The “Trilogy of Life,” for all of its flaws, brought Pier Paolo Pasolini a great deal of acclaim and a relatively high amount of commercial success late in his career. But the eternally provocative writer-director gradually grew disenchanted with the trilogy’s optimistic and hopeful view of the world as a playground of art and sex. Around the time of the release of Arabian Nights (1974) Pasolini denounced the worldview expressed in his own trilogy in an Italian newspaper. In an essay entitled Abjuration from “The Trilogy of Life,” Pasolini wrote:
Even the “reality” of innocent bodies has been violated, manipulated, submitted to the consumerist power: or rather, this violence on bodies has become the most macroscopic datum of the new human epoch…Private sexual life (such as my own) has undergone both the trauma of false tolerance and of corporal degradation; and in sexual fantasies what was once pain and joy has become suicidal disappointment, formless sloth…
Therefore, I am adapting myself to the degradation, and I am accepting the unacceptable. I am maneuvering to reorganize my life. I am forgetting how things were before. The beloved faces of yesterday are beginning to fade. I am – slowly and without alternatives – confronted with the present.
This matter-of-factly hopeless and despairing viewpoint animates every frame of Pasolini’s final film, Salo (1975), a simultaneous adaptation of Dante’s Inferno and the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, and set in the last days of Mussolini’s Italy. You might expect a film with this pedigree to hold something back, to avoid graphically depicting the atrocities described in Dante and de Sade’s literary works. But Salo holds precisely nothing back – the film is essentially an uninterrupted succession of scenes in which a group of powerful fascists torture, rape, humiliate, mutilate, and/or kill a group of very young looking men and women. These acts occur almost uniformly in the direct center of the frame of Pasolini’s shot compositions, which, in a surprising but effective rebuke of his standard rough verite style are generally cold and static, essentially forcing the viewer to take the perspective of the fascists. Pasolini intended for the film to be “indigestible,” and indeed it is extremely difficult to stomach; chapter headings such as “Circle of Blood” and “Circle of Shit” aren’t metaphors. Knowing that the actors are actually eating brownies when their characters are supposed to be eating huge amounts of feces (in one of the film’s most notorious scenes) doesn’t make the scene any easier to take. The nonstop degradation is occasionally punctuated by strikingly incongruous and weirdly sinister moments of physical comedy that have the exact opposite effect of “comic relief” and only make the film more disturbing. There are also some creepy and haunting ambiguous moments, such as a scene where one of the fascists’ wives inexplicably jumps out of a fourth story window.
No one has ever made or will ever make a movie as horrifying and troubling as Salo. There are a lot of films that have provocative subject matter or grisly, realistic looking violence, but it’s impossible to imagine one that stares directly into the heart of darkness to the extent that Pasolini’s final film does. Many films are disturbing; Salo is emotionally scarring. I can’t imagine anyone sitting through the entirety of Salo without at least once covering their eyes or getting literally sick to their stomach, and personally I can’t imagine watching the film more than once in a lifetime. I virtually always rewatch a film that I’ve already seen if I’m going to write about it for this blog, but I had to make an exception in this case. Though I’m basing what I write here on four-year old memories, Salo has left a mark on me that will make it hard to forget. It’s the only film that I’ve seen that I think of as a genuinely traumatic experience.
Ironically, the very things that make Salo unwatchable are also what make it brilliant, and possibly the greatest achievement of Pasolini’s career. The director’s strategy of distancing the viewer from the nameless victims and putting us in the cold, voyeuristic perspective of the fascist torturers initially seems offensive, but Pasolini’s moral goal (and lunatic ambition) with this film seems to be to beat the latent fascism out of each viewer. Salo takes the desire (that we all have on some level) to have power over another human being and pushes it to its logical extreme, using Brechtian distancing effects to present our lopsided societal structure in its most base and disgusting light. The film refuses to allow us to redeem ourselves, even through Pasolini’s most cherished social causes. A victim who gives the Communist salute is gunned down mercilessly; another one praying to God is forced to literally eat shit. Instead of coming to any real resolution, Salo ends mysteriously with two male victims waltzing together, leaving the prior violence hanging in the air. It’s a relentlessly disturbing experience, and a profoundly uncompromising end to one of the cinema's most philosophically complex filmographies.
FINAL GRADES FOR PIER PAOLO PASOLINI
Accattone (1961) = B
Mamma Roma (1962) = B+
La ricotta (short) (1963) = B+
The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) = A-
Hawks and Sparrows (1965) = B-
Oedipus Rex (1967) = B+
Teorema (1968) = B
Porcile (1969) = D+
Medea (1969) = C+
The Decameron (1971) = C+
The Canterbury Tales (1972) = C
Arabian Nights (1974) = B+
Salo (1975) = A-