1975 was a red letter year for cult cineastes with the film adaptation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show arriving in theaters along with Steven Spielberg’s summertime nightmare Jaws and Curt McDowell’s underground art/porn Thundercrack. But 1975 also represented both the birth and death of a different kind of cult animal. On November 2nd, controversial Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini was found dead—having been murdered—on a beach allegedly by a male prostitute–just months after completing his magnum opus Salo. 20 days after his death, Salo would world premiere at the Paris Film Festival and furor that followed would rock the international film community even more than the scandalous death of its creator.
Salo is the story of a group of Italy’s fascist elite in the waning days of World War II who kidnap 18 teenage boys and girls and seclude themselves in a palatial mansion to act out a series of increasingly violent sexual scenarios upon their captives and each other. The film which takes its structure from Dante’s Inferno is dammed by its critics as one of the most vicious collections of horrifying images ever committed to celluloid. And even today, 36 years after the film was shot, it remains an impressively disconcerting masterpiece of degradation and cruelty.
An adaptation of the novel The 120 Days of Sodom by Libertine author the Marquis de Sade, Salo represents a marked departure from the Trilogy of Life films that had thrust Pasolini broadly into the international spotlight. Salo was Pasolini’s 12th feature film in just 14 years but it was hardly the first to bring notice to his portrayal of frank and explicit sexuality. Past productions like The Decameron paved the way for the maestro to sink his teeth into the hell that is de Sade’s novel.
Salo transports de Sade’s 18th century novel from France to Italy, and takes its nom de plume from the Northern Italian town where Benito Mussolini presided over the last days of his failed Socialist Republic–declaring with no uncertain terms Pasolini’s intent to make a film that addressed the egregious corruption of Italian politics and the atrocities committed under Mussolini’s reign while the country sat by idly and did little to nothing to stop it.
In fact voyeurism—watching, looking on, but not engaging—is the overriding artistic theme of Salo, once you get past all the buggery and coprophagia.
All cinema is inherently voyeuristic with the audience watching whatever the filmmakers choose to show. Michael Powell wasn’t the first to make the audience part of the film with his 1960 proto-slasher film Peeping Tom, but Powell was purposeful in forcing the audience to feely like they were the villain. Powell imposed his directorial will on your psyche by placing you in the action; the same way later found footage films like The Blair Witch Project might.
For Pasolini the goal wasn’t to make you the direct antagonist as Powell did. No, Pasolini wants to make you an observer, a voyeur, a witness to the crime—Pasolini wants to make you, the audience, surrogates for the entire country of Italy, perhaps even for the whole of Western Civilization. To exact this plan, Pasolini’s camera maintains distance. It stands back. It frames the film in master shots. And later when it finally succumbs to close-ups of the horror, that horror is seen through the specter of binoculars—adding the halo of vignetting to the frame to emphasize the nature of “watching” from a distance. It adds the distance not to detach the audience from the film–rather the exact opposite–to bring you closer, but to emphasize that you can do nothing about what you are seeing, or even that by watching, you choose to do nothing about what you are seeing.
The fact that Pasolini never saw his most profound and most controversial film completed—and therefore unable to be defended – lead to production bans and wild theories about purpose and content specifically Pasolini’s lingering shots of naked teenage boys (with many sources and detractors noting that Pasolini was homosexual and dredging up lurid theories about his death ). The film spent the better part of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s barred from cinemas in Europe and North America. But, in 1998 Salo finally began to truly reach its audience thanks to the efforts of distributors like Janus Films/Criterion and filmmakers who championed the work and gave context to Pasolini’s masterpieces.
I first saw the film on the initial Criterion “White Ring” release which I had booked months in advance of its short lived street date (due to copyright issues, the film was pulled from North American distribution just weeks after its initial release). I never sold my original DVD even when prices spiked at near $1,000 a copy. It seemed far too important a film. I could barely bring myself to watch it again, preferring to view it in the company of those who had never experienced it before, but realizing with each subsequent viewing the eloquence with which Pasolini framed the film, and the subversive nature of the story–key moments that transcend the shock and horror that on the surface seem to be the ‘cult’ selling points. Pasolini didn’t make the film controversial for the sake of controversy – he made an impassioned response to youth spent under the Fascist rule. A lashing out at not only the atrocities committed then, but to the seemingly apathetic nature of those who lived through it as if nothing had ever happened.
The Blu-ray release of Salo ports over the entirety of Criterion’s 2008 2-disc special edition re-release including a trilogy of documentaries: Salo: Yesterday and Today (33:00), Fade to Black (23:19) and The End of Salo (40:00).
Each of the docs provides something important to the history of the film, the latter two looking at the legacy of the production, its place in cinematic history and the circumstances of its release and its subsequent ban. Through interviews with Filmmakers Bernardo Bertolucci (The Dreamers), Catherine Breillat (Anatomy of Hell) and John Maubry (The Edge of Love) we learn a little bit more about Pasolini the man, and his vision. But the best documentary inclusion strips away artifice and scholarly rhetoric and gets its version of events directly from the man himself.
Shot on location during the making of Salo, Yesterday and Today gives us rare insight into Pasolini at work using candid interviews with the filmmaker shot on set, which illuminate the true motivations behind making one of the most universally damned films of the 20th century.
The disc also contains a 12-minute interview with Production Designer Dante Ferretti and a 28-minute extended interview with documentary filmmaker and film scholar Jean-Pierre Gorin who goes into great detail about his relationship with Pasolini.
Truly a masterwork of controversy, Salo holds something of a distinction for me personally as a filmmaker, writer and critic who at the time I first saw it in 1998 was full of dozens of exploitation works, extreme Japanese horror films, underground movies from the 70’s and “No Wave” cinema from the 80’s and 90’s that featured all manners of explicit violence and sexual content. Salo holds the notorious honor of being the first film that made me physically ill as I viewed it. Certainly, it was not the last as I delved deeper into fringe cinema, some of those later films have moved me (like Julian Donkey-Boy and Gummo) and some have just plain infuriated me (A Serbian Film) but none of them holds a candle to Salo in terms of artistic achievement for the simple fact that once the initial shock wears off, what Pasolini has crafted is a stunning vision of a world spiraling out of control and the absolute reality that no one is doing anything to stop it. It’s as unsettling today as it was 36-years ago in part because even though it’s a work of fiction, it feels absolutely real in every sense. It was real in the moment Pasolini made it. Real in its representation of Europe’s policy of Appeasement. Real in his past. Real in his present and even though he didn’t live to see it, it’s very real in the idea that today, right now, we as a culture, have become so inundated with voyeuristic tendencies that it’s not unfathomable that it could all happen again while we count the sheep (we’ve become) bounding aimlessly over hedgerows of desensitivity, headed straight toward the slaughterhouse with a smile on our face and a dazed look in our glassy eyes.