Salo or the 120 days of Sodom: gruelling film of corruption, unfettered freedom and abuse of power that turn humans into machines

Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Salò or the 120 days of Sodom” / “Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma” (1975)

Grim and harrowing to watch but an excellent and actually quite beautiful film (visually anyway) about corruption, the abuse of power and how having absolute freedom in the sense of being free from social restraints and conventions reduces humans to robots: this is the stupendous “Salo o le 120 giornate di Sodoma” (“Solo or the 120 days of Sodom”). The film was Pasolini’s last before his lynching death in 1975 and is based on the Marquis de Sade’s “The 120 Days of Sodom” but set in Mussolini-ruled Italy in the early 1940s. Four fascist middle-aged captains of society known as the Bishop, the President, the Manager and the Duke, representing respectively the Church, government, industry and aristocracy, agree to marry one another’s teenage daughters (this decision signifies the incestuous links among the various elites of society) as the prelude to a series of debauched acts at a country villa. Gangsters are hired to abduct eighteen teenage boys and girls of good family background and bring them to the villa. Four brothel madams are also hired to tell tales of excessive sexual dissipation to psyche up the men, teenagers and soldiers into eager participation in various sexual acts that include coprophagia, sodomy, rape, a golden shower and unspeakable tortures.

The film divides into four sections: Antechamber of Hell, Circle of Manias, Circle of Shit and Circle of Blood; and each section more or less begins with a woman or woman-like figure getting dressed and attending to one’s toilette. The film emphasises repetition which not only forces the viewer to become immersed in its proceedings but highlights the loss of vitality and creativity in fascist societies in which governments and the institutions allied with them insist on digging themselves and their people further into a pit of evil. In each section there is a mock wedding, of which the most memorable is the wedding that takes place in Circle of Shit as it’s followed by the reception in which shit is served to the guests. There is a highly ritualistic aspect to the activities that go on in the villa, to the point where everything seems highly fetishistic; and almost as fetishistic is the detail of the lavish furnishings and interiors of the villa and the care with which the adult characters often dress and comport themselves.

Plot as it exists is weak because it’s all about repetition as the four men descend deeper into their own degradation; each successive perversion delivers less satisfaction than the one before it. Rules set up to monitor and punish the teenagers for insubordination are eventually torn up and tossed away; all the teenagers are subjected to cruel and violent punishments in Circle of Blood. The acting seems quite stylised: the men declaim and talk at each other and everyone else and, save for a few soldiers and girls, no-one really communicates. Close-ups of actors’ faces are used frequently in the film and viewers see how deranged and terrifying the men, especially the Duke, look. Scenes often have a staged, diorama-like look, and the dining-room scene with the camera looking to the back of the room where there is a stair-case across the length of the table with people sitting on either side of it (but not at it) is repeated several times. Colours and outlines are fairly soft and the few outdoor scenes look soft enough as to be slightly melancholy. Although “Salo …” was made over 35 years ago, the film still has a contemporary look due in part to the open spaces of the villa, the sometimes minimalist, sometimes opulent style of the furniture, interiors and artwork used and the attention given to the actors’ clothes and accessories. Even the cars in the film don’t look very outdated though they are obviously of their period (early 1940s). The overall visual style of the film is precise and cold.

The pace is relentless with each successive violation and just when you think the film couldn’t get worse after the coprophagia and the golden shower scene, it goes up (or down?) another notch: our Gang of Four holds an arse inspection of the children and then dress in drag for yet another mock wedding ritual. In the Circle of Blood, the men’s moral corruption infects the children finally: they rat on one another, forcing the men to run about hysterically extirpating signs of rebellion about the villa. This section of the film details how the general public becomes desensitised to the abuse and corruption and willingly joins in.

The violence is not overt and is actually done tastefully and respectfully: all the torture scenes occur out of shot or are viewed elliptically through someone’s blocked point of view. Of course there is much nudity, male and female, but again actual scenes of sexual intercourse occur out of shot, in shadow or in a tasteful way. The violence and perversions usually serve a symbolic purpose: the consumption of human faeces may refer to the excessive emphasis on materialism in Western society and the use of a rule-book to punish young people in hideously sadistic ways might refer to bureaucracy as a mechanism for turning people into cyphers and robots.

Of all chilling moments in a film brimming with them, perhaps the worst comes at the end where the men take turns in watching the young people being tortured from the comfort of a plush chair in front of a window as though watching TV. The soldiers in the room yawn and engage in idle pastimes like dancing. This says something about entertainment in our lives: the more sensationalised and pornographic it is, the more numb and robotic we become, the more our vitality and creativity are sapped. And it’s obvious that the four libertines have become so jaded that they are unable to stop themselves wallowing in their own filth. Freedom is wasted on them: behaving as if governed by instinct, their minds and imaginations filled with pollution, the adults claw into their own rut deeper, digging their own graves as it were. Also horrific is the fact that none of the children rebel though the film makes clear they are repelled by what they have to do and two girls stage their own personal rebellion by secretly becoming lovers. (Note that most sexual activity in the film is done doggy-style with the libertines at times preventing or punishing sexual intercourse in the face-to-face missionary position, to prevent intimacy and individual expression.)

Insititutions like religion and education are mocked and overturned: the wedding rituals mock religion, important rites of passage and celebrations as joyful phenomena; the use of brothel madams to lecture the teenagers mocks the notion of education and acquiring wisdom from elders; the sexual activity mocks people generally when they have choice and live in a fairly wealthy society. All too often people choose the easy way out: a life of hedonism and immediate sensual pleasures with no compassion or generosity for others.

Forgive me for sounding perverse but I wish the film had continued beyond the two soldiers dancing: when all the children have been killed, what next would the libertines and the brothel madams do? In the closeted environment of the country villa, I envisage that they would bring in animals, in particular fine thoroughbred horses, on which to inflict acts of bestiality. This would symbolise the effects of fascism on the natural environment, how a political system that privileges an elite and allows it extreme freedom to indulge its selfish materialist appetites eventually plunders the Earth’s resources. Then Death becomes the ultimate option for satisfaction and what could be more appropriate for our Gang of Four, having sated themselves, to turn on one another with sexual, even cannibalistic, ferocity?

This is one film that continues to be more relevant than it was when it was first released: it is still a powerful criticism of Western democratic society as it is structured today, bleeding from the inside with governments, academia and news media increasingly beholden to private corporations and the military, and all presiding over populations that they force to consume ever more infantile and superficial culture. If ever a film came close to documenting the decline and fall of Western civilisation, “Salo …” is it.

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