Salo or 120 Days of Sodom, or, for that matter, Abu Ghraib
The first time I saw Salo (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1976) was at a Sydney Film Festival in the late 1970s. And I didn’t see it. I think we, the audience, were waiting in the stalls of State Theatre when someone, probably David Stratton, came in and told us the screening was off. The censors had beaten us to it.
The second time I saw it was last week. Now I think it’s a film worth seeing twice, especially if you only see it once. It’s hard to take. Crying in films is one thing. Retching is quite another.
In Caro Diario (1993) Nanni Moretti rides his vesper out to the place where Pasolini, shortly before Salo was released, was assassinated back in 1975. It’s a beautiful ride with Keith Jarrett’s lyrical piano working up to its most effulgent. In another scene from the first of the three essays in the diario, Nanni is looking for films to see over the Roman summer. He goes to Henry Diary of a Serial Killer and walks out looking like a shell of the man who walked in. He imagines torturing the critic who praised the film. It’s all part of the beautiful, dazzling lightness of Caro Diario.
Salo is a film about torture. The torture begins with humiliation. It’s Abu Ghraib in all its wide-eyed, dull-eyed brutality, but with the veil of ignorance drawn away to show its end in total violence. It’s about cold, raw power in its cruellest expression. Like its subject, it tears the heart out of everyday life, and offers no redemption
The film is, though, curiously censored by its own stylisation. The torture, as torture, is ritualistic, and the ritual is carried over into the films stylised style. Every bit of sexual expression is brutalised and sanitised. EM in 1000 Films You Should See Before You Die calls it ‘curiously unerotic’. It’s furiously unerotic. In the anti-personal is the anti-sexual. It’s Pasolini’s rhapsodic and utter degradation of all that is sweet. The powerful are hateful; the tortured stripped of clothes, bodies, character, and destiny. There is nothing but to eat shit, rape, be raped, and die.