SALÓAn EssayOn November 2, 1975, the Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini was found dead—murdered, police said, by a young male prostitute. However lurid its details (the Roman tabloids ran huge front-page photos of the disfigured corpse), his death struck many as metaphorically apt, and not only because of Pasolini’s known taste for rough trade. He had long had a crush on the idea of flamboyant death.
Painter, poet, novelist, essayist, filmmaker, semiotician, gay icon, renegade Marxist, public controversialist, champion of both outlaw sexuality and of a mythic view of life he termed “epic-religious,” Pasolini was not only Italy’s most important post-war intellectual but also a quintessential twentieth-century type—self-indulgent and self-despising, never sure whether to blame himself or the world for his inescapable alienation. Never keeping to one style for long, his cinematic career carried him from his gritty early ’60s films about pimps and thieves in the borgate (the impoverished shanty-town wasteland that circled Rome) to his popular ’70s “Trilogy of Life” (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and The Arabian Nights) which seemed the work of a bawdy, life-affirming man.
The happy perception suggested by the trilogy was changed forever by his final film, Salò (1975), a one-of-a-kind project that takes no little defending, and may indeed be indefensible. It’s the cruelest, most obscene, and most intellectually toxic work ever made by a major director. Once seen, it is forever remembered.
Pasolini began the film during a period of enormous artistic crisis. Filled with “disappointment in man and God” (as one friend of his described it), he began to think that all his earlier work was bogus and compromised, merely another length of the feed-tube through which consumerist repression is shoved down our throats. His response was to make what he called an “indigestible” film based on the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, with a smidgen of Dante’s Inferno thrown in. Set in Italy during the waning days of World War II, Salò tells the story of four debauched Fascists who retreat to a chateau and begin using innocents to satisfy their basest desires. Beginning with mere violation in the “Circle of Obsessions” (sodomy is favored), they move on to the “Circle of Shit” (people forced to eat their own feces) before reaching the “Circle of Blood,” in which skulls are smashed, eyeballs sliced, and victims ritualistically slaughtered.
Salò is one of the handful of genuinely disturbing movies ever made; it leaves you shaken, not simply because of what it is depicting but also because of how. Pasolini presents the most vicious debasement in a highly formalized style that’s as coolly dispassionate as a geometric proof. There’s no room in this death-eating film for human decency or affirmation: a heterosexual couple is murdered merely for being heterosexual, yet homosexuality is also portrayed as a form of tyranny. A cinematic ground zero, Salò confirms the cruel meaninglessness of everything human. Life is reduced to impersonal fornication, eating and defecating, the inescapable power of hawks over sparrows—with no hope of transcendence or redemption. Sparrows can only hope to become hawks.
In what is probably the most savage twist, Pasolini implies that watching this movie makes one complicit in its horrific world—our own voyeurism is inescapably guilty. At the end, we witness the ritual murder of innocents through reverse binoculars, a distancing process that frees us from the sound of their screams and lets us “enjoy” the moment with proper detachment. There’s never been a stronger attack on the deathly voyeurism lurking in the experience of art — Pasolini’s and our own.
With such a bleak work for his artistic testament, it’s small wonder that many people saw Pasolini’s own murder as Salò’s real-life climax. Nor was it surprising that such a film would divide critics and audiences. It was assailed by (among countless others) worldly men such as novelist Italo Calvino, who saw in it evidence of the filmmaker’s personal corruption, and Richard Roud, the late director of the New York Film Festival, who wrote, “It is a terminal film in every sense of the word.”
Yet if Salò is not a simple or likable movie, it does have a terrible kind of grandeur. And this grandeur is inseparable from its assault on all our most cherished moral beliefs. In an interview with French television before its premiere, Pasolini explained the aesthetic principle behind the film: “I believe to give scandal is a duty, to be scandalized a pleasure, and to refuse to be scandalized is moralism.” At a time when movies are routinely called 'shocking' and 'controversial', Salò not only lives up to these words but makes them feel childishly inadequate.
- John Powers
(John Powers is film critic at Vogue, critic-at-large for NPR’s Fresh Air, and editor-at-large of LA Weekly, where he writes a regular media/culture column. He is author of the book Sore Winners, an analysis of American culture during the Bush years.)