Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Salo



Salo, o le Centoventi Giornati di Sodoma
Italy 1975
Pier Paolo Pasolini

Pasolini was killed shortly after the release of Salo – though not, it must be pointed out, by a hostile critic or other angry viewer of his massively controversial movie, but by what the reference books call a teenage hustler. The lads opinion of Salo, if he had one, isn’t recorded. Twenty-five years later, the film was finally approved for public showing in the UK and, if nothing else, it retains its ability to shock and repel even the most dedicated follower of extreme arthouse cinema – few features can be so certain to guarantee walkouts, as this reviewer can testify from very recent personal experience.

Salo is, to say the least, tough going. Set during the final days of Italys Fascist rule, and apparently adapted from a Marquis de Sade text, it chronicles the debaucheries of four Masters known as The Duke, The Bishop, The Magistrate and The President in a mansion near the scenic lakeside town that gives the movie its title (which sounds like it should be the Italian for dirty, but isnt.) The film opens on a deceptively subdued note, with the Masters selecting around 20 young men and women in their late-teens, at the oldest from nearby towns.

They then proceed to rape, torture and degrade them in the most horrifying of ways, aided by their gun-toting Militia. The Victims are forced to feast on, and wallow in, their own shit, and the film culminates in a tableau straight from Brueghel, encompassing genital torture, scalping, the gouging of an eye and the tearing-out of a tongue. Potential viewers are warned that the visual effects during this sequence are horribly convincing as the saying goes, you’ve got to keep reminding yourself ITS ONLY A MOVIE, ITS ONLY A MOVIE, though, compared with Salo, most movies seem like very trivial enterprises indeed.

Despite all this, Salo is a comedy. An extremely dark and, in many ways, horrifying comedy, but a comedy all the same: a satire, a lampoon, a grotesque distortion, a caricature, though the actual laughs are very few and far between. But try keeping a straight face when, at the height of the bloodthirsty finale, Pasolini shows three of the masters merrily dancing, arms locked together, like something out of the Folies Bergeres, the fourth looking on from a distant room through a pair of opera glasses – gallows humour is, after all, still humour. Paolo Bonacelli, as the bellowing, bestial Duke, catches the tone perfectly. Hes a monstrous cartoon of evil, smiling beatifically as his face is pissed on by a terrified female Victim – at such moments, Salo passes into a ludicrous, Dada universe of its own, an uncharted realm of cosmic, comic cruelty.

Its easy to see why so many people regard Salo as objectionable (though attacking it, as some have done, as trash, gay porn, surely insults and demeans Pasolinis seriousness.) The worryingly complaisant Victims are played by non-professionals who go by their own names, and there are moments when they’re forced into humiliating situations running around naked on all fours like dogs, wearing collars and leashes, begging for food where Pasolini is arguably as guilty as the Masters themselves, though the shit they’re forced to eat is clearly some kind of chocolate substitute. Is Salo justified because its about the evils of Fascism, about the evils of inhumanity an indictment?

On one hand, its absurd to criticise Pasolinis extremity in Salo, because the horrors committed by the Fascists and Nazis surely deserve nothing less. To water down the apocalypse would be an insult to the real victims and doesn’t this kind of cinema have a duty to push back the boundaries? On the other hand, this means Pasolini can get away with anything he likes, with anything he chooses to put onto the screen. There can be few films with so much painfully unconvincing laughter (and were supposed to overlook the typically sloppy Italian approach to dubbing), but, again, the movie carries abundant, inbuilt defences against charges of artificiality. Its fair to say, however, that Pasolinis approach, while effective, is essentially crude: presenting your political enemies as (literally) sadistic demons is hardly an advanced form of engagement with the issues.

That doesn’t mean the picture lacks sophistication, of course there’s an elegance in the ironic tension between Salos immaculate, rigorous formal structure (the film is divided into chapters; actions and shots are repeated at regular intervals until they take on their air of ritual; there are recurrrent numerological harmonies; the archetypal, allegorical nature of the characters and events is constantly stressed) and the lethal, freewheeling anarchy of what the structure is forced to contain. Subtleties become jarringly incongruous the constant rumble of (presumably Allied) aircraft overhead tolling the impending end of the Fascist rule.

Because the audience is never allowed to settle, were capable of being startlingly dumbfounded: one of the Militia breaks the rules by sleeping with a servant-girl. The Masters, tipped off about of the situation via a (humorously extended) chain of informers, burst in. The soldier instinctively stands in the fist-extended Fascist salute, wrongfooting the audience as much as the Masters themselves. They rapidly recover their composure and gun down the soldier – frustratingly, as the scene would be have been much more powerful if it had ended with their stunned withdrawal. But Pasolini, following Blakes directions to the Palace of Wisdom, heads full-speed down the road of excess, neither knowing nor caring if he’s travelling alone.

Click here for a 1969 interview (not by me!) with Pier Paolo Pasolini

19th February 2001

by Neil Young


A Reader Responds to Neil’s review


I’ve read with great interest your review on Pasolini’s Salo on I agree with most of what you said, although I really found the movie very very tough, almost unbearable. I’m writing to correct a little mistake at the end of your article: the guy who sleeps with the servant girl and is shot doesn’t make the fascist salute (it’s an extended palm), but the communist salute (extended fist). He knows he’s going to be killed and wants to defy the masters one last time. The master is dumbfounded because he can’t imagine someone being bold enough to counter him: “How can this piece of shit (as far as I can remember, he’s not of the militia but one of the victims) dare disobey the rules and stand in front of me?” After the first moment of surprise, he regains his senses and applies the only solution he knows, the simplistic fascist one: he shoots him.