Salò: A Cinema of Poetry

In Pasolini’s last interview, just before his murder, and prior to the release of Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom, he identified himself simply as a poet. His most well-known essay on the cinema was entitled “Il cinema di poesia.” In his writings and films, he referred to the poetry of the paintings of Giotto, Michelangelo, Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino, and Masaccio. His notion of the poetic was broad and encompassed all the arts. Such a view had a classical ancestry (Aristotle; later, Horace). It also belonged to an Italian idealist philosophical tradition represented by Benedetto Croce, whose thinking touched every Italian intellectual of Pasolini’s generation, including Antonio Gramsci. The blend of Marxism and idealist philosophy, often overlaid by Catholicism, was particular to Italy.

Pasolini studied art history under Roberto Longhi, one of Italy’s great art historians, at the University of Bologna in the early 1940s. Many of the images in his films, either by content or by framing and setting, are refashioned from Italian Renaissance and baroque paintings. His thesis at the university was on the symbolist-decadent poet Giovanni Pascoli. Pasolini’s films cite directly from painting, poetry, music, and sometimes, though less frequently, the cinema (Chaplin, Rossellini).

Often the citations are structured as analogies between the low in everyday life (whores, pimps, libertines) and the high and sacred, either pictorial or from music and literature, as in Salò, for example, where the libertines are associated with sacred music, the avant-garde of the thirties (Léger), the neoclassical (their villa, where victims are gathered, incarcerated, and murdered), Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (the banquet of shit), and most obviously the Marquis de Sade and the Inferno of Dante Alighieri. The libertines quote Nietzsche; Pasolini quotes Bataille and Barthes. In The Decameron, Pasolini assumed the role of Giotto; in The Gospel According to Matthew, Italian intellectuals played the apostles, Pasolini’s mother, the mother of Christ.

Citations, like orphans given a new home, made into pastiche and collage, are characteristic of contemporary art—in painting, writing, photography, the cinema. Pasolini’s citations are extensive, essentially marked as metaphors and comparatives between life and art, between values, place, and temporalities, strikingly the case in Salò but true of all his films from the very first: Accattone in Accattone is likened to Bernini’s angels, accompanied by the music of Bach; Ettore in Mamma Roma to the foreshortened Deposition of Christ by Mantegna, accompanied by the music of Vivaldi; the slums of Rome to the baroque era, bringing a noble past to the present and a disreputable present to an idealized past, contaminating both, shockingly, in La ricotta (the subproletarian glutton Stracci dying on the cross from indigestion likened to the sacrifice of Christ).

Salò contains at least four temporal layers: the time it was made (1975); the period of the last year of the Italian Fascist puppet government under Mussolini in Salò, on Lago di Garda, in Northern Italy (1944–45); the novel The 120 Days of Sodom, or The School of Licentiousness, written by the Marquis de Sade in 1785; and the epic Divine Comedy (1308–21) of Dante. Pasolini poses these temporalities analogically and metaphorically, at the heart of which is his revulsion for contemporary society, commodified and consumerist, as it seemed to him, even to the last refuge of resistance and freedom (the body, sexuality, language).

The film is ambiguous and paradoxical. It is beautifully formed and stylistically complicated, however repellent the scenes that it represents, as if its images of evil have been both highlighted and exorcised by the strength and sublimity of its style. Pasolini accomplishes the difficult task of making the most terrible acts seem actual yet also staged, constructed, narrated, and unreal, a contrived theater of cruelty at once fact and language, horror and performance, reality and image. And just as the film moves between different temporalities, so too does it transpose and commingle these registers and languages, never quite securely one or another, and therefore restless and in motion.

The realm of the libertines in Salò is one of imposed order, discipline, rules, and duties. It is a realm of absolute homogeneity gone mad and murderous, where any difference, any infringement of order, is prohibited and punished. It is a realm of death, because it is a realm of sameness. It is presented, however, by means of a heterogeneity of citations, spaces, languages, and outrageous depictions, an extreme of pluralities that go beyond the customary and the acceptable. It will not do to limit Pasolini’s work to a single fixed perspective or significance. The poetry of his images institutes an awful reality, but it also redeems it.

Pasolini was immensely productive and over a wide range of fields: one of modern Italy’s most important poets, a major filmmaker, an important essayist and theorist of language and the arts. He wrote on painting, literature, cinema, semiotics, linguistics, fashion, sometimes in intellectual journals (Politecnico), sometimes in Communist cultural and literary ones (Rinascita), sometimes in the national press (Corriere della sera). In his work, he engaged with, adopted, and deployed different “languages.” In doing so, he assumed, directly or indirectly, the voice of others, respectfully or as masquerade, pastiche, and parody: the speech patterns of the Roman subproletariat, ancient peasant rhythms, the dialect of Friuli, the accents of Naples.

Such “contamination” of languages (the description is his) was not peculiar to Pasolini but belonged to a late nineteenth-century European poetic tradition and characterized modernism at the turn of the century. Pasolini was a master of this play of overlapping languages and forms, of language as performance, as impersonation—ventriloquized. Such linguistic play exemplifies all his work. It creates a woven fabric of various threads, or a mosaic. Language had a number of characteristics for Pasolini.

First, he put forth, language is multiple, central to which was a distinction between ordinary and poetic language, though Pasolini, in practice, reversed the terms and their values, as did the surrealists. In La ricotta, the gestural, bodily, “natural” expression of the starving, inarticulate, boorish Stracci is made sublime, and in such a way as to counter the film of the Passion being made by Orson Welles, impersonating Pasolini. The conventional sacred appears false while the conventional vulgar is sanctified. Pasolini made pastiche and parody into political-social weapons.

The tradition of medieval carnevale, another source for Pasolini, is present in his films also by this kind of juxtaposition/exchange of the sacred with the profane, a besmirching, banqueting gluttony, the intrusion of the bodily at its most crude and elemental upon the venerated, not only overturning it but by doing so reinvigorating it, as if desanctification, disruption, scandal, are means of purification, and especially of the purification of language. That language in Pasolini is composed with the bodily. His bodies explode, react against all propriety (the bourgeois). The body, unrepressed, farts, burps, spits, snores, giggles, sneezes, yawns, pisses, bursts into laughter, grimaces, fights, becomes tumescent. Pasolini’s blasphemy in La ricotta was to displace the conventional with unspeakable combinations. Salò is an extreme example of this, a banquet of shit staged like The Last Supper. The libertines seek to rule the body, to govern, repress, control it, to serve the anarchy of Power. In Salò, and in his other works, resistance to this control is marked not by what the film represents (where difference is eliminated) but by the form of the film (where difference, linguistic multiplicity, is sustained).

Second, language is social and thereby political. If Pasolini’s work linked him to idealism in his overriding notion of the poetic, it opposed this school of thought by taking art out of the academy, out of high places, into the streets, into the popular and the ordinary, above all into the direct arena of politics and social action, without compromising artistic form and experiment. Pasolini wrote about abortion, divorce, the Mafia, Naples, education, the Vatican, Christian Democracy, television, the Communist Party, long hair. He wrote a poem about the clashes of 1968 between the police and students, but even within that there is a reversal: the cops are the sons of workers, and the students of the bourgeoisie.

Language and art for him were not above politics but inside it, formed by social relations and instrumental in the formation of these. To act linguistically, to act poetically, was to act politically, language as an instrument of social activity not for its content (however shocking, even unwatchable, unspeakable, as in Salò) but for its disruptive capacity as language and rhetoric (the analogy of Sade, Fascism, the present). His language overturned, shocked, reversed, contaminated, scandalized, laughed, jeered, unsettled, mocked, parodied. It was combative and flexible. It made you think about how language is used, how things are said, who speaks, and it made you sit up because of its exquisite beauty and sadness. Pasolini’s formal means and expression were drastic, exasperating, uncompromising, sometimes ghastly, as in Salò, but never vulgar or cheap.

Third, social struggles are also linguistic ones. Artistic, poetic expression delimited a social field. Poetry, in the broadest sense of Poetry, could be made to enter into struggles against dominant voices. It belonged to a struggle to be heard, struggles for a voice, for language as a critical practice, against language as an instrument of coercion and power, for languages and voices denied, repressed, forgotten, lost, eradicated, marginalized. It is precisely why Pasolini never compromised his poetry, his art, in the service of social criticism, a position he shared with Brecht. Pasolini was not a social critic who wrote poetry. He was a poet, and thereby a social critic. The struggle for form, for the new, experimental, modern, was not independent of social action but at the heart of it. Pasolini separated himself from the Communist Party, which used language instrumentally for political ends, and from an Italian avant-garde that worked on language primarily formally. It was a political and artistic tightrope.

During the war, Pasolini had gone to live in Casarsa, a small town in the Italian northeast, in Friuli. His mother, Susanna, came from Casarsa; his father, a minor military official, from Ravenna. Casarsa became Pasolini’s home by adoption. He learned Friulian and wrote his first book of poetry in that peasant, nonliterary language (incomprehensible to most Italians). Friulian was for him a pure language, as Casarsa was a place of purity, Edenic, innocent, divorced from modern Italy and from conventional forms of expression, and, by extension, from the repressive homogenizing tendencies of the Italian (Fascist) state and the authority of his father. His poetry in Friulian moved away from the dominant toward the peripheral and the sensual, to sound and overtones of the archaic, and to a world he identified with his mother, a reality that was infantile, peasant, ancient, unspoiled, and innocent. It was a poetic language of extraordinary sophistication, modeled on Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud.

The paradise of Friuli became a paradise lost. Pasolini was accused of molesting young boys at a school picnic. He was expelled from his job teaching and from the local Communist Party. He and Susanna fled Casarsa for Rome. The flight was the beginning of a journey that brought Pasolini closer to the social and cultural world of Italy: he came to be recognized as a writer, poet, essayist, and filmmaker, but he searched ceaselessly for the paradise he had lost, and he used the idea of it as a critical weapon against the established and institutionalized.

The location of Pasolini’s paradise shifted from Friuli to the slums of Rome and the Italian south, and then from Italy to India, Africa, Yemen, the Middle East, Southeast Asia—not paradise intact but paradise in tatters, mythical, lost in the destructive cultural and human effects of an enveloping modernizing capitalism, already a memory and a hope. His film tales based on writing before the modern—The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights—were of worlds and forms on the brink of disappearance that had once been (imagined to be) sacred, poetic, unpossessable.

The Pasolinian analogy depends on differences. To juxtapose these as likenesses while retaining their difference is to liberate a sense, not unlike in surrealism, but in Pasolini these linkages are not contingent but are motivated and purposeful, often outrageous and shocking: in Salò, for example, between Sade, Dante, Fascism, contemporary youth. Poetry, in its particularity, its pure difference, was a resistance to an institutionalized sameness. The analogy, based on a play of similitude and difference, was not simply a rhetorical figure in his work but was its central form.

There are few artists like Pasolini who have traveled to the outer reaches of language and self, to the peripheries of the known world and the outlying islands of the ancient and the mythical, to bring us face-to-face with the present and ourselves. It is not always comfortable, as Salò exemplifies.

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