Considering ‘Salò,’ the Shocking Film Beloved by Everyone from John Waters to Gaspar Noé
Trigger warning: this story delves into, well, everything that makes “Salò” “unwatchable.”
Salò screengrab via IMDb.
Salò is known as one of the most shocking films of all time. It’s been called nauseating, unwatchable, pornographic, depraved, and an utter masterpiece. It’s also a favorite movie of Michael Haneke, Catherine Breillat, John Waters, Gaspar Noé and the comedian David Cross, apparently.
The film, by gay Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, is set in Northern Italy in 1944, a year before the fall of fascism. In it, a group of fascists kidnap eight adolescent boys and eight adolescent girls, bringing them to a secluded villa where they will torture and sexually abuse them for months. The aesthetic of the film is classical, all country European mansion, elegant gowns, and modern art set against ceaseless pornographic torture.
The script was an adaptation of a eighteenth century novel by the Marquis de Sade, a work full of obscene acts exclusively committed by priests, noblemen, and men of government—and the adaptation stays true to the text.
The film includes the following: a mannequin with an extremely realistic phallus getting jerked off, constant public pissing, anal rape (as well as consensual-seeming anal sex among the fascists themselves), mock weddings that end in group molestation, and, famously, numerous shit-eating, or scat, scenes. Shit-eating is like a third of the movie. It’s all hard to watch, yet the aesthetics remain utterly beautiful and serene.
Due to the explicitness and violence of the scenes (which verge on pornographic but are simulated), Salò regularly makes the list of most controversial movies—censored for years, and often brought to the attention of the courts. Only in the early 2000s was the movie allowed to be shown in the UK uncut; in 2010 an Australia senator tried to reinstate its 17-year long ban.
The question shouldn’t be whether the movie is pornographic but, rather, why it has been banned. After all, with its political undertones, Salò is hardly a cheap, gory, exploitative movie—and sex and violence don’t raise eyebrows in mainstream cinema. Even a whole chapter dedicated to scatological torture, with the young actors eating incredibly realistic-looking excrement, doesn’t seem to warrant ban. (According to actress Antiniska Nemour, the concoction, created by a chef from jam and chocolate, was delicious.) It seems clear that to provoke this sort of censorial response from authority, a work of art has to do more than to expose bodies or break them: it has to implicate power and its functioning in the obscenities.
Salò was be the last movie of Pasolini, who would be killed just a few weeks before the completion of the film. Pasolini was beaten to death by a 17-year-old who claimed that the director was hitting on him before the situation escalated and became violent. However, the teenager recanted 30 years later, saying he was forced and blackmailed by the mafia to plead guilty, confirming an underground suspicion that Pasolini was killed off by the mafia for his political activism as a communist.
Bertolucci remarked how shocked he was when he saw the body of his friend and mentor, on the street bloodied and burned until he looked like one of the victims that Pasolini had just finished depicting in Salò. The film both thematically and biographically marks a hauntingly dark end for the director, for the project he abandoned and the optimism he felt toward the younger generation, which he once hoped would usher in an revolutionary, joyous, unashamed sexuality. More and more, it seemed to him that there could be no ethical relationship under capitalism, and his interviews about Salò were filled with invectives of those in power, power in general, and the horrible things that it forces us to do.
The four fascists in the film are just torturers and despicable perverts; they represent power in all its aspects. They refer to themselves as the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate, and the President: expressions of the aristocracy, judicial power, the clergy, and political power. But they are also fathers of daughters, and, in a pact that precipitates the events of the movie, the fascists exchange daughters, each marrying another’s grown child. In a mockery of the creation of society, they write a set of laws that will govern the behavior of the daughters and the kidnapped teenagers, laws that state only that they are entitled to do whatever they want and that the victims will have no recourse. The Duke, after having forced the victims to act like dogs and feeding them nails, remarks that the fascists are the true anarchists because the only true anarchy is that of power and its freedom to do whatever it wants, its ability to dispose of bodies and people.
The teenagers are prisoners. The few that try to rebel are murdered, and the rest are reduced to a scared and stupefied docility. Power can do with them whatever it wants, even make them eat shit; how can they care about life anymore? This complete loss of the will to live and reduction of a person to the body is, according to concentration camp survivor Primo Levi, the ultimate goal of power, as it manifests through the carceral dimension.
The carceral is always present in Salò. The novel itself was written in secret by Sade as he was imprisoned at the Bastille, where he would spend his days screaming from the window and inciting the people on the streets of Paris to storm the prison. In the movie, the victims are often stripped and made to stand naked together in front of laughing guards. They sleep in bare dormitories and will eventually be executed in the courtyard. With its focus on sexuality, the story shows that “the hanging judge, the birching magistrate, the military torturer...the flogging schoolmaster, the brutal husband must also be acknowledged as perverts to whom...we have given a license to practice upon the general public,” writes Angela Carter in The Sadeian Woman.
The film is a lesson on the libidinal life of power, of its enjoyment in subjugating, and it hits closer to home than ever when news of Brooklyn inmates left cruelly without heat reaches us, when our detention camps look more and more eerily like concentration camps, and when sexual abuse of children is rampant in them. In this particular cultural moment, it seems hard to escape the harsh truth that Pasolini illustrates in Salo: power is both cruel and libidinal.
Edit: Due to an error introduced during editing, this story originally said: "Pasolini was eaten to death". He was actually "beaten to death." We regret the error.