[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
Updating the setting of de Sade’s novel, Pasolini’s Salò proposes that in the final months of fascist rule in northern Italy a quartet of authorities (a noble, an administrator, a banker, and a monsignor) sign a pact, intermarry with one another’s daughters to ensure solidarity, systematically capture the most attractive children of their political enemies, and spirit them away to a country manor house, there to subject them to unspeakable indignities in their unrestrained pursuit of perverse pleasure, from masturbation and sodomy, through coprophagia, to torture and death. Though the power of the film’s images might be easily achieved, simply by evoking the inherent shock of the acts depicted, nevertheless, power there is, in abundance, and Salò does not slip easily (or ever) out of one’s mind. Is the violent reaction against Salò that has occurred in this country a reaction against the acts that it depicts, against the (patently faked) depictions themselves, or against the fact of that depiction, the very idea that someone should make a movie about such things?
It is easy to misplace one’s horror at the acts depicted as horror at the film itself. The situation is not helped by the ambiguity of the film’s moral center. I cannot accept Salò as “the most morally reprehensible film ever made”; neither do I buy it as “the strongest polemic ever delivered against the infliction of all violence and suffering” (Moore Egyptian Theatre program note). Both descriptions or neither description may legitimately characterize the film, since any such judgment may take place only in the mind of the viewer; Pasolini himself betrays no position other than the political stance implicit in his assignation of these loathsome acts to the vestigial exemplars of Mussolini’s dying regime. We never get to know any of the victims as well as we come to know their tormentors, and in most cases we see the victims and their sufferings objectified, from the viewpoint of the libertines. The real problem of the film—and, I suspect, the object of the violent reaction against it—is Pasolini’s own personal distance, enhanced by the otherworldly silence and occasional ironic music accompanying most of the goings-on, by the idyllic isolation of Marzabotto where the children are “beyond the reach of law and order … as if already dead,” and by the camera, which consistently forsakes the victims as surely as God has.
But a man is entitled to make such a film, and people are entitled to see it; so the question really becomes the one that seemed to be on most minds and lips after the running of the film at the Third Seattle International Film Festival in May: Why? What purpose does it serve? Of course such a question carries the underlying assumption that a film must serve a purpose, and even that remains undemonstrated in the chaotic anti-moral world the film creates. Oscar Wilde posited that all art is quite useless (and that was a compliment). Sade’s own proposition was that the outrageous perversions he depicted in his novels, and apparently sought in private life (though he added, “My imagination has always been in excess of my opportunities and my resources; I have conceived a thousand times more than I have accomplished”), were, far from “unnatural acts,” justifiable precisely as the dictates of a despotic Nature. “Nature should be the sole guide of our life,” he wrote; and his circular argument that anything man is capable of must be natural, and therefore desirable, was admittedly sophistic, and virtually impossible to argue down. Does the fact that de Sade saw the possibility of sexual pleasure in coprophagia, torture, and suffering imply that de Sade was a madman, or that most of us have unnaturally suppressed such emotions and drives? Pasolini, though reportedly staying close to the spirit and continuity of Sade’s novel, gives the Marquis’s philosophical conversations short shrift in Salò—a shame, since the philosophical arguments are far more crucial to the existential and historical significance of Sade than the pornography. In “On Reading Sade,” Georges Bataille writes, “They who find a criminal in Sade respond more accurately to his intentions than do his admirers; Sade deliberately seeks to provoke a militant protest.” If this is so, then Pasolini’s Salò may have come closer to fulfilling the Marquis’s purpose than any words Sade himself ever put to paper.
© 1978 Robert C. Cumbow
or: The 120 Days of Sodom
Direction: Pier Paolo Pasolini. Screenplay: Pasolini, after the Marquis de Sade‘s Les 120 Journees de Sodome. Cinematography: Tonino delli Colli. Editing: Nino Baragli. Music: Ennio Morricone. Production: Alberto Grimaldi.