Based on Marquis de Sade’s novel 120 days of Sodom, Pasolini takes the text to 1944, and places it within the confines of Mussolini’s Fascist Republic of Saló in Italy.
Saló is the last film that Pasolini made before being brutally murdered. It is still unclear as to who murdered him and what the motives were behind the killing. Hated by the Left and the Right, a controversial figure, Pasolini had known both fascism and later turned to communism until his expulsion from the Italian Communist Party due solely for his homosexuality.
Pasolini rates as one of the great filmmakers of the 20th century if not of all time. His body of work is diverse, covering Catholicism, fascism, poetry and literature. By far Saló stands out in his body of work, and remains a shocking film. It took me 3 weeks to watch – I had to stop and start as I could not bear to watch. Despite that, it is a monumental work of cinema. And essential viewing for anyone as testament of the capabilities of the human imagination for torture and self-gratification.
A great thinker, poet, novelist and philosopher, Pasolini detested orthodoxy both religious and political. Keeping the essence of humanity, Pasolini invariably unsettled those who were in positions of power; his attacks on the communists and industrialists were vociferous and challenging. It is this consistent questioning that you see throughout his films, in particular, Saló.
In the film Saló, Pasolini shows how a group of fascist anarchist set out a manifesto and decree a time of liberation in sexual practices. He opens the film in a room that is dark, with daylight coming through what appears to be French doors. A group of men sit, silhouetted, shuffling paper, in a very official and cold manner where they agree on the terms and conditions of their plan over the coming days. Pasolini successfully sets the scene exposing a group of wealthy men of varying ages exercising their political and commercial power in the Kingdom of Saló to live out their perverse fantasies, simply due to their power base and because they can do so.
As the film proceeds we see how a group of young men (male victims) and women (female victims) are rounded up by henchmen and forcibly brought to a beautiful Italian château. The young people are forced to play out perverse fantasies and as time passes, they begin to betray one another to escape pain and torture in the hope of being spared. Here I tremble to write how Pasolini visualised the writing of Marquis de Sade, so I will digress before I come back to discuss particular scenes.
During the Second World War, there was a constant rounding up of men and women taking place throughout Italy. During that time Pasolini directly experienced this when he took shelter in a small village called Casarsa in Saló itself. Pasolini recollects that: “it was an epoch of sheer cruelty, searches, executions, deserted villages… and I suffered a great deal”.
Pasolini sets the film in a high art château – using designers that were favoured by fascists – you see a lot of work and styles by modern artists including the Bauhaus – especially in the furniture. We see a group of exquisitely designed tall black chairs towards the end of the film as the anarchist fascists sit looking out onto a courtyard where the young men and women have been taken. Naked, they are tied to stakes on the ground, making a cross with their body – here they are subjected to torture upon torture. As the fascists watch, you can clearly see the sexual excitement that the torture of the young men and women is generating amongst them. Pasolini brings in a middle aged woman, who is playing the piano accompanying the scene. She can no longer look upon the acts of torture and simply jumps out of the window, three stories high. There is no indication of the woman’s emotions other than a silent cry of terror and despair before she decides to end it for herself. Pasolini shows it as a matter of fact, as documentary.
A difficult film to watch, the genius of Pasolini was to force you to question your own morality whilst viewing this film – as the critic Roger Clarke points out, Pasolini managed to create a work “to shock even the most jaded viewer” and in Saló we see the importance of cinema and its power to shock, move and change our world view.