Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pasolini, 1975)

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ANTE INFERNO

Heil Pasolini! From the dying embers of Italy’s fascist nightmare, this provocateur extraordinaire found truth, beauty, freedom and above all things love. Make no mistake, the iniquitous repute of cinema’s most notorious bête noire is entirely just: Salò depicts the debauched, the depraved and the disgusting with indefatigable relish. Even so, the film is not deplorable… never deplorable. No, the surface repugnance of the director’s masterpiece may overshadow the appeal of its naïve extremism and its truculent fury, but the rectitude behind his achievement sears the memory long after its numerous horrors have subsided. Pasolini’s sentiments are as pure as his visuals are lewd; exemplars of a tormented artist’s last stand against a world dismissed as beyond redemption. Galvanised by this incendiary vitriol, Salò unleashes a violent barrage of ideas and images whose cumulative impact achieves the coup of transplanting its inter-filmic suffering directly into the viewer’s psyche; this dualistic infliction of abuse forming the crux of the director’s hermetic dystopia – a cause and product of the nihilism that so repulsively engulfs his subtexts. His is a work that seemingly revels in the darkness of the abyss; a work that venerates murder, rape and torture whilst denigrating their respective meanings unto the level of sadistic pleasure; a work that trades in on its puerile shock value to actively lust after reprehensibility – eventually attaining the ideal with incomparable causticity.

But Pasolini was too skilled an artist – or perhaps too conflicted a man – to wallow so unremittingly in literal misery-porn. The director’s pessimism finds itself both emboldened and muddied by the ridiculous, possibly even humorous treatment of his material. Salò‘s problematic hinges upon this dogged refusal to capitulate to our understanding of tragedy: its narrative’s mechanisms grind out devastation that’s deprived of sentiment and laden with camp, nonsensical satire. Thus, the perverted quartet of oppressors who invoke its infernos are rendered nothing more than mere pantomime villains at the heart of an elaborate farce; the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse recast as hysterical drag queens, dancing their way toward a 20th-century Armageddon. Pasolini’s tone is wild and unruly, veering from the cataclysmic to the gelastic with the blink of an eye (provided, of course, that the eye in question hasn’t been gouged from its socket). Nevertheless, his purpose is clear, for nowhere in Salò is it possible to properly process the magnitude of its victims’ pain – and in thwarting his audience’s cathartic needs, the director endeavours to expose and then redefine the limitations of human empathy. Unable to reconcile the abominations on-screen with any depth in the film’s emotional matter, we end up lapsing puritanically into a moral panic (though not unjustly). Pasolini’s relentless antagonism drives the film into a crevasse unto itself, in which it harbours a disaster so incomprehensible that it become an exercise in the anti-tragic. Reason – as we once understood it – no longer exists.

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CIRCLE OF MANIAS

If Salò succeeds in the anti-tragic then it surely excels at the anti-erotic. Populated by the lithe, pubescent figures of its uniformly-unclothed teenage captives, the film invites titillation only to emphatically molest it. Pasolini’s camera doesn’t always shy away from the expected gaze – skin, torsos, pubic hairs and genitalia all appear in close-up – but his imagery’s pornographic potential is either offset by the victims’ howls of anguish or supplanted by the perverse glares of their tormentors. The director thus pries open a chasm between object and desire that’s impossible to traverse; our latent aphrodisia neutered by the all-too conspicuous framework of exploitation which effectively desexualises an otherwise attractive group of bodies. The distance that Pasolini begets between viewer and content subsequently materialises inside his frames themselves. Brandishing his mastery as an aesthetician beyond compare, he constructs a series of tableaux informed by the classical elegance of High Renaissance paintings, carefully dividing the action within each of these impossibly-perfect compositions: trauma relegated to the background, with emptiness and/or irreverence dominating the foreground. As the atrocities increase, so too does the physical distance between the two planes; the director at once emulating the reality of marginalised agony, maintaining the tradition of its artistic veneration, and posing the question: is the horror any less real if we’re forced to remain blind to it?

In this paraphilic paradise, the characters’ suffering finds itself incarcerated by the inexorable allure of Pasolini’s artifice. Beauty is therefore as much a curse as it is a blessing: a distraction; a masquerade that protects barbarism; a fallacy. Whilst condemning his own aesthetics, the director incorporates a not-unrelated discussion on the subject of eugenics. Salò‘s victims are chosen as such for their physical perfection, their masters’ filtering procedures unmistakably calling to mind the Nazis’ vision of a flawless gene pool (the geometrical precision of the film’s mise-en-scène further evokes the regime’s ruthless sense of order). However, where Hitler & co. were intent on preserving the “master race” (albeit by destroying others), Pasolini proves hell-bent upon obliterating it altogether. The hollow ideal of an Aryan utopia is thus disembowelled, evaginated and then beautified as the director lambasts the very notion of unnatural selection; his total disillusionment with the modus operandi of interwar Europe’s purportedly “developed” societies blisteringly apparent. Given his Marxist sympathies, it’s unsurprising that this contempt should extend beyond the obvious extremist targets and into the more general domain of capitalism itself. It’s the ubiquitous value of rabid consumption which he denounces most vehemently of all, and it’s the culture of greed that it perpetrates which enables his clinical debilitation of intercourse: he invades this most intimate of acts and reduces it from its zenith as the utmost expression of love to its nadir as the vilest demonstration of hate – where bodies are rendered commodities (if that) in transactions impelled by the privileged perversions of the ruling classes. Enveloped by this ever-decaying morality, Pasolini’s eroticism perhaps appears not quite anti-erotic per se, so much as a mere reflection of the dominant, ruthlessly systematic approach to human life engendered by the reverence of money over man.

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CIRCLE OF SHIT

Adopting as his mantra the notion of “absolute power corrupting absolutely”, the director retools Sade’s lascivious libertines (in Salò: a Bishop, a Duke, a Magistrate and a President) and uses them to launch a multi-pronged, defiantly allegorical critique upon the vestiges of authority. The centrepiece of the film’s infamy – a Last Supper-inspired banquet of faeces – is therefore not simply an exercise in maximal revulsion, but also the very axis to all Pasolini’s promulgations. This grossly hypnotic celebration of the coprophilic, conducted at the whims of the merciless foursome, takes the film’s debasements to their inevitable extreme – though lest we forget, the scatological is a genuine fetish to which the libertines are far from alone in subscribing so avidly to; Salò‘s ignominious feast of shit is first and foremost a part of its sexual paraphernalia. Regardless, the scene in question remains irrevocably coloured by the director’s manifold political subtexts: Pasolini himself reportedly contended that the entire conceit was a figurative representation of a world increasingly obsessed with junk food, a statement that may seem somewhat ludicrous on paper but nonetheless keeps entirely in tune with the film’s acerbic depiction of social regression in the face of corporate esurience. The director thus pre-empts the acknowledged McDonaldisation of society and pushes the notion of immediate gratification to its entirely natural breaking point. In this typically sardonic twist, “fast food” is given a new meaning altogether whilst materialism backfires spectacularly upon the materialists.

As the multitudinous images of excrement-smeared faces recedes from the consciousness, what persists in residing is the perturbing perception that, in Salò, anything is possible. Pasolini crafts an alternate reality which conserves a familiar social structure (the hierarchical pyramid from top-to-bottom: elites → accomplices → victims), but he shatters the legislative glass ceiling designed to curb hegemonic abuses. Consequently, all restrictions to the tyrannies inflicted by the elites are eradicated – it is, after all, these individuals who make the laws of governance – and so it follows that there is no end to the complacency of the accomplices, nor any respite to the exploitation of the victims. As one of the libertines memorably declares: “We fascists are the only true anarchists.” – and the shit-eating episode therefore comes to epitomise the height of authoritarian anarchy; an anarchy of power that gleefully nurtures brutality. Even the slightest hint of dissidence is swiftly repressed in Salò‘s monstrously insular milieu (though one of the film’s most resonant images remains the Communist salute of a nude, recalcitrant guard, causing the libertines to collectively gasp in momentary disbelief before gunning him down). Detached from the outside world and shielded from its scrutiny, Salò can turn upon only itself. How appropriate then, that its inhabitants should end up ingesting the faecal so vividly – what better metaphor could there be for the transgressions of a societal microcosm hung up on self-extirpation?

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CIRCLE OF BLOOD

Lost amidst the grotesqueries is an assertion that offers cause for greater alarm than any of the film’s disconcerting visuals. Although frequently damned for his simplistic, bludgeon-like approach, Pasolini’s treatise decisively embraces the complexity within the historiography of fascism. So it stands that totalitarianism is acknowledged as an impossible goal and, with the film degenerating into its murderous finale, it suddenly emerges that a significant proportion of the prisoners have been covertly flouting the libertines’ preposterous “rules”. Naturally, the disobedience offers little cause for concern in its own right (given the context, its almost certainly admirable), yet the manner in which the dissent is exposed betrays the full, staggering extent of the director’s despondence in his fellow man. It’s easy to view Salò as an (overzealous) cautionary tale against the concentration of power in relatively few hands, but the film is interlaced with telltale signs that suggest something is gravely amiss with such perspectives: the prevailing passivity of the victims; the brief close-ups that allude towards not just their acceptance, but the actual enjoyment of their suffering. Bowdlerised emotions are biding their time and awaiting their release, and when the investigation into the adolescent deviance eventually commences, each of the detainees makes an attempt to delay their demise by accusing another of greater misdeeds. And so a domino effect ensues; the instinct for self-preservation devolving into a pathological desire to destroy one another, thereby provoking a battle for survival where it’s no longer the fittest that necessarily triumph, but the most ruthless. Salò‘s very foundations now crumble before our eyes – not due to the futility of the totalitarian ideal, but because its entire order is upended: absolute power doesn’t merely corrupt those who wield it, it defiles those that are subjugated by it too; the director contending that victims can become just as complicit in their victimisation as their oppressors. Faced with the banality of evil and the silence of humanity, Pasolini sees only one answer: a wave of annihilation – which, in this setting, is an act of love if ever there was one.

Salò‘s allegorical indictments threaten to read like failures; the insane ramblings of a misguided, troubled radical. Indeed, the director’s dejection becomes much easier to dismiss when one considers that his action takes place in a theatre of cruelty that’s like no other in cinema. If innocents and tyrants subsequently become indistinguishable, it’s because he coerces them into illogical scenarios from which it’s impossible to draw reasonable conclusions. Except therein lies the problem. Salò‘s extremities aren’t as extreme as decades of censorship would imply, and the horrors that occur within its confines are all too plausible for the contemporary viewer. For all his Brechtian distancing manoeuvres (his formalism, his abrasions, his vulgarity), Pasolini can’t quite suppress the devastating reality that lurks beneath the veil of his entropic vision. And he knows it. Painfully aware of his art’s woeful inability to incite a revolutionary overhaul of Italian society c. 1975, he retreats into a nihilistic wilderness and defecates on each and every one of his fellow citizens. In the film’s most confrontational gesture, he reverses a pair of binoculars to implicate his unwitting audience in the slaughters on-screen; challenging us to question the integrity behind our voyeurism, imploring us to look directly into the eyes of the inhumane. And yet, in spite of all the violence that occurs before our eyes, the utmost act of savagery is saved for the very last scene – a scene that yields nothing in the way of bloodshed and terror but instead offers a revelation which, really, we knew all along. That is to say: Salò has stamina; Salò has stealth; Salò is a survivor. Salò lives!

And long may it continue to do so.

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We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.

– Marcel Proust

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