On October 22, 2015 (just twelve days ago), I set out on a mission (which I dubbed "Pasolini, or The 12 Days of Cinema") to see all twelve of the feature films that Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini made during his career before he was murdered on the 2nd of November in 1975. By starting on the 22nd of October, I was able to revisit Pasolini's final film, his masterpiece, Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975), on the 40th anniversary of the day Pasolini was killed. Though Salò was not intended to be Pasolini's final film, its subject matter and formal presentation exemplifies everything that Pasolini embodies as a filmmaker.
All at once a piece of provocation, a comedy, a war film, and a substantial work of art, Salò invites its viewers to be bystanders to acts of debauchery committed against innocent young adults. Set between 1944 and 1945 during the Nazi occupation of Italy, the opening scene shows the Duke, the Bishop, the President, and the Magistrate of Italy signing their allegiance to the rules that they previously determined for their stay in Salò. These rules are unknown to the audience, but the motives of these leaders quickly manifest themselves. Nazi soldiers mobilize through towns and villages in search of the most beautiful young men and women. Families are separated as fifteen year old boys are marched out of town while their parents and the townspeople look on in horror. Armored military jeeps transport the beautiful finds that the Nazis have made to a mansion where the Duke, Bishop, Magistrate, and President are able to select their favorite boys of the bunch. Asking some of the finest specimens to strip, Pasolini uses point-of-view shots to place the viewer in the eyes of the leaders orchestrating this deranged beauty contest. Once the leaders have selected the best-of-the-best amongst the young men and women, they are transported to a palace in Salò where the rules of their extended stay are divulged: everyone must stay at the palace for the entire time, awake at 6 am to engage in orgies and listen to erotic stories, praying to God is forbidden, and if you're a man you cannot have sex with women.
Salò, much like the films that comprise Pasolini's "Trilogy of Life" (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights) is a film about storytelling. Though the Italian leaders are the masterminds behind this 120 day debauching-session, since they have created this for their own personal pleasure, a former prostitute named Signora Maggi guides the sexual exploits of the leaders with the themes of her stories. Whatever she speaks about finds its way into the sexual depravity engaged in later that day.
Structurally, the film is divided into four parts. The first is a prologue entitled "Antechamber of Hell", but the primary three chapters that follow are all products of the stories told by the prostitute, Signora Maggi: "The Circle of Obsessions", "The Circle of Shit", and "The Circle of Blood". Alluding to the seven levels of Hell depicted in Dante's Inferno, these chapters take on a life of their own as they precede the events that are yet to be seen. Further, they serve as a way to calculate the escalation in depravity as everyone's stay at Salò continues.
Tonally, Pasolini masterfully makes a film that could be completely dark and unwatchable into a work of comedy – albeit, a highly uncomfortable comedy, of sorts. The theatricality of Signora Maggi's delivery of her stories is a core source of humor as she jovially dances and sings at times. Beyond that, the absurdity of the sexual acts (particularly those committed by The Duke, who is skillfully played by Paolo Bonacelli) are often so sick that there's no way that humor can't creep into a scene. During these acts, jokes are made, the cancan is performed, and literally anything can happen – there's a sense that the events unfolding on screen are as much a surprise at time as they are to the viewer.
Much of the film is at the mercy of its visual components, but Salò's sound design is of a very high quality. Ennio Morricone provided the soundtrack for the film, a light and elliptical piano piece that is all at once comforting and comical when juxtaposed against the content on screen. Music aside, the use of sounds from outside of the palace contribute to the more frightening atmosphere in some scenes of the film. The droning sound of repetitive cannon fire and explosions in the distance echoes into the palace during several key scenes of immorality and filth.
All of these factors collectively make Pasolini's adaptation of Marquis de Sade's The 120 Days of Sodom a true masterpiece. Had Pasolini not been murdered, this likely would not have been his final film, but that it is his last film, Salò does have some extra weight. Though it may seem to be a far cry from Pasolini's faithful adaptation of the Biblical book of Matthew, Salò manages to find its justification (for those who seek it) near its conclusion. "My God, why has thou forsaken me?" screams the daughter of one of the leaders as she awaits her death. When the camera pans over to the guards, they are playing cards just as the Roman soldiers who cast lots over Jesus' possessions. In Salò's final moments, two of those young men who were tasked with protecting the leaders and ensuring that none of the youths escaped during their 120-day stay in the palace engage in a touching moment. With the radio on, one of the young men asks the other to dance with him. He promptly sets down his machine gun, and dances with the other guard. In the room next door, the Magistrate is watching the other leaders as they torture the young men and women that they've deflowered over the past few months. These guards don't care that these inhumane acts have occurred, but if they did, they could've saved everyone as they were armed. Pasolini condemns them for simply choosing to observe – the nonchalant joy that they experience in these final moments is more repulsive than much of anything that was seen prior. For them, and for us, life continues after seeing such cruelty, but that's the point as Pasolini designed Salò so that such violence could be observed.
My rating: 5/5
My top Pasolini films:
1. Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
2. Accattone (1961)
3. The Gospel According To St. Matthew (1964)
4. The Decameron (1971)
5. Oedipus Rex (1967)
6. Arabian Nights (1974)
7. The Hawks and The Sparrows (1966)
8. Mamma Roma (1962)
9. Teorema (1968)
10. The Canterbury Tales (1972)
11. Porcile (1969)
12. Medea (1969)