Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is one of those films that seem to be more often read about than seen. And understandably so, Pasolini‘s swansong is one that’s reputation precedes it; apprehension is appropriate when the film in question is most commonly, and quite literally, associated with human feces. Descriptions of Salò will vary from a sadistic commentary on the bourgeoisie, to a depraved exercise in excess, but most potently the film presents a staunch anti-fascist statement. Each of these readings ring true in one way or the other, yet are often simplistic in their rationale. There is no denying that Pasolini, a homosexual Marxist raised under Mussolini’s regime, had much to dissect about fascistic ideology. However, Pasolini’s ambitions extend far beyond a mere deconstruction of authoritarianism. Salò is intrinsically a refutation of Pasolini’s work to date, the final ideological reversal in a series of upheavals throughout his career — as well as a culmination of a man’s growing disillusionment with modernity. The film is an artistic expression of sheer pessimism, yet not without moments of fleeting beauty — and an unambiguously political film, just in several ways.
Salò is ostensibly an adaptation of The 120 Days of Sodom, an 18th-century French novel by Marquis de Sade, but is also an amalgamation of Sade’s controversial story and Dante’s Inferno. Pasolini originally intended for two separate films, with the self-explanatory former, and the latter denoting a Dante-esque depiction of the final days of Mussolini’s regime (“Salò” denotes a metonym for Italian Social Republic). Upon recognizing the conceptual similarities Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom was born. Consequently, Pasolini transplants Sade’s Renaissance France to Northern Italy.
The story goes as follows: the year is 1944 and Mussolini has since been voted out of power by his own Grand Council. Amidst this political shift, four wealthy fascists — the Duke (Paolo Bonacelli), the Bishop (Giorgio Cataldi), the Magistrate (Umberto Paolo Quintavalle), and the President (Aldo Valletti) — devise a sadistic scheme. These four plot to kidnap the most beautiful and attractive youth of a nearby village (all are teenagers) and transport them to a secret villa — later revealed to be the Republic of Salò, a Nazi puppet state. Additionally, four teenage males are to be recruited and serve as guards, selected on account of their large genitalia. From here on out, the darkest depths of human nature rear its ugly head, and 18 teenagers are pushed to the limits of the human condition as they are beaten, battered, and raped in an inescapable cycle.
Structured akin to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Salò is divided among four acts, with each ensuing segment representing another variation of extreme abuse — the most infamous referred to as the “Circle of Shit.” Performance-wise, Salò paints a portrait of four borderline comical fascists that torment a group of horrified, lifelike teenagers. The disconnect between characters is perhaps what is most unsettling about Salò, a contrast that extends to the film’s imagery — Pasolini moves the camera as if to emphasize the beauty of the villa, casting degradation to the backdrop of classical music. And even if not every aspect holds up, watching the eerily naturalist performance of a child beaten, chastised, and forced to eat her torturer’s excrement elicits a visceral horror of a whole other kind.
Nevertheless, Salò’s worth is not strictly beholden to shock value; there is a reason why its legacy not only prevails but earns its canonical status. Yes, Salò is an allegory for fascism: the elite, by virtue of absolute power, are capable of exploiting the poor for self-gratification. This is the go-to analysis — it is a bit banal, albeit purposely hyperbolic — but is arguably one of the least interesting themes of the film. Nearly every aspect of Salò is political, those that single out its anti-fascism generally overlook the film’s anti-capitalist allusions. Pasolini’s dichotomy between power and subjects works, possibly, more eloquently as a metaphor for class division — paralleling the capitalist’s treatment of the working class, where cruelty and sadistic behavior is a simply logical progression in an unethical system. This complements how Pasolini frames the hierarchical dynamic, viewing the victims as commodities: the fascists keep a routinely record of their slaves’ excrement, pedantically examining for “transgressions” as if they were products via assembly line workers.
The conflation of feces and consumerism is, frankly, blunt — and yet it is completely in tune with how Pasolini felt by the turn of the decade. By the 1970s, Italy had reached the end of the aptly-titled Italian economic miracle and the new age of Neo-Capitalism had all but swept the nation. Pasolini lamented this shift, describing it as a cultural genocide with an agenda that may be more nefarious than fascism. This disdain would develop into an all-encompassing disgust for modernity — an outright hatred of reality. To make matters worse, Pasolini began to doubt the preachings of his Trilogy of Life, the advocacy of natural sexual expression no longer appealing, aggravated by imitators who would commodify the notion of sex. Pasolini was at wits’ end, pent up with rage, but recognized that there was no formal or academic way to vent these frustrations — no realistic film that could embody such a vile reality. The only solution was destruction by-way-of art, and that is the essence of Salò: complete and utter annihilation of normalcy, the sacredness of youth and the human form tainted by feces — an artistic expression of pure moral degeneracy for a dissolute society.
Tragically, three weeks before the premiere of the film, Pasolini was murdered. Salò was intended to mark the start of his Trilogy of Death, but alas, no one can truly know what Pasolini’s overarching intentions were. Still, despite the trilogy’s title, it must be noted that Salò was not a complete denunciation of his past beliefs. A few key scenes managed to slip through the cracks, sparse moments of genuine poignancy. One particular sequence, amid the carnage, presents two teenage guards who give up on their duties, turn on the radio, and dance to a joyful tune. One of which asks the other about his girlfriend, unveiling the true nature of these kids — intimacy in a moment of seclusion.
Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is one of the most remarkable and fascinating works of art that I have ever encountered. Yet it is one that I feel is often misconstrued, not in an analytical sense but in its dismissal as a fruitless spectacle of torture. Salò is undeniably a product of its time, and perhaps it loses the brunt of its mystique had Pasolini lived, but it offers so much more than meets the eye. Even when judged as a mindless torture fest, few filmmakers can convey the same sense of foreboding dread and hopeless nihilism that pervades through Salò. It may lack the stylized gore of its modern contemporaries, but the raw manner of presentation alone is enough to weave its way into your psyche. Is it for everyone? Certainly not. Salò is essential, just for those who wish to witness one of the most daring films of all time, as well as the final demented musings of one of Italy’s most compelling auteurs.