Salò: The Present as Hell

“In the trilogy, I evoked the ghosts of characters from my earlier, realist films. Not to denounce them, obviously, but out of such a violent love for ‘lost time’ that it came out not as a condemnation of one particular human condition but of everything in the present day . . . We are now irreversibly inside that present; we have adapted to it.”

With these words, written by Pier Paolo Pasolini in a commentary for Corriere della sera in March 1975, as he worked on Salò, or The 120 Days of Sodom, the filmmaker expressed his aversion for the present while simultaneously suggesting the impossibility of escaping it, and thus the need to confront it. In the years between 1970 and 1973, during which he made The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights, the writer-director voiced growing concern about where the world was heading, about this new society in which he could no longer see even the features of the Italy of proletarians, peasants, and lumpen proletarians that he loved so deeply and that figures so prominently in his poetry, stories, and films. A rapid and scorching process had transformed Italy from a country based on an agricultural economy to an industrialized, neocapitalist one. A secular peasant culture had been marginalized by the triumph of consumerism, and in the span of no more than a decade, the original cultural characteristics and diverse physiognomy of the popular and lumpen proletarian layers had vanished. What came in their place, especially visible in the younger generation, were the lifestyle and habits of the Italian petty bourgeoisie, “the most ignorant in all of Europe,” as Pasolini called them in La ricotta. The whole process was accelerated through the ruinous and leveling effect of Italian television. Pervasive as capillaries, television was the main agent of decline, he wrote in 1966, “the concrete expression of the petty-bourgeois nature of the Italian state . . . The repository of every vulgarity, and of the hatred for reality.”

Pasolini saw all this as cultural genocide. “Genocide is this adaptation to the power of Italian consumerism,” he stated in 1974. “This power is violently tearing away at ancient ways of life, at the age-old values that are really at the source of Italian culture as a whole. It is imposing its own models and values and destroying in the process a way of life.”

Pasolini regarded this “development without progress” as having an even more insidious effect on the peninsula than that of the Fascist dictatorship: “Fascism . . . had not been capable of even scratching the soul of the Italian people; this new Fascism, armed with new means of communication and information . . . has not only scratched the soul of the Italian people but has lacerated, raped, and besmirched it forever.” Whenever he spoke of adaptation, of acquiescence to the new order, Pasolini was affirming his desire to contend with the present situation in Italy without juxtaposing it to another time and place (the “Trilogy of Life”). Salò, he wrote, was about this kind of adaptation: “In the end, I forgot what Italy was like up to about a decade ago, or less even. And then, because I lacked an alternative, I wound up accepting what Italy has become, an enormous serpent’s nest where, apart from a few exceptions and some wretched elites, all the others are nothing more nor less than stupid, ferocious, indistinguishable, ambiguous, and nasty serpents.”

Rather than try to deny the horror the present inspired in him, Pasolini expressed himself in the first person in order to decipher it, to analyze it in its most disturbing and contradictory features. He did this in his texts against modernity published in Corriere della sera and Mondo, and also in pieces of literary criticism, in interviews, and on television. In his last collection of poetry, La nuova gioventù, he juxtaposed some poems he wrote in his youth (1942–54) with a number written in 1974. The youthful lyrics become the object of a bitter and painful rewrite that desperately reverses their meaning by injecting them with a mournful tone. The world of the peasant that had been first described in elegiac colors has in the later version become a wasteland. There seems to be something contradictory in the solitary, and largely misunderstood, battle the writer waged in those years (which incited attacks by both the right and the left). While he gave us pages and pages of unsparing description and analysis of the present, his films from the 1970s do not give us even one image of contemporary Italy.

Pasolini didn’t want to film the topography of present-day Italy because a cinematic portrayal of the present would have compelled him to resort to the same material reality that he hated. “I cannot make a realistic film in this sense,” he said once, “because . . . because I can’t do it, physically, really, I can’t do it.” And so it is that to evoke the present in all its degradation and horror he opted in Salò for a visionary and dreamlike style—which was no less realistic for all that. The method he adopted is analogous to the one he used in Calderón, a theatrical tragedy he published in 1973; elements of this style are also visible in the novel he was writing at the time, Petrolio, which he never completed.

In Calderón, the real nature of reality is revealed in a nightmare in which the protagonist, Rosaria, finds herself “in a laager, in a glacial gloom,” where “we are no longer people . . . but things that others can dispose of.” That is the laager of Salò. Pasolini, of course, borrowed the image from Sade’s unfinished novel of a monstrous, closed-off space of segregation in which a group of carefully selected boys and girls are forced to submit to every type of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse. But he didn’t transpose the events of The 120 Days of Sodom to the eighteenth century of Sade, or to the present time, but to a specific and horrifying moment, the one mentioned in the first poster for the film: “1944–45 in Northern Italy, during the Nazi-Fascist occupation.”

It is important, however, to remember that Pasolini defined Salò as “a mystery . . . the medieval mystery, which is a holy representation and therefore very enigmatic. It does not need to be understood.” In fact, Pasolini uses Sade’s story and the setting of Salò and its Fascist supporters as a mask, as disguise. Bit by bit, as the film develops, the signs of Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic fade away, until they disappear altogether, like the Nazi troops who are placed at the service of the four Fascist dignitaries—a deliberate incongruity, since in reality the reverse was normally the case—and who disappear suddenly at the very beginning of the film, as if they were fleeting apparitions in a nightmare. The villa where the four “monsters” get together with their brigands, narrators, and victims is devoid of the frills, fetishes, and decorations typical of Fascist iconography; the furniture and fixtures, though, are from the 1940s.

When we compare the source with the film, we find that being “faithful to the story” is a subtle stratagem designed to betray its substance. For example, Sade’s libertines are supermen, while in Pasolini’s hands they are impotent and have to resort to a thousand different tricks to become aroused. Sodomy is their sexual predilection, but passively. One of the most significant differences, however, concerns the crucial role Pasolini gives to the perverse pedagogical function exercised by the four monsters in dealing with their victims.

Indeed, Salò tells a story that remains hidden until the last narrative sequence, one that lurks quietly behind the flagrant horrors and acts of violence. It is the story of choosing a group of young people, at first from among the victims, and then atrociously eliminating those who do not, or cannot, submit to the codes stipulated in the regulations, that is to say, to the “laws that shall rule your life in here,” the ones read out loud by the duke during the first collective ritual in the film (the march in front of the entrance to the villa). These laws (taken from Sade) are paradoxical: normal codes of conduct (filial love, religious devotion, heterosexual Eros) are negated and condemned and replaced by practices that transgress social conventions (incest, sodomy, adultery). Once these norms are codified and imposed as law, they cease being what they were and become instead the norms of a new and sinister conformity that assimilates and wipes out any variation. From that point on, the four monsters refer on numerous occasions to an ominous black notebook, where the names of young boys and girls who have flouted the law, voluntarily or involuntarily, are written. The fate of being on that list reverberates like disturbing background music, alluding to forms of punishment that we find out, at the very end, are even more atrocious than anything we could have imagined.

During the horrible rituals that punctuate the film, Pasolini often pauses over the faces of a few young men, notably Umberto, Rino, Franco, Carlo, and Claudio. The camera records their reactions to the lifestyle and behavior imposed by the powerful four, revealing, little by little, their progressive adaptation, until it seizes, in their faces and gestures, that significant moment when they have become inured to the unrelenting daily atrocities. At the end of the film, some of the boys no longer seem to be the same ones who first entered the villa; their bodies and minds have been subjected to a pedagogical process.

We see, for example, Umberto’s face pass from blank apathy—in the background, as he watches the four monsters carry out their selection—to laughter, when he greets the president at lunch. That evil, hysterical, loud laugh is the laugh of a coconspirator complicit in a villainous pact. Umberto also laughs when he takes out his machine gun and pretends to shoot his former comrades in misfortune, who, unlike him, have been condemned to submit to atrocious forms of torture. Umberto even laughs crudely during the final extermination, at the umpteenth idiotic joke by the president. Shortly before, we see him sitting next to another boy who has also become an accomplice in torture. He is listening to Signora Castelli’s story after the selection has already been made. His posture, his clothes (which are like those of the four monsters), his evident and arrogant satisfaction to be seated next to them, all reveal his hypocrisy, conformism, and wickedness: he has acquiesced to these traits of his jailers and in the end has become like them. Rino and Umberto could have been part of the mob of boys who populate the hellish vision of Petrolio; they have renounced Pasolini’s beloved ancient disobedience and aversion to the customs, language, and conformity of the Italian petty bourgeoisie. Italy’s “new youth” is portrayed in a series of visions of hell, where every aspect of physical degradation corresponds to a degeneration of the self.

The different fate dealt to Carlo, the boy with curly hair and blue eyes, and also to others, stands in counterpoint to this. Pasolini at one point fleetingly contrasts Carlo’s body and attitude with those of the future accomplice Rino, when the president tells Rino to pull down Carlo’s pants to check to see if he has wiped away excrement (which is against the rules). Rino’s arrogant and scornful gesture as he confronts the body of a boy his own age is an indication of his future complicity with the torturers. As the film spirals down the circles of hell, Carlo is the only one who tries to defend himself from the masters, using irony (the same irony that Doris, another victim condemned to death, is accused of). Carlo finds the strength to smile in the torturers’ chamber as he is being tied to the feet of the president, and before one of his eyes is gouged with a knife.

Among the many cruel and brutal rituals we see in the film, there is one that is repeated in obsessive variation right up until the end. It is the domestic scene of the three narrators, who, each in turn, tell stories and episodes from their own experiences to suggest new ideas with which to “entertain,” and above all arouse, the masters. The orgy room, dominated by the presence of the long table ominously placed at its center and thronged with spectators on both sides, is the space for a ritual that alludes to another. The audience there listening is the mass of corrupted and deformed TV viewers, the passive consumers of an indoctrination against which they cannot, or do not want to, rebel. This mode of pedagogy affects behavior (the narrators’ winks and gestures recall those of television anchors) and speech (the shock jargon used by the narrators and the four monsters). Every act of cruelty of the powerful four finds in this spectacle its main source of inspiration. It is where the idea of a contest for the “most beautiful ass” is born (organized, not accidentally, by Signora Maggi herself, one of the narrators). The scene mirrors those televised contests in which a person’s dignity becomes the material for a squalid spectacle.

The torture and brutal carnage of the victims in the next to last sequence are also a mere show. They are there to entertain an indifferent and voracious public whose thirst for atrocities is never sated, like that of television audiences today.

Translated by Alison Dundy.

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