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.

Medea (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini): rich film of social analysis and the oppression of women

Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Medea” (1969)

This film will always be a personal favourite of mine for its exploration of a human society and the kind of woman it produces, who, transplanted to another society built on completely different values which rob her of most of her powers save that of love, must respond with a terrible and deadly vengeance when the man she loves disowns her. “Medea” is based on Euripides’s play of the famous Greek legend in which Jason, attempting to claim his rightful inheritance as King of Thessaly from his uncle Pelias, is sent away by the other man to the Kingdom of Colchis on the eastern shores of the Black Sea to retrieve the famous Golden Fleece. Accompanied by a group of heroes (the Argonauts), Jason arrives in Colchis and meets Medea in a temple: they both fall in love. Medea helps Jason to steal the fleece and take it back to King Pelias who rejects it. The couple are forced to live in exile for ten years in Corinth where Jason, concerned for their sons’ future, decides to marry Glauke, the daughter of the King of Corinth, and repudiate Medea. Medea, furious at Jason’s betrayal, destroys his future happiness and leaves him a lonely and disconsolate man with nothing.

Everything about this film I find original and stupendous: it often has the look of an anthropological documentary and the most significant scenes are ones not in the original story. The centaur Chiron (Laurent Terzieff), who embodies both the rational, intellectual side of humanity and its savage, irrational animal side, tells Jason of his royal inheritance and predicts that he will travel overseas in search of the Golden Fleece. Here Pasolini tells us that thinking a thought and making it concrete in speech or (later) visualising it is a necessary first step in carrying it out: the concept precedes reality. An early highlight of “Medea” is a fertility ritual in which a young man is sacrificed while the royal family of Colchis including Medea (Maria Callas) undergo ritual humiliation from the common people. The sacrifice’s flesh and blood are used to bless and nurture the crops and the soil in the fields. Medea is revealed as the child of a society based on animism, ritual and attachment to symbolism, a society in which life serves the gods and every action demands a reaction and has consequences. People’s thoughts are governed by emotion, custom and impulse; identifying closely with nature and perceiving no boundaries between themselves and natural phenomena, folks may not always understand why they act the way they do – they see a sign from the gods and simply have to obey. The Golden Fleece possesses meaning and power for the citizens of Colchis. Jason (Giuseppe Gentile), coming from a society of reason, logic and intellect which perhaps is disconnected from its irrational, emotional side (he never seems to understand why he fell in love with Medea), steals the fleece but realises that once he takes it away from Colchis, the fleece means nothing to him or to his uncle. In Colchis also, Medea is powerful as a sorceress and speaks to the sun, the land and water; in Greece however, she loses her powers and is reduced to the role of a traditional housewife. The second significant scene is one in which Medea, dreaming, communes with the sun which energises her to plan her revenge against Jason: she leads her servants in a ritual in which her nurse, interrogating her, helps to rouse the necessary psychic energy she needs to carry out her plan to the full, subvert the social structure that took away her sorcery skills and reclaim her full feminine powers.

Symbolism is very powerful in this film: Medea’s clothes and her costume changes signify the various changes in roles she undergoes and indicate changes and developments in the film’s plot. The two deaths of Glauke are no mistake: the first death, in which she burns, is the visualisation of the spell Medea casts over the wedding gift for her; the second death in which Glauke leaps off a wall is the actual death. Glauke (Margareth Clementi) says nothing but her face reveals all: on donning the wedding clothes, she becomes aware of another woman’s anguish at having given up everything including her royal inheritance for love, only to be spurned. Overcome with guilt and grief, the girl commits suicide.

The acting is very naturalistic and convincing, and the casting is unusual: Callas in her mid-40s at the tail-end of her opera singing career is a mesmerising beauty and there are many camera shots and close-ups of her sculpted face and beautiful eyes as she sits or stands. Her face and body language alone – she has few lines of dialogue – convey the full range of Medea’s emotions from romantic love, lust, submission, motherly love and tenderness, despair and distress at betrayal and loss, and full-blown rage. This is acting as it should be done. Gentile, much younger than Callas and with no previous acting performance I know of – he was actually a triple jumper who won a medal at the 1968 Olympic Games – is astonishingly credible and uninhibited as Jason: lover, warrior, loving father, yet cynical enough to desert Medea for political reasons. As with Callas, Gentile is given little dialogue yet he seems a man of much substance and complexity.

The music is important to the film: Pasolini didn’t care too much about which cultures he nicked his music from so we are treated to Persian orchestral or Moroccan music, Japanese shamisen soloing, droning Tibetan Buddhist monk singing (reminiscent of Hungarian singer Attila Csihar when he performs with US drone metal band SunnO))) and its offshoot projects Grave Temple Trio and Burial Chamber Trio) and possibly folk music influences from Bulgaria and other lands. In scenes depicting Medea’s Colchis heritage, the male throat-singing roars and droning bugles come to the fore and they create a rich, sensuous, rippling sound. It’s creepy and exhilarating at the same time, pulsing with raw life-force.

Most scenes are shot like dioramas and the rich and sometimes static look of the film invites comparison with Sergei Parajanov’s “The Color of Pomegranates”, Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” and some Kenneth Anger films I’ve seen. A golden sheen suffuses the film with many scenes apparently shot at sunset and twilight. The flavour is exotic with a fresh, raw feel that comes with the use of non-actors and much improvisation, and the desert settings (much of the film was made in Turkey) take viewers back to a time when civilisation had barely begun to spread across the eastern Mediterranean region.

The social analysis hidden in this film – Pasolini had socialist views and disliked materialism and globalisation – makes the left hemisphere of my brain reel excitedly while the right side is enthralled with the film’s layered beauties, the sights and sounds, and distinctive style. Pasolini must have known one day that I would watch the film for it seems perfectly made for someone like me; but that’s the way I believe great films should be done – they should be done for yourself and for maybe five other people on the entire planet who think the way you do and hold the values you hold.


The Trial: brave and visually striking attempt to bring classic Kafka dystopia to screen

Orson Welles, “The Trial” / “Le Procès” (1962)

This film is a visually striking adaptation of the famous Franz Kafka novel. Welles’s directorial approach tries to incorporate as much of the spirit of the novel and its themes if not exacting faithfulness to the novel’s plot and the result is a work that is very heavy on dialogue which can seem mumbo-jumbo at times with much symbolism and not a little humour that can be missed by viewers. The style of the film is film noir / thriller: the plot proceeds as straight drama and lead actor Anthony Perkins plays the unfortunate anti-hero Josef K in a near-heroic, tight-jawed way while other actors play their roles in styles that may be called comic or parody. The look of the film is formal and stylised with an emphasis on over-imposing office or public buildings in modern brutalist, neo-classical or Gothic styles and exterior scenes empty of pedestrian and vehicle traffic that give the world where Josef K lives the appearance of a 20th-century police state relying on technology and bureaucracy to bolster its rule.

Josef wakes up, as if from a dream, in his apartment and is immediately apprehended by police on charges of having committed a crime of which details they don’t inform him. They then leave him and he embarks on a series of adventures to find out what he’s been accused of and to clear his name. Each incident in which he tries to get information ends in vain though he has quite memorable sexual encounters with various women. His uncle and guardian Max takes him to the family lawyer Hastler (Welles himself) who’s of no help whatsoever and Josef sacks him from his case. In the meantime the case proceeds through secretive layers of the court system and Josef is informed by a priest (Michael Lonsdale) and later by Hastler that he has been condemned to death.

The episodic nature of the film, in which Josef’s encounters with the legal system appear as more or less self-contained skits, contributes to the lack of tension and the impression that a plot as such doesn’t really exist. The climax appears as just another skit that conveniently ends the story. Welles could have added other skits not in the original novel or left out skits and the movie could have been 90 minutes or even 3 hours long without changing the general thrust of the plot. The comedy aspect is too subtle for a general audience and the potential for absurdism, for commenting on the craziness of society, especially one governed by techno-bureacratism, remains mostly unrealised. The timing of the film is unfortunate: made in the early 1960s when society was repressed and repressive, the sexual comedy is very muted; had the film been made a few years later with the same actors in a different and more relaxed social climate, able to look back on its past and realise how stultifying it had been, the sexual comedy with Hastler’s nurse Leni (Romy Schneider) and Josef’s neighbour Ms Burstner (Jeanne Moreau) seducing our hero might have been more open and a lot funnier with the characters in various states of undress in situations that could have segued into further embarrassments for Josef.

Another problem with the film is the way Welles tried to shape the character of Josef into something more heroic and positive for a general audience, standing as a lone defender of truth and justice in a corrupt society, than leave him as a distracted everyman while at the same time throwing him into an existential hamster-wheel to remain true to the novel as he (Welles) saw it. Perkins never seems to settle down into any particular interpretation of Josef: by turns he is nervous, scared, discomfited, full of bravado, malicious and righteous. At times he seems to be channelling US actor James Stewart in his more assertive scenes and not succeeding well at all, otherwise in scenes where his character is out of his depth, especially with women and young girls who represent aspects of the system, Perkins becomes touchingly vulnerable. Swinging from one behavioural extreme to another, and not fitting in completely, the actor is more brave than effective but then that’s the point: Josef is condemned to die because he never fits into his society but insists on sticking out like a sore thumb.

The oppressive yet perplexing society is portrayed well with staged Expressionist scenes that highlight contrasts in light and shadows and the skilful deployment of unusual camera angles, long tracking and deep focus that Welles had used in “Citizen Kane”. In particular interior scenes which take place inside abandoned buildings, in buildings where furnishings appear to have been ripped out to expose pipes and frameworks or in places of disarray or where structures have been set up in haste convey the chaos behind the façade of order strenuously maintained by police and legal authorities. (This of course suggests that the passage of Josef’s case through the courts doesn’t proceed smoothly or logically and the decision to execute him itself is irrational and based on a line of reasoning riddled with errors, false assumptions and plain malice.) Overall the look of the film and the way the camera is used complement the straight film noir drama genre approach Welles used though perhaps using film noir as straight drama doesn’t quite suit “The Trial”; a more ironic and parodic film noir approach, such as was used by Jean Luc Godard in “Alphaville” which looks very similar to “The Trial” in its use of modern office buildings as the setting for a similar technocratic dystopia, might have been more appropriate. Nice to see Amir Tamiroff appearing in minor roles in both films too!

Welles departs significantly from the novel in two scenes: the first such scene is one where Hastler screens an animated film, “Before the Law” to Josef and the two then talk about the film (which viewers have seen already in the prologue to “The Trial” proper in pin-screen animation format), at the end of which Josef defies Hastler and Hastler then appears to make his mind up about Josef; we may infer that Hastler plays some part in sentencing Josef to death. The other scene is Josef’s execution which, unlike the novel, gives Josef a chance to escape death while allowing his executioners an excuse that they are not directly responsible for his death. The implication is that Josef would prefer to die while being true to himself and his values rather than continue to live in a dysfunctional society with others who don’t share his desire for an honest life.

“The Trial” is a brave if not successful attempt to bring Kafka’s novel in its thematic entirety to the screen. Other adaptations of the novel including a 1993 film version starring Kyle MacLachlan and Anthony Hopkins have been even less successful so any faults in Welles’s film are as much due to the novel being all but unfilmable in its structure and characterisation. If Welles hadn’t tried to force the film into a form agreeable to mainstream audiences but instead made the kind of film he and only he plus a few close friends wanted to see, “The Trial” still wouldn’t be perfect but it would have come closer to “perfect” – the black comedy might have been more obvious and that in itself might even have made the film a celebration of a brief life in a depressing dystopia.