Is the true measure of a film’s greatness its unforgettability? Conjured up in darkened rooms that mimic the intimate circumstances of our normally private dreams and fantasies, vast in scale and impact, the images of celluloid are of course notoriously memorable—but still, there are some films from which not just individual images but a whole way of seeing remains lodged in the mind. In this category, Pasolini’s infamous Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom has a very particular place.
The film is probably most famous for being more unseen than seen. Vilified, censored, banned, denied commercial distribution, long unavailable, it lives more in reputation and rumor than in memory. I was first exposed to it four years after its release in 1975, when I was enticed to a one-off midweek matinee screening at a small university-town art-house cinema by publicity that hinted it might contain erotic images of explicit homosexuality—something of which, as a horny first-year undergraduate in the porn-free wilderness of the conservative English midlands, I was in pretty desperate need. That strange afternoon probably altered forever my sense of what the possibilities might be of sitting in the dark and watching a movie; like most people seeing the film for the first time, I had never encountered anything that extreme. I wept, I retched, I involuntarily covered my face with my hands; but I left exhilarated.
Of course, Salò is not only a film that has been forgotten (a film that some people and organizations have, throughout its existence, actively made efforts to ensure is forgotten); it is also a film about forgetting. It brings back to life something that had been actively, deliberately, massively forgotten. The four principal characters of the film embody the four temporal and spiritual powers that brought into being the Italian Fascist dictatorship of 1944 and 1945—and that continued to participate through the 1970s in Italy’s collective amnesia about its bloody, extremist past. The mythology of the Republic of Salò (the informal name of Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic, based in the town of Salò, the semilegendary site of some of the worst atrocities of the closing months of his embattled regime) has been as disputed as the film to which it lends its name; perhaps what gives Salò its flinty implacability is Pasolini’s need to assert the existence of that which has been denied. With this in mind, it is important, once the shock of a first viewing has subsided, to watch the film a second time, remembering that its extraordinary detachment is actually underpinned by a profound fury. For Pasolini, the endlessly scrutinized—and weirdly inscrutable—faces of his protagonists belong to every Italian who not only allowed or collaborated in but actively desired the rape (physical, political, spiritual) of their fellow Italians.
If the first word of the film’s title alludes to a forgotten place, the rest of it refers to another scandal, another Great Unspoken in the mind of Europe. The 120 Days of Sodom is a text by the most banned, the most vilified, and the least read of all great Western authors. And it is no accident that Pasolini chose to dramatize Sade at his most inadmissible—his most obscene, interminable, and terrifying. This film exists to give form to precisely that which is beyond imagining, to stage things that “didn’t” or “shouldn’t” happen. Its action is a series of obscenities and atrocities that most people would describe as “unimaginable”; yet, with all the forces of a great imagination at its disposal, it makes you believe you are seeing them. Sade’s protagonists aspire to do and speak things that must never be done, never be spoken of; Pasolini shows you things that must never be shown.
Thirty years after I first saw it, what do I remember? I remember the odd emptiness and near complete silence of the ominous landscapes of the prologue. I remember the way those three boys stop their bikes when they see the soldiers; I remember the horrified realization on their faces, and in my own queasy stomach, that there are no limits to what might now happen to them. Paradoxically, since everything that happens there is vile, I remember—and this perhaps most of all—the wonderful beauty of their prison. Nothing I had heard whispered about the subject matter of the film prepared me for its deranged grandeur, for the vividness of the faces, the pallor of the posed bodies, the grimacing women endlessly descending that haunted staircase in their Danilo Donati gowns—which were the most beautiful gowns I had ever seen. Of course, I remember the tortures: I remember (as if it were yesterday) the hidden razor blades, the shitting, and what is seen through the binoculars in the film’s last ten minutes—things I couldn’t now forget even if I wanted to, since, like I suspect everyone else who has ever watched the film, I closed my eyes a moment too late. But I also remember knowing that I had never seen anything so attractive as the handsome pieces of rough trade Pasolini had cast as the soldiers, so visibly enjoying the violence, so evidently barely bothering to act their roles. It may be hard, now that graphic mutilation is the stock-in-trade of prime-time police procedurals and hard-core pornography is readily available at the click of a mouse, to recapture the impact that this imagery had—but I defy anyone not to be astonished by Pasolini’s peerlessly audacious mixing of glamour and horror, sophistication and crudity. Salò is, apart from everything else, surely one of the most provocatively beautiful films ever made. Its sensational combination within a single palatial interior of excessive female haute bourgeois evening dress and male brutality, of drag and nudity with frocks and uniforms, of politics, luxury, and horror, has influenced (infected?) an entire generation of European metteurs en scène. Surely, for instance, it left profound traces in the work of Patrice Chéreau, Pina Bausch, and Philip Prowse. It has certainly haunted my own work in the theater.
And now? What do I see now, thirty years later, watching the film on DVD in the supposedly reassuring darkness of my living room? I am astounded by the formal brilliance of it, by the icy inexorability of the descent into madness. I am dazzled by the way in which Donati’s costumes, Dante Ferretti’s peerless settings, and Ennio Morricone’s impeccably unsettling sound world somehow magisterially combine to confer an ominous and absolute reality on the performances, both the extravagant, preposterous mannerisms of the world-weary professionals and the docility of the bewildered extras; they create an entirely convincing and original world. Most of all, I am struck by how absolutely contemporary the film seems. Because the promised Dantean structure of a descent through ever worsening circles of atrocity is never redeemed by a climax or crescendo, the film appears (despite its historical setting) to be taking place in an everlasting present tense. Within the locked confines of the villa, it seems, the atrocities will go on forever, and because of that, we, the viewers, are positioned not merely as witnesses to Salò but as its inhabitants. Indeed, for a film that takes such pains to distance its atrocities with so many levels of formality, it is extraordinarily immediate. Never has the mere act of watching felt so like victimhood, so like complicity, so like power—the unholy trinity of Fascist ideology that the film both embodies and dissects. In the film’s final sequence, two young men dance in a luminous room full of paintings. Does watching them make us dream of a beautiful future in which these young men might somehow magically escape from all the horrors? Or does their clumsy, callous waltz in fact remind us of all the crimes they make no attempt to stop, indeed see no need to stop? The only option Pasolini does not allow us is that of averting our eyes. The last shot, despite being the calmest and possibly the loveliest in the film, typifies its power. Thirty years on, it now seems to me the most desolate, the most disturbing, the most challenging of all the film’s images.
My main emotion after watching this film again is an odd one: gratitude. Gratitude that Pasolini dared not only to imagine it but to make it; gratitude that he dared to excoriate the deadly power structures of his century with such passion and skill. Gratitude that we, in our century, one that desperately needs to understand the nature of atrocity, can now once again watch it.
Neil Bartlett is a theater director and author. His work in theater has ranged from his early queer performance pieces through Shakespeare, Wilde, Tchaikovsky, and Britten to large-scale collaborations with (among others) Artangel, the Manchester International Festival, and the National Theatre in London. His third novel, Skin Lane, was short-listed for the Costa Award, and his translations and adaptations of Genet, Kleist, Molière, Racine, Dumas, and Dickens have been widely staged in both America and Britain. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2008 DVD edition of Saló.