Salo, Pasolini’s last and most controversial film is based on “120 Days of Sodom”. There are some films which cannot do justice to a novel, there are some which are highly appreciated as well as criticized for going beyond. Let us consider an example. Take Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist”; the story can take you places-its a modern classic. The simple narrative and vivid portrayal of archetypes is scintillating. It has medieval charm but a modern phenomenon which is beyond time and boundary. Can a film ever achieve this?
The answer is NO; A film cannot encapsulate, it is bound to ‘reveal’. Duncan’s murder is off-stage in the Shakespearean tragedy, thus the violence being sublime. But this is not possible in the cinematic medium. It would look like ‘over-editing’. Coming to de Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom”, it is set in 18th century France. It is the chronicle of 4 French libertines living up their dream of their fantasia. Before Pasolini, Bunuel had alluded to this lecherous novel in his film L’Age d’Or(1930) in its final vignette in the following way:[Click to view larger image]
Salo is much more direct treatment. The only liberty taken by him is that the film is set in the last days of Mussolini’s regime, thus telescoping almost 150 years from 17th century France, thus the French aristocrats have now become corrupt fascists libertines. The rest of the plot remains quite the same. They have abducted a group of young teenagers to create an empire of sexual ordeals.
To compliment the already enough lowness, they have also employed a prostitute to arouse carnal innuendos in these young minds. The lewd and promiscuous old hags misuse their power to the ultimatum. Their evil is intolerable and disturbing. This evil is generated from boredom, which is aristocratic in nature. The film has less than a few seconds of outdoor shots. The sexual world depicted in the film has no connection to the outside world. The motifs on the ground are rectangular, discrete and monotonous signifying the atmosphere of calculated emotions, boredom and clinical lechery.
Later in the film, the voyeurs watch a young boy and a girl engage in lovemaking. As soon as they commence a passionate intercourse it is cut short by them and the old hags take over their bodies. Pasolini tries to show us us that extreme fascism is license to free crime. In the film, fascism emerges out as a symbol of unholy sex and a mockery of itself. The fascists try to control this artificial distopian world which they have constructed but soon havoc breaks out the ordered state of absolute control. It is like one of those old radio jokes on Fascism, which says a fascist could figure out the name of a 3000 year old mummy, because it confessed.
It is said that the actual film had ended otherwise but as far as the public version of the film is concerned, the film ends on a satirical note with the gay dance of slaves. Thus they would not die slaves; they could control their actions but could not curb their emotions.
The film, undoubtedly have some rare glimpses of Pasolini’s genius which we had earlier encountered in “Theorem”, “The Hawks and the Sparrows” and “The Gospel According to St. Matthew”. One scene that stayed with me was in the beginning where the prostitute introduces a newly abducted teenaged girl to the voyeurs. They love the innocence in her look(which they wish to ravish) and admit that she has a perfect body. But suddenly they see that she has a sore tooth, so she was not perfect and was discarded.
Thus the castle of the libertines was a construct of a perfect sexual fantasy, the dreamworld of every sexually suppressed human being. Every man with a failed sexual life would dream of such a castle erotica cut away from the goings-on of life outside where they would get a non-replenishable source of youth to satiate their unquenchable sexual hunger. Thus the slaves they select have to be angelically perfect, to be their muse. Thus the decadence in the society is not only political, it is moral and spiritual. Again the revolt from fascism, as Salo depicts, is castrated, not united and marred by accusing each other and oneself. Lastly, the marriage scene is the last relic of Pasolini’s bizzare genius. The inhabitants of the castle wear tribal regressive attire. The marriage conducted is neither Roman Catholic, English, with “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”, nor French but more of a Hawaiian marriage.
Then, why does Salo fail as a film?
However, sadist or dysphemistic could be a film, it should never be disturbing to watch. I’ve seen people comparing Salo and Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange or even “A Serbian Film” which many ‘top-10’ lists of glossys have crowned the “most disturbing film ever”. The point is not that. The point is ethical and moreover, about mind’s own censor. It could be that you are a great director and you can make your unit work in such a way that they “do not understand that [they] have made something so horrible” ; you could’ve provided the actress to eat orange marmalade instead of human feces but the effect is still the same. One should never film such disturbing things which are so gory that even cannot be written. There are some things a film just cannot show. The function of cinema is not propaganda that people would watch it solely because of their curiosity of why it was banned. Thus, as I said in the beginning, 120 Days of Sodom possibly cannot be depicted on screen, unless one leaves the inside of the castle as a Pandora’s Box, an enigmatic symbol, just like Bunuel masterfully did 45 years before Pasolini.