Carnal Knowledge

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom, 1975, still from a color film in 35 mm, 145 minutes.

JUST IN TIME for the back-to-school season, Criterion has reissued the DVD of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s pedantic bloodbath Salò, or 120 Days of Sodom (1975), an apologue so heavy-handed that it includes a syllabus in the opening credits. (Barthes, Blanchot, Beauvoir, and Klosswoski all make the list. The film just preceded the publication of Foucault’s first volume of The History of Sexuality [1976], otherwise it would have been a probable candidate.) Made just months before Pasolini was gruesomely murdered by a hustler who ran him over with his own car (though this story is currently in dispute), the film is a modern update of the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, structured according to a “Dante-esque” logic: Instead of the traditional chronological narrative, viewers encounter four overlapping “circles” (the “antinferno,” the “circle of obsessions,” the “circle of blood,” and the “circle of shit”). Set in a palazzo in Saló, a short-lived republic Mussolini created in northern Italy near the end of World War II, the film was envisioned by Pasolini as, among other things, an illustration of the “choreography of fascism” and an indictment of capitalism’s objectification of the human body.

No take on Salò is complete without a litany of the vile debauchery enacted by the libertines (and their well-endowed adjutants) on the eighteen teenage boys and girls captured for the occasion: torture, rape, coprophilia and -phagia, necrophila, branding, scalping, tongue cutting, eye gouging—to name but a few. In Vincent Canby’s 1977 review for the New York Times, he argued that the film was “a perfect example of the kind of material that, theoretically anyway, can be acceptable on paper but becomes so repugnant when visualized on the screen that it further dehumanizes the human spirit, which is supposed to be the artist’s concern.” In her 2004 piece on torture, Susan Sontag remarked that Salò was “near-unwatchable,” though I wonder now whether she was actually speaking to the film’s arid pretentiousness rather than to the revolting scenarios it plays out. Salò will probably seem quaint—certainly campy—to anyone who plays Grand Theft Auto or bookmarks the “Extreme Videos” section on eBaum’s World. This ho-hum element raises the hackles of critics who like to dilate on voyeurism’s ethical implications and of those anxious about a society inured to violent images. Of course, what to some might appear a symptom of vacuous morality could read to others as increasing audience sophistication regarding the fiction of images.

Amaury Voslion, Salò: Yesterday and Today, 2002, stills from a black-and-white and color film, 33 minutes. Right: Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Part of this sophistication comes from our growing familiarity with the mechanics of films—how they’re made and how they work. A compelling section of the documentary Salò: Yesterday and Today, one of the DVD’s supplemental features, illustrates the droll banality of filmmaking, as Pasolini instructs the actor Aldo Valletti in his role during the film’s rapturous denouement, which depicts a violent torture tableau in a courtyard. One of the other actors greedily approaches the director: “Don’t you have some nasty little role for me?”

“Wait till you see what you do in the next scene,” Pasolini reassures him.

“Thank goodness.”

“You can’t imagine.”

“Thank goodness.”

Everyone just wants their fifteen minutes. Later in the documentary, the captivating Hélène Surgere, who plays one of four narrating prostitutes, notes that, “on the set, paradoxically, the mood was jovial and immature. When I saw the film, I wondered how we’d made something so awful without realizing it.” This scission between the making and the made isn’t a deep one; most of us, when faced with a particularly nasty image, can draw on rather simple reasoning: It’s only a movie. (And an incredibly hyperbolic one at that—how can anyone get worked up over something that’s trying this hard to get a rise?)

All the lashings, slashings, and bawdy sexual pantomime quickly become cloying—which, it seems, was at least partly the point. But the disturbing thing about Salò is not its sexuality and violence, its pornographic register; rather, it is the film’s posturing as social critique, its misleading diagram of the mechanics of the ideological state apparatus and the way subjects are produced in consumer societies. Consumers don’t choke on the shit that they eat (as the ephebes are shown doing in the dining hall), they enjoy it. They’re not coerced, they’re cajoled. To articulate power in the way that Pasolini does—indeed, to conflate critiques of fascism and critiques of consumerism—is to dissimulate power’s workings, to make it more insidious, not more exposed; it works to power’s advantage.

Speaking of consumers, it’s a hard call as to whether shoppers should go for the Criterion DVD or hold out for the BFI Blu-ray edition, due out in the UK on September 29; that version boasts such fun extras as Ostia, a 1991 short by Julian Cole, featuring Derek Jarman, about Pasolini’s last days, as well as a new music video for Coil’s 1987 song “Ostia (The Death of Pasolini).” It’s a bit late for freshman orientation, perhaps, but perfect for those looking for something to keep them busy during fall break.