Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom

Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Writers: Pier Paolo Pasolini and Sergio Citti
Italy, 1975

Pasolini's infamous reworking of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom is set in the town of Salo in fascist Italy, where four wealthy, powerful men take their pick of local boys and girls and proceed to sexually abuse and humiliate them for the duration of the film. This includes some pretty disgusting scat scenes in the evocatively named "Circle of Shit" section of the film, the source of much of its infamy, and pretty much the only thing anyone talks about when it is mentioned.

This is a shame, because despite a lack of subtlety that verges on heavy-handedness at times, Salo is a powerful political work. The four wealthy men talk of the "true anarchy" of fascism, a political system that in its disregard for life and the rule of law has allowed them to pursue the limits of sexual cruelty. It is presented as a fundamentally immoral, chaotic ideology, a point that may be hammered home a little too much for some.

But while explaining the forces that allow fascism to attain power may need delicacy and subtlety, I'm not sure that examining the philosophy behind it does. It is quite plainly wrong, and showing its cruelties and twisted logic over and over is perhaps the best way of exploring this. Pasolini endeavors to rip fascism to threads rather than look at the psychology of its attraction, and the grueling repetition of themes building to the shocking final act is an approach of applaudable clarity and simplicity.

Salo's unpleasant, often stomach-churning scenes also serve to de-sexualise pornography. Similarities with the erotic fantasy popular at the time are cosmetic and ironic, from the cast of wealthy sexual adventurers to the opulent setting, while a dose of realism is injected - that the truth of sexual slavery and prostitution is abuse and rape, the victims exploited and vulnerable, the perpetrators inadequate and dangerous. It questions the softcore fantasy of the Emmanuel films and the intellectual erotica of The Story Of O alike, showing us that there's nothing sexy about an orgy organised by middle-aged men and populated by young prostitutes.

While not one of the Video Nasty list, Salo has an interesting history with the censors, victim, in the end, to the obscenity laws, under which it was cut mercilessly. The then head of the BBFC, James Ferman, objected to proposed cuts, which he though would "'destroy the film's purpose by making the horrors less revolting, and therefore more acceptable'". He described Salo as "one of the most disturbing films ever to be seen by the Board, yet its purpose is deeply serious... it is quite certainly shocking, disgusting and revolting - even in the legal sense - but it is meant to be. It wants us to be appalled at the atrocities of which human nature is capable when absolute power is wielded corruptly". The BBFC weren't always the bad guys.