after some doubting I decided to rent it. I'm still a bit shaky, as if the wind is knocked out of me. But not just because of the scenes of cruelty and perversity the film shows. I was prepared for that.

The film, "Salò or the 120 days of Sodom", follows the same pattern as De Sade's book. In the last fascist holdout in Northern Italy, four local honchos round up boys and girls from a nearby village to take them to a remote villa. Mussolini's reign is moribund: as their fate is sealed anyway, nothing prevents the four to do whatever they want to their victims. The film is divided in four parts: an introductory part, "The circle of manias" (not sure of that's translated right - my version was subtitled in Finnish), which details various sexual perversions, "The circle of shit", which obviously focuses on excrement, and "The circle of blood", which sees three of the four torturing and killing their victims in a courtyard, while a fourth looks at the scene through binoculars. Every now and then, the rumble of war nearby can be heard.

Some thoughts, as perhaps later I might post something more structured:

1. This is not a gratuitous film, despite the extreme subject. For comparison, the drawn-out, gratuitous violence in Luc Besson's awful Joan of Arc, or the awkward, hypocritical nudity in Verhoeven's mind-numbingly stupid Showgirls made me feel dirty after seeing it. This film - particularly because of the glimpses of warmth and redemption throughout the otherwise merciless tale - makes me feel human.

2. As a social allegory, the film is incisive. Particularly in the way it portrays how the four fascists (the bourgeoisie?) sow divisions among their terrorized victims to the point they eventually betray each other, the way they co-opt and corrupt the village lads who serve as soldiers, and the way in which the four fascists themselves are portrayed as impotent, empty shells that once, perhaps, were human - as opposed to their youthful victims. At one point, they cajole their victims in feigning joy and merriment - a criticism of totalitarianism, or of the way modern consumer society commodifies joy, sexuality and humanity itself?

3. At one point, one of the "soldiers" is found sleeping with a black girl, which is an infringement of the rules. Before he is shot, he defiantly salutes the four fascists with a clenched fist - and by doing so, he seems to shatter the whole intricate power play that the four fascists have directed in their mansion. While the four fascists successfully manipulate and direct their power on their victims throughout the whole film, their shooting of the disobedient soldier is strangely powerless.

4. In the final part of the film, the viewer watches the torture and killing of their victims through the binoculars that the four use to watch the proceedings. The sound of their screams cannot be heard - instead, classical music is playing. This creates some distance between the viewer and the grisly scenes, both softening their impact and sharpening their edge - while at the same time placing the viewer in the same position as the fascist voyeurs. In the adjoining room, two soldiers at some point turn off the classical music, tune the radio to something more catchy and start to dance. One asks the other the name of his girlfriend. This is for me one of the defining moments of the film: Pasolini shows how humanity, which the four fascists relentlessly try to exterminate throughout the film, continues to smoulder.

A powerful and strangely beautiful film, which I'm happy to have seen.

- Merlijn de Smit

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