Standing as probably the single most controversial film of all time Salo, Pier Paulo Passolini’s final film has shocked film goers since it’s release in 1975. The story is simple, A group of four libertines organise the arrest of a select choice of young men and women who they force to participate in a series of increasingly degrading and debauched acts of a sexual nature. The event is hosted by story tellers whose tales of sexual degradation are designed to inflame the passions of the libertines who in turn spontaneously indulge their every whim with the captives in accordance with their ground rules. As new lows are explored and no experience is barred the events descend into the most darkly decadent and brutally inhuman acts of debasement.
Salo is a film of metaphores, to take it literally is to entirely miss the point and this is why Passolini’s swan song has historically had such a rough ride. The censorship of this film continues to be a fascinating and wholly illustrative insight into the world of film censorship and if nothing else has highlighted the thought process and shifting international attitudes towards censorship. The deeply challenging nature of Salo continues, to this day, to face all sorts of legal challenges even being released and re-banned on a seemingly regular cycle in Australia. Salo’s censorship history in Australia is remarkable to say the least and a testament to the power this film still has.
Salo has a tight structure to it, a mechanical order that strips the film of the chaos one would expect of such terrible events. The premeditated nature of what’s going on in turn sets up the commentary of power and subjugation in such a way as to create a clear separation of the nature of the victims and that of their captors. These protagonists are divisively alienated from each other, alienation being a heavily employed technique here, and it done to such a degree that the characters and situations become something other than a straight forward tale.
The thing to bear in mind with Salo is that is it is deeply allegorical and there is an effort to avoid a descent into melodrama where we become more involved with the individuals rather than the story. Passoloini is from the beginning removing us from the events to a great degree by creating a situation in which we cannot identify directly with any of the characters on screen. Instead there is a process of removing, both literally and narratively, the human element to a great extent. What humanity remains appears in mere moments of the film and act as a way of reinforcing the context of the film, these brief flashes of humanity however are stamped down on quickly on every occasion but they’re just enough to serve to draw the viewer back to the overall meaning of the film without wallowing indulgently in the understandable emotions that such events naturally create. This is one of the most difficult aspects of Salo, it’s cold, it’s often detached, it feels at odds with the reactions any normal person would have. It has the ambivalent approach of both being very angry and oddly standoffish, much like the libertines who both take great pleasure inflicting cruelty while following, for the most part, a formal structure to their proceeding. The film keeps the viewer at arms length by not only making the characters, for the most part, a part of the scenery rather than individuals, but also by virtue of the structure of the films narrative itself and the way the camera is used.
There are for the most part two schools of thought when it comes to what this film is actually about. I shall for the time being ignore those who believe it’s pornography, but I will address this issue at a later point. At one end we have those who believe that the film is about Fascism and in particular directly about the hideous behaviour of the fascists in Italy. The locale and protagonist are the primary indicators of this. The second approach is that Salo is an allegory of capitalism. There are shades of opinion between these positions of course and my own position lies more towards the later. It’s my contention that Salo for the most part uses fascism as a parallel to capitalism rather than being about fascism itself and capitalism is the specific target of this film using the locale, protagonists and events to mirror the consumerist nature of capitalism. Lets look more closely at the film with this in mind and I’ll explain.
The opening chapter of this film Anti Inferno sees the libertines making a contract, a formal business agreement that initiates the victims being gathered. Upon the final signature one is heard saying that “all things are good when taken to excess” a phrase that will resonate throughout the films run. A selection of young adults is hand picked and kidnapped, including the daughters of the libertines who it is decided will be married off amongst them. The magistrate then recites a poem.
“In puberty’s ambush, maidens bloom, all unaware of impending doom.
They listen to the radio, drink tea, unaware they will lose their liberty.
Bourgeois recoil not from slaughter, though victim be son and daughter”
In just these few lines the attitudes, intents and contempt for their victims are laid out, the innocent will die, they are ignorant and unappreciative of their liberties where the ruling class know all, are privy to and are comfortable with the extremities of human behaviour valuing only their own personal whims, even at the expense of their own children. Their choices for the purposes they have in mind are not indiscriminate, there is purpose in their choices of representations of innocence and perfection, it afford the most profitable gain in terms of corruption and subjugation.
The rules that we see set up are specifically designed to facilitate ONLY the libertines needs, though as we’ll see these are strictly for their benefit and when convenient for them are loosely adhered to. These rules strip the victims of all expression on pain of death and indeed the treatment of them so far has been for them to be picked up on order specifically for their physical properties, to be killed for resisting and to be paraded like prized beasts at a farmers market while the Libertines assess their merits.
There’re are a few telling moments in this portion of the film that indicate a commentary on consumerism. Firstly the deliberate choices of who they take. They are very precise about who they want, these are not just victims, they are chosen for their attributes after much consideration in much the same way that we would choose one product over another, then there’s the libertines examinations of the captives which further reduces them to the status of cattle.
The third example is an odd one which only seems to make sense when you look at it from the point of view of what the film is trying to do. There are several moments where the captives smile at the repulsive comments of the Libertines, why on earth would anyone smile at the prospect of being involuntarily abused by these men? Well Salo, as a commentary on capitalism, doesn’t take on the point of view of any of the characters more accurately it has an overview of capitalism from a third person perspective. The characters seem representative of the human aspects of consumerism, from the repulsive display of pure greed and objectification that’s represented by the libertines through to the largely passive. This passivity, though ostensibly a product of repression, manifests itself in several forms, and occasionally through the seemingly participatory actions of the captives. Looking at the characters in terms of being them representing various aspects of the consumerist society we can see a damning indictment from Passolini of capitalism in human form. The victims smiling at the brutal oppressors lewd threats suggests to me that are already a part of that system, with an often passive almost brainwashed ideological acceptance. For them it’s accepted that this is how it is and they have nothing to offer in resistance, it’s like Passolini is saying “They’re handing you shit and you’re only too willing to take it” an attitude that becomes only too literal later on.
A structure to this microcosm of society is also set up with the victims as ordinary citizens, some of who are named so we can have some identification with them and the libertines who we only know by their lofty roles in society, the magistrate, the bishop, the duke and the president. The Libertines, all members of the upper echelons of society, are the ones who will visit indecent and depraved horrors upon the down trodden and broken masses. If this sounds like a particularly communist viewpoint it’s because this was Passolini’s political view. Salo it seems is viscous parody of capitalism from the eyes of a communist.
Interestingly in the final scene of this chapter of Salo there is a brief shot of the servants of the manor like building. The Duke reacts angrily to their presence and they are chased away. The servants are all black, possibly originating from third world countries, they are therefore not allowed to participate in the activities of capitalism, indeed their only function is to serve the libertines. A reflection of first and third world politics perhaps.
Girone Delle Manie (Circle of Manias) Signora Vaccari
The first of the circles, the circle of manias sees the formal proceedings begin. The hideous fantasy driven world of the libertines displays a ceremonial structure where the formalities are enforced on all but the libertines. The stories are delivered to the accompaniment of a piano played by one of the story tellers and the progression of these stories follow the degraded and exploited lives of the
experienced prostitutes as they experience, participate in events of degradation and power.
As the chapter runs, the acts she recounts shift in terms of being tantamount to rape to begin with to being a career with the increasing financial rewards that would be expected of someone climbing the professional ladder. There exists from here particularly a separation of sex from emotion, it becomes an act of impulse and function, no more special than sating ones hunger with a bar of chocolate, and indeed the libertines do not engage with the sexual experience in the way most would. The stories drive their desires and particular attention to detail is demanded in order for the stories to function to their fullest. It seems to a high degree that the libertines are not so much interested in the act itself, that’s simply the fulfilment of the immediate scenario, the bigger picture of the ceremony and the anarchic freedom they have at the expense of their subordinates is what gives them satisfaction, with out that control they are effectively emasculated, impotent as can be seen in this scene [00:27:10 “he pulled away from me”].
These aspects are also reflected in the stories which are built around these themes of power and to some extent a commercialisation of the human body, she is a desired product and a fully assimilated part of the system. The characters in the stories are exclusively figures of power, this provides a reflection of the victims situation in the films present not only showing the result in the form of the storytellers but also paralleling the course of the young participants at least in terms of activities.
Acting not only to titillate the libertines the tales also seem to act as a kind of grooming. Signora Vaccari’s story is a literal tale of commodification as she begins young, earning a little money for her favours to begin with and her apparently successful career as encounter after recounted encounter results in increasing financial reward for ever more degrading acts. In comparison, though the captives are far less complicit in the commodification of their bodies though some show signs of indoctrination to the ways that the libertines desire. One thing that is never entirely clear is the line where those particular victims are complicit in the activities through but anyone who resists tends to rebel in the most token fashion, mostly because any, and I do mean any resistance or refusal to fulfil the requirements of those the is met with the most brutal response. Also as we see later in the film the option, if you can call it that, to collaborate is also put forward .
It’s worth taking note of the framing of the shots which often resembles renaissance painting with its formal structure and symmetry. Passolini’s rigid shots reflect the formality of the events and like the libertines he occasionally breaks that structure when an emotional response is required. When there are flashes of emotional content its soon overwhelmed by the return of the detached,long distance shots that physically separate us from the more prurient visual details.
The class system is one of the parting shots of this section. [50:35] In this scene we see the magistrate chastising the lack of ‘willing’ participation by one of the captives…
it’s the words spoken by the duke that highlights what this film is about…[continue clip]
Your excellency are you convinced? It is when I see others degraded that I rejoice knowing it is better to be me than the scum of “the people”. Whenever men are equal, without that difference, happiness cannot exist
so you wouldn’t aid the humble the unhappy?
In all the world no voluptuousness flatters the senses more than social privilege
This repulsive display of the mentality of absolute privilege both in terms of social status and by virtue of possessions seems to me a clear indicator of the target of this film, the capitalism which after all by its nature sets up a hierarchy of winners and losers, leaders and followers. The man who owns the most stuff wins, and these men even own their fellow human beings. And there’s an echo of historical aristocratic contempt as he lets his victim eat cake, cake spiked with sharp nails…
The closing scene of this chapter sees two ways in which the victims respond to this, the first circle…on the one hand complete and willing capitulation and on the other, utter despair. And this was just the warm up as we descend into the next circle….
Girone Delle Merda (Circle of Shit) Signora Maggi
Signora Maggi prepares herself in much the same way as Signora Vaccari does in the first circle, only the progression seems signified in part by the change in colour with Maggi being dressed as if for a funeral as opposed to Vaccari’s white attire.
The most controversial section of the film begins here with the circle of shit. As distasteful as the previous events may have been they pale in comparison to the scatological depth that this second circle descends to. The libertines listen to the stories of Signora Maggi where even the most basic functions of the body have become a commodity, and a prized one at that. Her tale leads to the revelation that she killed her mother in order to pursue her perverse career which prompts one of the victims to breakdown because of the memory of her own murdered mother. This pain inspired excitement leads the duke to wish to recreate the story of Signora Maggi as soon everyone is forced to eat the produce of the body.
The most repulsive element of this chapter was explained by Passolini him self as being an analogous to the consumption of processed food. Certainly in terms of the comodification of the body this can make sense if the metaphore is extended to the body being part of the production system.
The storytellers recollections are in this chapter becoming something that increasingly demands the libertines participation and the captives are the means of realising it. They are literally employed to produce the goods and are also forced to participate in the consumption of that product, an act that seems as much as normalising the act for the libertines as it is an act of debasement.
This normalising of the perverse has these leaders not only indulging their own whims at the expense of those that they dictate to but also has them demanding the willingness of their subjects. Anyone who refuses to appear to enjoy this unspeakable feast is not playing the game but what is remarkable is that the libertines also join in. Their taste for the distasteful indicates their absolute commitment to their ideal of no boundaries of taste or conscience, just desire and lust in its most base form. The Libertines truly live the literal consumerist lifestyle where everything is there for the taking and if the demand is there then the supply shall exist regardless of the moral ramifications.
Further to this the idea that demand is a concept that is not given due consideration. The example that is given in Salo is obviously a very extreme example, it’s not like the libertines actually require the faecal matter, but this is the point. With capitalism it’s required that if there is no demand for your product then you must create that need. For instance we don’t need the latest fashions but capitalist society puts pressure on us to think we do, we don’t need the latest gadgets, but without them you’re often left behind or excluded. The libertines covert the backside almost exclusively. There may be a couple of reasons for this, firstly it has function for them that transcends the gender of the person and secondly, it is one of the few parts of the body that produces something. The former is a rather debatable point in that it’s made perfectly clear that at least two of the libertines have a preference for men. The president makes this clear on several occasions most importantly during the competition they set up to choose the best arse in which they deliberately disguise the sex of those made to participate so as to not judge based on gender. The Bishop also makes his sexual preference known when he states [ “there are a 1000 occasions where one does not desire a womens anus [00:28:10] ]. Regardless of this they all appreciate the backside of either sex and this is made clear by the homosexual President [56:26 these buttocks merit our attention].
So what is going on here? Well the libertines seem to have particular reverence for the products of the body so it makes sense that their attentions are so specifically dominated by the most relevant area in that regard. Their strongest reactions are reserved for those times when the body produces something and interestingly the tears of one girl command their attention with a high degree of curiosity and excitement. It really is as if they see the human body as nothing more than a commodity from which they can take what they want and a factory that produces materials for their pleasure and they intend to mine this resource for all its worth, after all even the foulest deed finds value in their eyes for as the duke points out …..ALL THINGS ARE GOOD WHEN TAKEN TO EXCESS
The final moments of this chapter ends with signora Maggi’s story that even defiles the notion of death with her clients tastes. It’s a scene that sets up a direct link between sex and death, a link that will be pushed to it’s limits in the circle of blood…
Girone Delle Sangue (Circle of Blood) Signora Castelli
The final circle of hell in this ordeal finds a bastardisation of marriage. The libertines pervert the proceedings to resemble something that appears almost funeral like in appearance despite it being a wedding. With the pagan looking Bishop officiating they take their favourites and although the bishop almost seems to have a suggestion of a genuine relationship with his partner there is still the master/slave relationship going on. There is also a juxtaposition of this with this relationship with that that the guard Ezio is having with the black servant girl. He’s discovered as a result of a chain of betrayals by various other captives who exchange information like a commodity, collaboration is achieved through bargaining. Ezio has a rather revealing response to his discovery and imminent death when he stands naked and proud hold his clenched fist in the air in a gesture recognisable as a communist salute. These two characters, Ezio and the servant girl, given the hint at what she stands for in the Anti Inferno coupled with Ezio’s gesture seems to point at Passolini presenting the fairness of communism in comparison to the utterly amoral nature of capitalism. The libertines react rather surprisingly strongly to the gesture, almost in awe before they re raise their guns and shoot the rebel down in cold blood. It’s a powerful moment that proudly states Passolini’s political orientation.
Salo is many things to many people, to some extent what you bring to it governs what you take away. This analysis is simply part of my take on what is a deeply difficult film to watch and even more difficult to appreciate. The reason I steer to the idea of this as a criticism of capitalism as opposed to fascism, indeed that it uses Fascism as a parallel to capitalism in a accusatory manner, is because there are so many indicators of that specifically. As a direct criticism against fascism it would seem rather blunt and unsophisticated, indeed it doesn’t really make too much sense given the more odd aspects of the film. Having the fascist libertines as the ultimate consumers, anarchistic in the exercising of their power, taking unilaterally, corrupting the innocent and allowing them selves to be wept away by every whim frames the idea of the capitalist critique rather nicely. They simply use the victims as they wish then dispose of them when they’re done. The circular theme not only mirrors DeSades work with it’s Dante’s inferno descending level structure but also suggests that the events on screen are something that has not only happened before but will happen again.
The libertines were indoctrinated into these ways by their parents and came to be every bit as twisted and corrupt as those who made them. In the same way that they were made,they too corrupt the young or destroy them in the process but not before they extract their desired pleasures.
Salo and Pornography
Salo, despite its overt sexual content, really cannot be likened to porn in any meaningful sense. For one thing its rather standoffish in almost all aspects of the act in all respects than the nudity. In pornography the general picture involves as much close up of the action as possible, usually of genitalia, penetration and other explicit detail of sexual acts. Its function is specifically that of arousal which may or may not involve a scenario delivered by a more often than not rudimentary narrative. Salo for all it can be accused of, is not visually explicit beyond its nudity which doesn’t bear the genital fixation of pornography, that imagery is reserved entirely for the dialogue which delivers all the detail, at worst it could be described as a perverse erotica. Quite in contrast to pornography Salo takes a step back in visual terms. Many of the shots are actually more reminiscent of the renaissance paintings in their scale and structure, which tends towards a more symmetrical and panoramic feel that encompasses a bigger picture rather than the functionally intimate detail that typifies porn. The subject matter in its own right would have a very limited appeal and quite frankly there is so little possible enjoyment available in the situations that it would only be pornography to a nihilistic, manic depressive, faecophiliac, gay masochist, and even then it’d barely deliver the goods because it doesn’t fixate on the sex act in any detail let alone get close enough to really see anything that could be described as explicit.
Salo…An Opinion of a Controversial Nightmare…
Salo, as I mentioned in the introduction has and continues to be an incredibly controversial film. It contains sequences and ideas that are a mix of perversity, bitterness, extremely dark parody and unfettered anger, to say it’s a difficult film to sit through would be to understate it.
Bringing DeSade to the screen is a difficult enough proposition but bringing it into the modern world is something that rather makes it more potent for the audience as the world portrayed is more relevant, less fictional in context to the world they recognise. The extreme nature of DeSade’s work is well known, all kinds of sexual deviance is explored and it’s morality is difficult to appreciate through the almost impenetrable wall of sexual amorality and violence.
My own experience of this film somewhat of a swinging pendulum of respect and dislike, and although the latter is actually not as big a deal as one may imagine I feel I should explain. The reasons for my respect should be obvious from the main body of this analysis but my dislike of this movie is something of a personal nature. Salo, for me at least, is an incredibly depressing affair, from the moment the victims are captured there is nothing to smile about. Even the Presidents one liners, which may be funny in another context, come across here as cynicism of the worst kind. The background to which he delivers these corny jokes is so bleak and nasty that the mere fact that he feels capable of humour just shows the utter disregard for the gravity of his actions. This character stands as possibly the most repugnant in my opinion though none of them have any redeeming factors. The Presidents utter perversity, and joy in that perversity, is as staggering as it is repellent but this character captures the feel of the entire movie. Where the movie doesn’t have the sense of enjoyment of the events it does seem to share the fascination for the events that the libertines do and frankly it’s a deeply unsettling fascination. The problem I have with Salo is based around this and it’s something it shares with A Serbian Film. Passolini is so focused on delivering a balls out attack on the subject of this film (whether you believe it to be fascism, capitalism, both or something else) that he employs the most viscous of weapons, in my opinion at the expense of alienating the viewer. It’s the cinematic equivalent of launching into a foul mouthed and lewd verbal attack in an argument which can result only in obfuscating the actual point of the argument itself. When you confront someone with such extreme allegory it can more often than not mean that the finer points of what you’re trying to say gets lost in the cacophony of offensive and repugnant images which carry more volume and immediate impact than the underlying subtleties. In short, you can lose your audience when they think you’re just being obnoxious.
Salo also stands as an excellent example of those films that are not about the entertainment. In much the same way as Bertholt Brecht directed much effort into prioritising the message in theatre Passolini prioritises the criticism above the audiences comfort or enjoyment in his movie. As a result Salo is singularly unenjoyable in the normal sense, it has something to say and who gives a fuck whether or not you like the way you’re told it. This isn’t a comfortable or pleasant experience and even if you aren’t offended to the point of turning off, one thing’s for sure, you’re not going to walk away from this with a big smile on your face unless you have some personal issues. It’s just so deeply depressing. Because of this it’s not an easy watch, it takes time, effort and intestinal fortitude to get through the excesses that this movie puts in front of you and even after all that it’s not as if the message is uplifting or hopeful.
This said, if you can stomach the horrific goings on in Salo there is a lot that it offers. It’s intent does come across as in many ways to different people, to some its a catalogue of perversion, to others, there’s reason to the madness. For me I see a fascinating yet repulsive film that has a sophisticated and complex message that’s unfortunately buried neck deep in its own rage to the point that it almost entirely shoots itself in the foot. Either way Salo has managed to survive some of the worst censorious bullying the world has to offer, and in particular the Australian censors treatment of this film stands distinctly clearly on the public record as one of the most fascinating roller-coaster rides of ignorance, hysteria and political manoeuvring that often became as ridiculous as it was unnecessary.