A Surreal Mystery
“Give a thought to your circumstances, think what you are, what we are, and may these reflections cause you to quake—you are beyond the borders of France in the depths of an uninhabitable forest, high amongst naked mountains; the paths that brought you here were destroyed behind you as you advanced along them. You are enclosed in an impregnable citadel; no one on earth knows you are here, you are beyond the reach of your friends, of your kin: insofar as the world is concerned, you are already dead, and if yet you breathe, ‘tis by our pleasure, and for it only.” –from the introduction to The 120 Days of Sodom
Northern Italy during the Nazi-Fascist occupation.”
—title card for Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
PLEASE NOTE: This essay makes reference to specific plot points and events throughout the film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
The first thing that strikes me upon watching Salò all these years later is just how unreasonably beautiful it is to look at. Mutilations, copulations, and defecations aside, this is one of the most gorgeous movies I have ever seen: those incredible set pieces by Dante Ferretti and Osvaldo Desideri, the typically flawless costuming choices of Danilo Donati—as well as the above-mentioned score by Morricone and Tonino Delli Colli’s unforgettable cinematography—every element of the production complements and supplements the other perfectly, not unlike the rigorously mathematical mechanisms devised by Sade in the structure of the source text. It is also remarkable just how effortless it all looks and feels. Unlike the deliberately provocative films of John Waters (which have their own charms, no doubt, but often feel forced and conceived for the sole purpose of shocking their audience), Salò is a work of art so tightly coiled that one would be hard-pressed to think of it being constructed or edited in any other way.
Likewise, I find it difficult to imagine a director better suited than Pasolini to filming the Marquis de Sade, whose writings are most distinctly characterized by the frozen nature of their imagery. Characters in Sade’s novels are not subject to the typical human process of thought and response; they are stationary portraits in a still life of perversions, written paintings created by Sade in an attempt to adorn the emptiness of his incarceration (the very event responsible for The 120 Days of Sodom, his first extensive literary effort). Pasolini was also a painter working in a separate medium (he had studied aesthetics of figurative art at the University of Bologna) and his films are replete with visual references to classic paintings; in his Decameron, he even assumes the role of Giotto, essentially painting the movie as a huge triptych mural (the number three held a special significance for Pasolini, no doubt due in part to its divine implications).
My next impression has to do with distance. In the opening scenes, during which young male and female victims are rounded up throughout the countryside by agents of the four Sadean protagonists, the action is most frequently captured by long shots—occasionally peppered by Pasolini’s trademark close-ups of the young boys’ faces. If one were to closely inspect his preceding films (the Trilogy of Life in particular, since it sits closest to Salò), one would notice that he employed long shots more frequently than initial recollection might lead one to believe; what is different in Salò pertains to the severity and duration of these long shots, which are far more drawn-out and (at the risk of introducing a descriptive all-too-frequently attached to the film) funereal than anything we have seen before. The psychological distance created by this effect could be interpreted in a multitude of ways, with varying degrees of speculation. Personally, the distance calls to mind both the detached cruelty of Sade’s less passionate characters, as well as the sociopathic genocide of the holocaust—acts that are not committed firsthand, but delegated and seen from afar (as in the final torture scenes of Salò). It could also be indicative of Pasolini’s sudden shift in philosophy upon completion of the Trilogy of Life. If the reader is unfamiliar with the specifics of this paradigm shift, I encourage perusing one (or more) of several terrific essays already written on the subject: “The Present as Hell,” by Roberto Chiesi, “A Cinema of Poetry,” by Sam Rohdie, “Brave Old World,” by Colin MacCabe, and Pasolini’s own renunciation, “The Trilogy of Life Rejected.” Suffice it to say that Salò is a statement of Pasolini’s loss of faith in the prospect of innocence as redemption for the failings of mankind (and it was meant to be only the first entry in a proposed Trilogy of Death, conceived to complement the preceding trilogy). Whereas he once found comfort and reassurance in the simple vulgarity and earthy mentality of young street hustlers without a formal (or faulty) education, in Salò he turns his back on them—and, more importantly, on his false hopes. In his own words:
“The present, with its degradation, was compensated for not only by the objective survival of the past but, consequently, by the possibility of reinvoking it. But today the degeneration of bodies and sex organs has assumed a retroactive character. If those things which then were thus and thus have today become this and this, it means that they were already so potentially—so that their mode of existence then is devalued by the present. The boys and youths of the Roman subproletariat—who are, incidentally, those whom I projected into the old Naples that still survives and into the countries of the third world—if today they are human garbage, it means that they were potentially the same then; so they were imbeciles forced to be adorable; solid criminals forced to be pathetic; useless, vile creatures forced to be innocent and saintly, etc. The collapse of the present implies the collapse of the past. Life is a heap of insignificant and ironical ruins.”
With this as the psychological backdrop, one would expect the resulting film to be intolerably bleak and depressing. In truth, a large part of the film’s appeal is its surprising humor and livelihood. Take for instance the scene which opens the third part of the film (morbidly titled the “Circle of Blood”): three of the four protagonists are standing before a mirror applying earrings and other jewelry to complete transvestite outfits that are laughably outrageous. As they climb the steps to the assembly room in the following scene, lifting the front of their gowns to avoid becoming entangled, one cannot help but be amused by the absurdity of it all. Was this all part of Pasolini’s malevolent plan? Did he intend to turn his spectators into bemused voyeurs, indifferent accomplices to the brutality perpetrated by his (or Sade’s, depending on how you see it) characters? I like to believe that these humorous strokes (including the obscenely, ludicrously unconvincing prosthetic penises showcased in the closing sequence) are a vain attempt at finding something of life worth saving, something that might redeem the decided dreariness of it all. Unlike the truly sadistic—though brilliantly executed—works of Lars Von Trier, where this very hopelessness is devised as the narrative’s explicit purpose, in Salò we see a man desperately searching for a reason why it should not have to be this way. Unfortunately, as implied by the final scene (which I will come to later), the hope Pasolini had once found is only a relic from a past that never existed.
At this point, I would like to focus exclusively on the experience of viewing Salò. There are two words that, for me, encompass the entire spectrum of moods conveyed while watching the film: the first of these words is “mystery.” Pasolini stated himself that Salò was meant to be “a mystery … the medieval mystery, which is a holy representation and therefore very enigmatic. It does not need to be understood.” Once the viewer has acclimated himself (somewhat, at least) to the rather extraordinary nature of the film, this genre suggestion comes across quite plainly. For each and every aspect of the film, from its settings—temporal and geographic—to its characters—eighteen unnamed victims, sixteen collaborators whose characters we become only vaguely acquainted with—to its timeline—when does one day end and the next begin?—and, most notably, to its events, is a mystery: unspoken, unnamed, and unforgettable. Before we proceed any further, let us refer to Webster’s definition of “mystery;” there are two separate, lengthy definitions for this word, so for the purpose of clarity I will only list those relevant to our analysis: “1 a: a religious truth that one can know only by revelation and cannot fully understand … 2 a: something not understood or beyond understanding b: a private secret c: the secret or specialized practices or ritual peculiar to an occupation or a body of people d: a piece of fiction dealing usu. with the solution of a mysterious crime 3 : profound, inexplicable, or secretive quality of character.” I find it especially curious that the genre definition of mystery here (“a piece of fiction dealing usu. with the solution of a mysterious crime”) is the least suited of all these definitions to describe the mystery of Salò, where no solution is proposed or even attempted. Nevertheless, let us take a moment to examine each of the above-outlined mysterious elements in greater depth—not in pursuit of a solution, but rather to underline significant ambiguities.
The setting of Sade’s eighteenth century novel (itself placed in the past of the French Régence, a transitional period between the reign of Louis XIV and Louis XV) in the short-lived Fascist republic established by Mussolini following his retreat from Rome could feasibly be explained away by Pasolini’s growing concern with the new Fascism of consumer culture; it could also be justified by his own history of military service during WWII, or his poetic interest in the partisan movement which claimed the rebellious lives of so many fellow Italians, including his brother. But why Salò? Why not Warsaw, or even the original location of Sade’s novel—an unspecified remote valley beyond the Black Forest? Certainly these settings would have made as much (if not more) sense as Salò, and maybe that is our answer: they would have been too logical, too simple. In order to illuminate the truths he had in mind to explore, he would first have to place them in the utmost obscurity. But there is an added mystery to this location, and that is the intimation, towards the end, that the villa is actually located outside of Salò; in an assembly to announce the names of the victims who have been selected for “punishment” (i.e. lethal torture), the Duc explains, “…those will wear a blue ribbon and can imagine what awaits them. The others, if they collaborate, could come with us to Salò.” Where have we been this whole time, then? It is impossible to ascertain. Much like the dark dungeons and hidden fortresses of Sade’s writings, we are somewhere outside of space and time, somewhere our screams will forever go unheard.
Next we have our cast of characters: four libertines, their four wives/daughters, eight soldiers/collaborationists (a significant distinction from the original text, in which they were eight “fuckers”), four narrators, eighteen victims, and six cooks/maids. The libertines are a mystery from the very start, as it is never made explicit whether or not they are meant to be reenacting The 120 Days of Sodom, or whether Pasolini’s adaptation is fully devoid of such a window device. I am inclined to interpret it as being the former case, seeing as how their late night discussions are riddled with explicit quotations (Baudelaire, Nietzsche, Dada) that are altogether absent from Sade’s novel—in which what little philosophic discourse there is originates exclusively from the characters’ own thought processes; these quotations indicate a vast knowledge of literature that would be logically bound to include the “Divine Marquis,” but since it is a film about forgetting, it could just as easily be a literal transposition of events. Beyond this ambiguity, we are entirely left in the dark as to what role (if any) these four protagonists played in Mussolini’s regime. As if to confuse us even further, their caravan at the film’s start is aided by Nazi soldiers, an anachronism that is irreconcilable with the facts of WWII history—as pointed out by Roberto Chiesi in “The Present as Hell.” And let us not forget the mystery of their sexual predilections: only occasionally are we made privy to what gets these libertines off (whereas Sade’s text was replete with “discharges” of every variety, not once are any of the libertines in Salò shown to have achieved orgasm); it is entirely plausible that they are asexual beings with no interest in their victims, apart from a detached desire to exercise power over them. If this is the case, I find it hard to imagine a more appropriate analogy to the manner in which present-day corporate bodies exercise their power over consumers—targeting their pocketbooks, their vulnerability, their identity, and eliminating any residual trace of dignity in the process. But here I am attempting to unveil the mystery, to give a name to the deliberately unnamed; so allow me to retrace a few steps and properly resume the task at hand.
Let us move on to the wives/daughters of Salò‘s libertines, four individuals who are barely distinguishable in this cacophony of abstract character portraits. In Sade’s novel, the wives are present at all of the narrations, seated beside one of the four libertines in ever-changing permutations; in Pasolini’s film, they are curiously absent from the narrations, and are only seen serving meals in the dining room—a duty they have been ordered to perform in the nude, dolled up with big hairdos and bright lipstick—and in the very background of the first mock wedding. They are, however, subject to the libertines’ brutal tortures, including the infamous scene where razorblades are hidden in a polenta and dished out in dog bowls. But their screen time is severely limited, and their fates a complete mystery.
Which brings us to the guards and the collaborationists (or “fuckers”). In Sade’s novel, it was intimated that these eight characters ranked topmost in the hierarchy of power, because the libertines actually required their services for pleasure—as opposed to the young victims, all of whom could be deemed replaceable and interchangeable (to clarify for those who have not read the novel: the fuckers were eight young men recruited on account of their physical endowment for the sole purpose of engaging in passive sodomy with the libertines). Philosophically, the importance of the fuckers to the libertines underlines the most challenging contradiction of Sade’s ideology: the inevitable dependence of a supposedly liberated and otherwise independent being upon the presence of another—or the necessity of a positive presence, even if only for the purpose of negation (yet another mystery…). In Salò, the collaborationists are equally high on the totem pole; they are allowed to jest, to play with guns, to abuse the victims and wives at liberty, and, of course, to sodomize the libertines. But it is never made clear to what extent they are committed to the cause they’ve been recruited for. We know for a fact that Ezio is of a communist persuasion; the party salute he raises just seconds before being shot dead (one of the more eerie echoes of Pasolini’s own subsequent murder) is one of only two explicit political gestures to be found in the film, the other being the song “Bandiera Nera.” In the third act, as the final tortures and mutilations are taking place in a courtyard within the villa, the collaborationists smile at one another and shake hands, as though they are prepared to move on to better things. Are they going to move on to Salò, as implied by the Duc? If not, what reward could possibly lay in store for them? The war being over, the Allied forces having overthrown the Fascist regime, the only realistic fate that could greet these four youngsters beyond the walls of the villa is the fate of a war criminal. Is their momentary mutual satisfaction at the film’s close an indication of their naïveté, or do they truly have something planned? I offer no definitive answer; I only aim to encircle the mystery.
Now, let us examine the four narrators—or, to be precise, three narrators and a pianist. The three narrators might be the most faithfully transposed characters from the novel, which renders the drastic change of the fourth all the more baffling. In fact, I find the pianist to be the most mesmerizing mystery of the entire film. First of all, let me state that the actress in question, Sonia Saviange, has crafted (either knowingly or unknowingly) one of the most exquisitely bizarre performances in the history of film; not a scene goes by that she does not command the viewer’s entire attention. Physically, she stands apart on account of being a redhead, an exception that is further exaggerated by all three narrators being blonde. Psychologically, she is the most complex of all the film’s characters; that she never has a single line of proper dialogue only enhances our awareness of this complexity. To this day, I cannot watch Salò without thinking, “what is going on with her?” She often appears to be distressed, even sad, about the circumstance in which she has been put; we see her turn her head (with sympathy? shame? despair?) as she makes the connection between a narrator’s account of murdering her mother, and the murder of one of the victim’s mothers—but that is all we see. Likewise, we hear/see her scream (one of the most piercing and memorable screams in celluloid history) during a recital at the wedding ceremony, but what is first registered by the viewer as an expression of horror (or insanity) ends up as an odd segue into song. Which brings us to the most unforgettable of all the mysteries related to the pianist—the mystery of her death. In a solemnly beautiful sequence, the pianist is seen from the side traversing through several rooms (one more mesmerizing than the next) and finally approaching an open window, which looks out onto the courtyard; cut to a close-up shot of her face in profile, as her eyes widen and her hand flies up to cover her mouth; then cut to a more removed shot from behind (once again associating distance with death), as she dexterously climbs the ledge and leaps to the concrete path several floors below. What did she see? After my first viewing of Salò, the thought stuck in my head that she had witnessed some of the atrocities taking place within the inner courtyard, and leapt to her death in response to her own mortification. But a second viewing proved this false impression to be totally irrational, as it is not the inner courtyard that her window overlooks, but the outer courtyard in front of the villa. I do have another idea now of what it is she saw that triggered her suicide, but I will leave it to the discerning viewer to speculate as to what this might be.
Which brings us to the eighteen (soon to be sixteen) victims—the most overtly mysterious characters of the film, as they are immediately deprived of an identity we are never really acquainted with (another divergence from the novel, in which a brief yet thorough description of their respective origins is provided). Although bereft of individual names in the opening credits (as though they were the numbered victims of a concentration camp), their names are spoken throughout the film: Carlo, Sergio, Eva, Renata, Franco, Bruno, Orlando… It is worth noting that the boys’ names are mentioned more often than the girls’, in keeping with Sade’s (and Pasolini’s) own sexual preference. The girls are indeed a never-ending source of mystery, as they seem to be appearing and disappearing throughout the film with malevolent implications: from nine they become eight (the ninth being found dead, but the circumstances never revealed), and by the third act they have become seven—and by the time the punishment list is read aloud, there are only five. Yet another thought-provoking clue is provided by one of the boys etching in the floor’s dust with his forefinger what appears to be the word “Alidio;” one’s immediate interpretation is bound to be that he is writing his own name so as not to forget it (which could simultaneously represent Pasolini’s filming of Salò to remind his people of what they are capable), but this could just as easily be the name of a friend, a brother, a father … To us, it will remain a mystery, and surely one of the most quietly elegaic of the film’s many secrets.
Then we have the cooks and the maids, all but one of whom occupy the most marginal of roles within the film. The full staff is actually visible in only one scene, immediately preceding the “Circle of Obsessions” title card; attentive viewers will note the dual close-ups of Ezio and the maid he engages in an affair with, thus costing him his life. Apart from—and possibly including—the maid (Pasolini fans might recognize her as Zumurrud from Arabian Nights), the kitchen staff compose the most obscure members of an obscure cast.
Lastly, there is the dizzying timeline of Salò, making one feel as though the days are akin to fragments of a hopeless eternity. In the source text, each day is outlined methodically (with a few omissions); the book actually reads more like a journal than a proper novel. But Pasolini takes Sade’s occasional penchant for abandoning continuity to an appropriate extreme. Indeed, the editing of Salò is a masterful feat, providing a near-stream-of-consciousness flow of imagery that betrays any desire the viewer might have for temporal cognizance, and yet makes such perfect sense (in terms of both pacing and exposition) that one can only wish Sade’s writing was as persistently captivating. Many times I have heard the analogy of a “train wreck you can’t look away from” to describe horror movies, but for someone like myself (not a big horror movie buff), the sentiment never quite rang true; that is, until I saw Salò, which remains one of a small handful of horror films (a term I was once reticent to attach to this movie, but have grown to accept, and now find it perfectly suited) that always hold me entranced by their sheer perpetual motion (in case you are wondering, a few other qualifying titles include Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now).
I previously hinted at a second word that adequately sums up the mood of Salò, and that word is “surrealism” (defined by Webster as: “the principles, ideals, or practice of producing fantastic or incongruous imagery or effects in art, literature, film, or theater by means of unnatural juxtapositions and combinations”). These words are somewhat interchangeable, as surrealism is grounded in mystery, and mysteries are frequently adorned with surreal flourishes. The surrealism of Salò recalls that of Luis Buñuel (himself an avowed fan of Sade’s writings, counting them in his biography among the most treasured of all his books); the effortless flow of imagery could easily be compared to Belle de Jour, The Milky Way, Tristana, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, or The Phantom of Liberty. This comparison also rings true when one considers the element of absurdity, often present in works of a surrealist disposition. And Salò is, perhaps first and foremost, an absurd film: the premise is absurd; the protagonists are absurd; their passions are absurd; even the ending, with the aforementioned exaggerated phalluses, is absurd. This is the film’s saving grace, as far as the viewer is concerned—for if the film took itself as seriously as Pasolini took his own ideology, it would be unbearable (and it will be unbearable, nonetheless, for many prospective viewers).
There are two moments in Salò that stick foremost in my mind as emblematic of its surrealistic mystery (or mysterious surrealism): the first is the shot of an out-of-focus Renata eating feces with a silver spoon, a sharp-focus wooden table looming in the foreground (almost reminiscent of Fassbinder); the second is the final shot of the two boys dancing, one asking the other, “What’s your girlfriend’s name?”—to which the other replies, “Margherita.” The former is easily the most memorable image in a film overflowing with memorable images; with the distant sound of an air-bombing accompanying the sound of her weeping, it is unlikely that any viewer will soon forget the awful beauty of this moment. The latter ranks (along with the death of the pianist) as the most puzzling image in Salò, and the one which most openly expresses Pasolini’s longing for a world where two men could be together outside of any dogmatic obstruction.