Social order at the expense of liberty is hardly a bargain. ---The Marquis de Sade
So you say you've seen nearly every major Italian giallo? You've seen your Argento, Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, Michele Soavi, and even all of the "classics" of Italian film? You've seen your Leone, Fellini, DeSicca, Bertolucci, Martino, and even most of the world classics? By this point, you've probably seen it all, and you think there's no film that will shock you?
If you haven't seen Pier Paolo Pasolini's "Salo: 120 Days of Sodom," you are flatly wrong. Pasolini didn't even live to see the release of this film. He was "murdered" by a male hustler (or so the official story plays).
Who was Pier Paolo Pasolini? Pasolini was the most important postwar intellectual in Italy, period. Like a Renaissance polymath, he was adept at journalism, the novel, poetry, screenwriting, directing motion-pictures, painting and drawing, and more. The polymath also liked cruising teenage boys, was a walking scandal, and yet paradoxically truly was the conscience of postwar Italy until his murder on November 2nd, 1975. He could only be an irritant in the culture he arose in, and he pricked the conscience of a nation. It's likely that he engineered his own murder, placing its date on the day of the dead as a frame...
Pasolini's revolutionary philosophy was simultaneously opposed to fascism and communism, and he had many enemies in the political arena, as well as the religious one with the Vatican. All said, however, it's possible that Pier Pasolini was murdered by a right wing assassination team under the aegis of "GLADIO," a NATO program of secret armies throughout Western Europe. GLADIO began, ostensibly, as a defense against a hypothetical Soviet invasion of Europe.
Overall, GLADIO was more often used to attack legitimate leftist political parties, trade unions, and populist groups. GLADIO operations were responsible for breaking the Marseilles dock strikes in the late 1940s as just one example of their handiwork. Their activities in Italy during the Cold War are known to be extensive. Italy is a flashpoint, a fixed, coordinate in the nexus of control of the Western power structure.
In Italy, the Red Brigade bombings in the 1970s were even instigated by GLADIO operatives to justify a law and order crackdown on the Italian Communist Party who were poised to take power at that time. It's a mystery as to how much influence the CIA had in all of this. The existence of the P-2 conspiracy (oddly, involving the Vatican, the CIA, KGB, and renegade Freemasons!) had yet to break in the international media. All this aside, there were dozens of politically motivated killings in 1970s Italy, and Pasolini's was just one of many.
One has to ponder the Vatican's involvement in his murder, as they were a primary adversary of Pasolini. And so, Salo enters this bloody fray. It could not be more controversial, and it's a scream of rage against how little we all really care about or value human life. Pasolini was outraged and disappointed with the human condition, and Italian politics had become a bloody chaos, leading director Sergio Leone to remark at the time that, "Italian politics have become ridiculous." Both directors were friends.
The scenario of Salo is fairly simple: a group of Italian fascists retreat to a palace in Northern Italy (where there was a great deal of support for Italian fascism and the Monarch) with a group of sixteen captive boys and girls. One is a bishop, a judge, a politician, and-so-on, representing symbols of established authority. It is Mussolini's short-lived Republic of Salo, created especially for him by the disintegrating Nazi regime. Hence, "Salo" is a title that almost any Italian of the 1970s (or today) might recognize. For 120 days, they degrade their victims in almost every imaginable--and unimaginable--manner.
There is homosexual rape, sundry forms of buggery, forcing people to eat excrement, forced heterosexual couplings, forced marriage, sadism of every kind, and finally, death. Just about everything you could imagine occurs, and worse. Of course, it's all based loosely on De Sade's tale and stays pretty close to the text's themes and scenarios.
Pasolini chapters each section with some of the structure of Dante's "Inferno," which is a real mark of his genius. One can even sense an atavistic Manichean influence in the work, which isn't surprising: Friuli has been historically known as an ancient citadel on the Northern "boot" of Italy, where the ideas of the world hating sect are still evident in the local culture. Pasolini's home state, Friuli, has been thought of as a place of subversion for centuries.
The Italian polymath understood that, under the right circumstances, we are all capable of these depredations. This is a lesson that he and others learned during the resistance to Italian and German fascism in Italy during WWII. Pasolini witnessed and experienced injustices committed by the partisans, losing his own brother to a firing squad.
There's a little Hitler in everyone, and we all the potential to become assassins under the proper conditions. Beyond that, To say this film is merely a statement on fascism would be wrong--it's a manifesto on what cruelty rests within all human hearts, especially once one has supped on power. In Salo and his other works in other mediums, Pasolini is saying that humanity has a dark heart and that nothing is really true.
This was the point that "Italy's conscience" had reached artistically by 1975, though his existential crisis regarding the future of humanity had begun much earlier. Salo was always lurking there in Pasolini's mind, waiting for its time to emerge. Some online reviewers have stated that they didn't find the film shocking--they should check themselves into a clinic somewhere, as Salo is beyond shocking. But it should be remembered that De Sade was only writing about the sexual habits of his kind--the aristocracy before the French Revolution of 1789. De Sade wasn't simply trying to shock. He was chronicling the sexual tastes and behaviors of the French aristocracy before the revolution.
I've noticed that even avid fans of contemporary directors such as Takashi Miike respect the power of this film. Miike has some similarities in theme and style with Pasolini, but goes for a more genre, stylized look (it's not the heady 1970s anymore). Even John Waters lists this film as sicker than his own worst offenders. It could be argued that Desperate Living (1977) is an oblique spoof of Salo. To say I was shocked by this film would be an understatement. But, besides being pretty sick, this film looks astonishingly lush and challenges the audience by shoving the beautiful and the grotesque in our faces. This is another aspect of Pasolini's genius of showing us depredations in such a lovely setting.
Salo transcends the subversive and never fails to shock. The late Tonnino della Colli's cinematography lends the film a look that could be hung in the Louvre, and it gives the film a greater subversive edge overall. Several of the shot compositions resemble well-known works of Western art. Della Colli was director of photography for Fellini, Sergio Leone, and many other classic Italian directors. It should be noted that the film is not "legitimately available" in the United State for copyright reasons. However, there are very good copies out there even though it's not in print. I found a copy that's an exact duplicate of the original US edition for a decent price, so it is out there to be found with a little searching.
The Criterion edition is reportedly the most expensive collector's DVD in the world, going for as much as $1,000.00 USD. [Ed., 08.31.2008--Which is now probably devalued with the new Criterion edition.] This was the best transfer in 1998, but it appears that there is a new continental European DVD purported to be definitive, as well as a BFI edition that's unexceptional. This writer possesses a few Ken Russell DVDs ("Salome's Last Dance") that are worth as much as $300.00 USD, so this is a shocker! It's funny to see used DVDs of the big Hollywood fare at $3.99 USD, while these are in the hundreds! It says a lot about what is lasting and meaningful to people, and it's not blockbuster movies.
A dubious company called "Water Bearer" has a set of Pasolini's other works, but I have it on good word that they are of extremely poor quality and aren't restored and come from aging 35mm prints. It would be nice if Criterion did a Pasolini Box that included a new HD transfer of "Salo" with extensive restoration. Salo is one of the most important films ever made. We all stand accused, even the filmmaker, and that's the point. Be forewarned: not for children or adults who fear soul-searing, raw existentialism. So, why? Why would anyone want to watch this?
NOTE: The "ass-judging-scene" is similar to photos of the "flesh pyramid" at Abu-Ghraib. The new Criterion edition will bring a fresh reassessment of this Italian masterpiece, with only the omission of one extraneous 25 second scene. It will be HD from the best film elements. Brace yourselves.
[Ed., 10.05.2008--I see no reason why Pasolini couldn't have been murdered by various rightist elements, while at the same time having brought it about purposefully. Why not?]