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The Fearful Symmetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salò”

The Fearful Symmetry of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Salò”

By Donald Liebenson

Recently added to the cast of ABC's Step by Step, Bronson Pinchot is also set to star in a CBS sitcom as an alien who comes to Earth and becomes a nanny for three children. The actor, best known for playing Balkie in the sitcom Perfect Strangers and currently on video in First Wives Club and Courage Under Fire, often rents movies to research roles, and some recent selections proved to be a real education.
SALO, OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM (1975, Water Bearer, unrated): ‘I'm half Italian, and for a movie I wanted to see [in terms of makeup] what you can do with Italian faces. I told my assistant to get me every film with an Italian face. He has avant-garde tastes, and he brought this [Pier Paolo Pasolini's film about Fascist atrocities in WWII] back. It was horrifying. And you could barely see any Italian faces. All you could see were asses.’--Entertainment Weekly: issue #371 Mar 21, 1997”


In the Cinema of Bad Sex, has there ever been an entry more monumental than Salò? Italian poet, director and cultural heretic Pier Paolo Pasolini’s notorious lamination of the Marquis de Sade’s fantastically cruel The 120 Days of Sodom atop the all-too-actual bedlam of Fascist Italy’s final days has only grown in infamy since its 1975 completion. Its controversial premise: four perverted and powerful Libertines—the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate, and the President—kidnap 9 young men and 9 young women from a village and take them to a secluded palace to exploit their bodies and beings over the course of several days filled with sexual humiliation, torture, rape and ultimately wholesale murder. Thanks in part to the very censorship and banning that aimed to suppress it, as well as years of tantalizingly limited home media availability that at one time spurred on collectors to pay upwards of $2000 per out-of-print disc, Salò, recently back in print in the United States through the Criterion Collection, may be more monumental than ever. The monument, of course, would be a phallic obelisk, its presence visible for miles even though the majority of its physical bulk remains unreachable no matter how much time you spend around it. Monolithic. Impermeable. Yet in practical terms, ultimately of questionable civic or social utility. Ultimately just taking up space.

Yet Salò exists and with the lingering question, “what to do with it?” Had he not been brutally murdered under disputed circumstances shortly after Salò’s completion, Pasolini, ever the contrarian, would approve of the mixed feelings the film still manages to illicit amidst today’s moving-image market, even as it is glutted with online executions and a burgeoning genre labeled “torture porn” that passes as entertainment. The film’s core images of degradation, for that matter, could have been snapped in Abu Ghraib, though never with such exacting aesthetic control. As familiar (dare I say comfortable) with onscreen atrocity as today’s movie-going public may be, stylistically Salò’s performances, set-ups, dialogue, and near absence of narrative momentum remain unlike anything else in cinema or human experiences to which a viewer might relate, no matter what tribulations he or she has had to face. Taken as a whole, it’s a consummate example of Alienation Effect in overdrive to the point where any and all semblance of human life reproduced onscreen loses the empathic charge to connect the audience to the “characters” (a term that given the circumstances can only be used loosely) or the politics that purportedly motivate them. Per interviews contemporary with the production of Salò, Pasolini intentionally set out to create a film unfit for a mass audience. He may have succeeded at creating a film that is inflexibly indigestible (different from being unwatchable, mind you), but at long last this critique of neo-consumer society, as he himself proclaimed it to be, is no longer un-buyable. I expect a lot of adventurous Netflix subscribers have been left scratching their heads this month.

Such directorial proclamations have always contributed to Salò’s problematic. The film’s almost-always unspectacular spectacles of torture and epically decadent intellectual boredom rarely sync up in any organic or convincing way with the dramatic theories Pasolini posited as the basis for his images. For example, he famously declared that the film’s most infamous sequence in which the entire ensemble dines on a banquet of painstakingly collected feces is confrontationally symbolic of neo-consumerist culture’s forced ingestion of processed food, unavoidable in its present-day ubiquity. However, by this point in the film, for the viewer unversed in Pasolini’s contextualizing comments there is no visual or narrative guidance to lead the audience overwhelmingly towards any such deduction. Morgan Spurlock’s shenanigans in Super-Size Me go a much longer way towards actually making the point Pasolini theorizes Salò should make (see also: Standard Operating Procedure and/or Starship Troopers re: Neo-facism). If I could just as convincingly state that this very essay you are reading has in fact been symbolic of the use of color in The Berenstein Bears Forget Their Manners, I hope you would question me too.

So if the lofty theorems behind Salò feel more often than not irrelevant to the actual viewing experience itself, what remains to recommend it?

It is an oddly mesmerizing sui generis film artifact with distinctly subjective style even as it is perplexing, at times to the point of being incomprehensible. Its obsessive and idiosyncratic selection of cinematic syntax warns of the potential abnegation of the human spirit by the structures of the modern world we inhabit everyday. Terrible? Yes…in every sense of the word. Insightful or instructive? Not guaranteed. Worth shelling out $2000 on eBay for Criterion’s first sub-VHS-quality DVD? Definitely not, suckers. But the film does have an undeniable magnetism such that once one has heard of Salò’s reputation, like a car crash in passing it is hard to avoid contemplating with at least some morbid curiosity. And like gazing at a car crash, I think many viewers will find themselves affected by the static spectacle of Life come to a screeching halt. One does not watch Salò so much as one willingly submits to its exasperating contradictions.

The total nudity of the victims is strictly enforced early in the film and remains pervasive throughout, yet though the viewer quickly grows accustomed to it, this normally natural state of Self is herein always and unmistakably associated with shame. The rules are set up paradoxically and infuriatingly to maximize penalty: a) all captives must be naked, and b) all nudity is punishable. Viewers of Salò are posed concurrently with their own insurmountable dilemma, a challenge thrown down by Pasolini: though we instinctually react sympathetically to the glaring and irrefutable documentary fact of a gaggle of naked bodies being penetrably exposed, we are still hard-pressed to ever connect in any meaningful way to characters so psychologically underdeveloped and stylized. A "reaction" shot to a mannequin "smiling" ever so slightly upon receipt of a demonstrational hand-job is one of the film’s ironic acceptation that sex might be received with pleasure rather than embarrassment; at best a cynically negligible concession to character identification.

Furthermore, in a world in which consensual sex is essentially a myth (there are scattered desperate exceptions), the most frustrating element of the scenario’s unreality can switch surprisingly from how disgusting a violation the Libertine’s rapes are to how inconceivable the victims’ lack of protest is under these conditions. A few outbursts are witnessed from atypically rebellious kids, but they are promptly disposed of and the remaining majority of them tacitly accept their roles in the hideous experiment. It’s important to specify that this lack of affect reads more like another factor in Pasolini’s stylization rather than any attempt to elaborate upon any psychological complexities of captor/victim relationships. Does that leave the performances from the primarily non-actor cast feeling utterly unbelievable? You bet. Is that the point? Hopefully, but even on purpose, it still remains hard to reconcile with most viewers’ emotional or intellectual experiences. Some of the victims even display expressions suggesting pride by the film’s penultimate line-up scene, as if they had survived nothing more severe than a fraternity hazing. If I had to choose between summer-camps-of-the-damned, I would head for Marienbad before Salò. Both would be “people”d only with holographic ciphers, but at least the electives activities would be less stressful.

The philosophy of Salò’s cinematic universe is espoused through its graphically striking though sterile symmetry. Returned to again and again, it monotonously becomes an overbearing default and an imprisoning Hell. Maintaining strict standards of symmetrical perfection in appearance is a primary criterion in the Libertines’ initial choice of victims (and later their contest to select the most perfect ass), and the ideology behind this echoes across the frame’s bilateral mirroring in geometrical compositions of architecture, characters, and fixtures.

This commitment to symmetry shared by the Libertines and Pasolini’s filmmaking also plays out through repeated visual strategies of doubling:

  • The voyeuristic staging and framing of anonymous Bodies to become purely sexual vehicles devoid of psychological individuation:
  • The repeatedly used stuttering effect of cuts across the 180 degree line that promise to reveal new information but rather deliver almost identical wide-shot set-ups:
  • An on-screen action that drastically rearranges the mise-en-scene though not towards revitalizing ends but rather to eradicate any human presence and again delight in geometric doubling:

In these examples, the viewer reacts to a sensation of change, progression, differentiation when in fact it is an illusion, insubstantial and infinitesimally slight. Patterns merely mimic substance to lure in the viewer, but eventually a homogenization process chills the blood till the creeping sensation of sameness itself becomes flattened across gestures, actions, shots, and scenes. The viewer is trained to disregard emotion as an acceptable response to Salò. Pasolini’s self-subverting visual choices purposefully add up to zero, like their verbal analog, the Libertines’ droll, prolonged, and overly-logical-to-the-point-of-idiocy word-play jokes that are casually told to celebrate murders. Example: a man becomes separated from his friend whose name is Six-times-eight, and when he finally relocates him, he cries to him “Six-times-eight!” The obvious reply? “Forty-eight!” Duh. Cut to a close-up of the Libertines in uproarious laughter. These visuals, like much of the stylized script, are an exercise in canceling-out the significance of meaning in celebration of the true emptiness behind its facade.

Nowhere does Salò ’s emptiness rumble more hollowly than in Pasolini’s obsessive reliance on the visual trope of receding perspective. His university education in Italian Renaissance painting is on full display. He paid homage to that era of art in The Decameron in which he himself cameos as the fresco-painting Giotto…he even grants the old master the film’s lovely closing musing: “Why execute a work when it's so beautiful to dream it?” But Salò is spitefully intent upon profaning the almost mathematical certainty of perspective and its reliably repeatable translation of three-dimensional reality into the two-dimensional plane. Orthogonal and transversal lines were once the key to proto-cinematic technology’s mimetic reproduction of physical space. Conversely, over the course of Salò’s countless flat, frontal, perspectivally dominated shots, these vortices drive inexorably onward with psychotic center-seeking energy even without any apparent on-screen motivation for such a persistent gravitational drive. These shots are the film’s most salient compositional tool. I’d wager they fill the majority of Salò’s screen-time, and characters become dwarfed by the linear precision of architecture amidst such framing. Nude spectacles though they may be, no one person stands out as more than a metric unit onscreen. Collectively they are no more than stations diminishing along the inevitable path towards the vanishing point. Every such shot boils down to an X, and again, at first superficially diverse shots subliminally reveal themselves over the numbing course of the film to be essentially the same. Another example of Pasolini’s homogenization process.

No one even stands a fighting chance to object in the face of such pre-determined forces because through Pasolini’s shot selections—either conspiring with the Libertines or attempting to illustrate their ideology—the screen itself becomes victimized. A complicit witness like the on-looking teenaged guards who do nothing to stop the atrocities, these compositions provide both the blueprints necessary to establish a fixed central focal point as well as the shackles necessary to constrain any protestations arising from within the politely mannered image. Even when it houses unspeakable acts of onscreen violence, the frame remains icily calm. The static camera penetrates from a point of unflappable safety just as the Libertines each take turns observing the film’s final orgy of graphic torture and murder through binoculars from a throne of impunity, inside their palace looking out into the courtyard. When one of the Libertines demands even more control, he simply flips his binoculars around to claim greater distanciation from the actions. Looking through the wrong end of the lens further exaggerates the orthogonal energy towards the vanishing point and drives home the chilling sensation that the entire balance of human lives is treated by those in power as nothing more than detailing within a wicked hobbyist's diorama. The Libertine smiles in delight like some pre-pubescent experimenting to prolong the moment before masturbatory ejaculation. All the while lives are sacrificed before him at his command, for his pleasure, arousal, and ephemeral orgasm.


I am mischievously delighted by the thought of a post-apocalyptic science-fiction future in which all life on the planet has been eradicated by war or an error in high places, and the only record of humanity to survive is, improbably enough, a copy of Salò. I’d love to see the expression on the face of the alien archaeologist (portrayed by Bronson Pinchot) when he views the film, sizing up the human race based solely on the lonely and baffling rituals of its strange inhabitants. Even if Salò could somehow exist in a hypothetical cultural void, no one who watches it with creeping unease can help but be instinctually alarmed by the palpable absence of something crucial from within our modern trappings...humanity.

Epic. An instant addition to the best writing on Pasolini’s film career.
“Through Pasolini’s shot selections—either conspiring with the Libertines or attempting to illustrate their ideology—the screen itself becomes victimized.” Agreed. Also, the use of color in this essay reminds one of The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners. Well done.
Concur with Dave exactly. This, finally, has been the work of criticism that has made me reconsider Salo as a valuable act of cinema. Excellent writing.
Just watched the DVD few days ago. It was wonder and filled my heart with wonderful feelings. What kind of wonderful feelings? I’m not sure. But it’s wonderful.
I’ve never thought Salo was really all that good of a film, but good or bad are almost beside the point. Pasolini wanted to play a Pavlovian game with the audience, and at the same time to raise the question of our own complicity in witnessing it, participating in it. It’s a film about torture that is torture to sit through.
“It’s a film about torture that is torture to sit through”, said Rodney. I don’t think so. The movie is art… of course is disturbing, but in the same way like Michelangelo’s works.
Except that Michaelangelo doesn’t make me puke. I kept having to shut “Salo” off to step outside for a smoke break just to wash the images out of my brain. It took me all night to watch it, and days later scenes were still popping up at the worst moments. It’s like a feature-length version of “Two Girls and a Cup” — and far more interesting to discuss in terms of the reactions it generates than to sit through.
I remember when I first saw it at a cinema. Shocked and happy!
Rodney, I’m with you. This film is an artistic masterpiece, but it’s unique in its ability to make me dry heave upon recollection of certain scenes.
I’ve always wanted to see this in a theater. I’m almost more curious about the audience reaction then I am about the film! What was your audience like, Fabiano?
I bought this DVD set at a horror film convention. My friend had told me about it, but not in really great detail. From the moment the movie started I had the thought in the back of my head that people have said this is one of the most disgusting movies you can see. I have to agree. I have sat through Nekromantik and Cannibal Holocaust unfazed, but Salo pushed the limits. All the homosexual sex and shit eating isn’t going to be leaving my mind soon.
Though I do experience a growing dread during passages of the movie in which you can just feel things are going to get worse, I’ve always had a hard time thinking of the film as “disgusting” on a visceral level just because of the degree of artifice maintained. I’d be interested to hear people’s ideas about complicity in film viewing as well. That’s a tricky topic, I think.
Ben, First of all, fine and thoughtful article. Second, it’s been some years since I really looked into it, but I think Pasolini did have some antagonism toward the drift of liberal society, which could no longer be shocked by anything and no longer seemed to care. If I remember correctly, he came down hard on his friend Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” because it wasn’t really provocative enough to challenge their views on sexuality, or something like that. To me, this seemed to fit perfectly with “Salo,” because I kept feeling he was punishing me as a viewer. In my own head, I found myself asking him why he was subjecting me to this, why he was going out of his way to make me ill, not with one scene or two but with many, over and over and over. He (again in my imagination) seemed to be answering back: “I don’t know — why are you watching? Was I supposed to entertain you? Are Nazis supposed to be entertaining? Is that what you want from a film: Nazis which are safely up there on the screen and don’t penetrate your safe little world? Well, fuck you.”
this is absolutely wonderful writing. I’ve been waiting for this film to be available, and now I feel like I’ll have a much more honest take of it after reading this analysis.
I love your analysis, but I do think this film is a masterpiece – on both aesthetic and symbolic levels. It really is different from anything you have ever, and will ever, see. I’d call it an essential watch for cineastes, if not a comfortable one. As for the “processed food” symbolism? I think if you approach the film from a completely symbolic perspective – the film itself is really an indictment of the actions and activities of fascist parties in central Europe and the effects their crimes had on developing nations (specifically those in Eastern Europe) the processed-food thing really does fall into place. But its a tricky film because to really know what he’s going on about (and really, to recognize the work in the film as anything other than obliquely rendered sexploitation) you sort of need to have some background knowledge in the history of European fascism.
this film is more notorius for the shocking effect that causes on people and not so much for the artistic quality’s. Great review of this classic film, keep’ em coming.
@Slayton: while I still don’t think many symbolic specifics are articulated in the film (Pasolini’s looser than that), I’m much more open to the processed food angle since originally writing the piece. I think I was a bit naive about the complexity of the politics surrounding what passes for food in the modern world, and that’s something that is becoming a bigger debate daily. SALO certainly brings new meaning to Michael Pollan’s book title THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA, and of course institutionally influenced nutritional intakes (varying on a class-by-class basis) can be used to strategically oppress. Granted, the shit-eating symbolism can also refer more generally to any number of aspects of the mean quality of existence offered a populace by stingy and manipulative rulers.
A wonderful addition to the on-going debate about this controversial film. It is difficult how to categorize Salo, but the film’s significance is witnessed in that it is still intensely discussed more than 30 years after its release. What you say about the film’s visual composition reminds me greatly of Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad. Though the camera, in that film, is far more kinetic than the claustrophobic stillness in Salo. I think the highly stylized, static, and redundant compositions here are to reflect Mussolini’s Italy. He was very much about artifice; just as fascism was about reducing everything, and everyone to the level of an object of consumption.
Salo is a strange film. Perhaps the most strange thing about it is its ability to keep one interested enough that one watches it again and again. For such a Spartan viewing experience, with subject matter that would drive many away, and make most happy to see it only once, I keep coming back for more. I can’t undestand why, other than the fact that there is a lot packed into the tableaus. Looking at the tableaus is like watching Stanley Kubrick’s mentor training him on how to make a picture seem like it is coming to life. Although A Clockwork Orange came first, it is the visual sense of the tableaus in The Shining which most remind me of Salo. What I have noticed is that with repeat viewings, the atrocities and banquets of feces recede into the background, and the storytelling whores become more and more the one element which annoys in increasing intensity. Somehow, with such appalling subject matter, and very spare delivery, Pasolini made a film that is densely textured with many points of subject matter which can be the starting point for many types of discussion. Oddly, he succeeds in creating a dialogue out of an unspeakable series of topics. I cannot think of a more brave exercise in cinema than this movie. Part of the dilemma for me is that I like it at all. Is this the type of film that anyone should like? And yet, I find myself admitting that it has merits that go way beyond casual viewing. There is nothing casual about it in the end. It is quite a profound challenge directed right at us. If forces us to ask hard questions about ourselves and about the things we believe. Most especially, it breaks us up into victims, perptrators and collaborators. Which one of the three are we, and if the circumstances are right, can we be any combination of all of the above?
Great call Steve on the Kubrick influence/interplay. I can’t vouch in any way for Pasolini’s direct influence upon Kubrick (or vice versa), but I think there is definitely something in CLOCKWORK’s use of fisheye distortions that presages to the receding perspective in SALO as far as visual distancing from atrocity goes, and even more so, I have always been struck by the superficial (in the sense of them having a shared surface rather than the sense of “shallow”) similarities in rigorous use of symmetrical composition between SALO, THE SHINING and FULL METAL JACKET.
Absolutely excellent writing, and an incredibly valuable and insightful review.
Thanks. Did anyone go to the screening at BAM last week? on the FOURTH OF JULY!?!??!? Heard there was a good print and a good crowd. Curious to hear personal and/or observed reactions.

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