On Pasolini’s Salo

The attempt to deny differences is a part of the more general enterprise of denying life, depreciating existence and promising it a death where the universe sinks into the undifferentiated
Being one of the most celebrated films that has yet to be issued with a certification by the British Board of Film Classification, Pasolini’s Salo is perhaps the most controversial of all banned films in a list that includes Clockwork Orange and Straw Dogs. In many ways it is easy to see why Pasolini’s film has created such a furore. Critically acclaimed yet hardly ever seen, Salo, from its banning in Italy to its seizure by the Met’s Vice Squad in August 1978, is possibly the most provocative and disturbing political film ever made. Its release, even now, would occasion far reaching debates; not least of which would revolve around a questioning of the Censors’ ability to comprehend the cinematic ‘language’ they are charged with interpreting and classifying. In times which pride themselves on ‘openness’, and which continue the tradition of seeming to offer everything, it is to a film like Salo that we can turn to get some sense of where the line has always been drawn. For, although Salo depicts scenes of brute violence and degradation it is such scenes that are ripped out of context to serve as a smokescreen to deter viewers from coming into contact with a movie that, far from being salacious or pornographic, is a blatant indictment of capitalist society. As such Salo’s intensity is in part informed by the controversial life of its director. That Pasolini, an outspoken homosexual and maverick communist who spoke of having renounced “explicit ideology” [1], was murdered before its release, and that circumstantial evidence pointed to the possible involvement of left or right wing extremists is the kind of mystery, bordering on conspiracy, that his film seems almost inevitably to elicit. Being a film that touches the disavowed psycho-sexual core of capitalist social-relations, a blindspot for both left and right, Salo can be viewed as a visual analogue to some of the themes contained in Deleuze and Guattari’s text, Anti-Oedipus. Like this book it deals with the difficult areas of power and subjugation, of desire, freedom and phantasy and, crucially, it does not offer the easy answers that ‘belief’ is apt to instil. But should it be felt that Pasolini is an ‘auteur’, that Salo is a film made by a visionary, it should also be stressed that Salo was made in Italy during a period of social and political struggle that fanned-out from the ‘Hot Autumn’ of 1969 to the debacle of state-sponsored terrorism, and the arrest of communist militants in the late 70s. These events would hardly be unknown to Pasolini and, having critiqued this society through such earlier films as Pigsty and Theorem, it is more than probable that his work, along with that of other film directors like Francesco Rosi, Elio Petrie and Marco Ferreri, contributed to a heightening of the political heat during these years through their ‘studies’ of the Fascist past, working class struggles, institutional corruption and para-politics. Pasolini, a life long opponent of all forms of conformism, said in reference to Salo, his last film, that he wanted people to “realise that there are basic human instincts that must be recognised… today we have come full circle, because what is being exploited is man’s mind and his body. In consumer society we are being given a false sense of freedom, because we are suddenly allowed to do things that had been taboo” [2]. It is perhaps this accent given to Salo, the examination of what freedom and desire can mean, that marks out Pasolini’s film as one that moves into uncharted socio-political territory.
With Salo, Pasolini draws upon de Sade’s catalogue of perversions “120 Days of Sodom” and sets it in the 1940s in the shortlived Republic of Salo: a last outpost of Mussolini’s retreating fascist government. That this historic context is not explained or contextualised from the outset by voiceover or by means of the script, almost immediately transfers a responsibility onto the viewer and places the onus upon that viewer to carry out independent research into the history of ‘Salo’. As disturbing as it is to be offered, so soon in the film, a sense of agency from the director, this choice to evoke rather than to explain has the effect of not only removing any elements of didacticism from the picture but of ensuring the viewer’s active-perception in the scenes that are to unfold. This apparent lack of moral guidance, the careful eliding of a narrational or framed presence with its clear point-of-view, is assured by Pasolini’s drawing upon the contentious works of de Sade and joining it to suppressed historical events. Pasolini is thus straight-away in the position of attracting controversy and misunderstanding. Yet, this complicated combination of polysemy and decontextualisation is creative of an affective-immediacy that, in unmooring expectation and in collapsing past and present, makes its themes and concerns timeless. This experiential immediacy of Salo, with its presentation of the minutiae of events, is further drawn out by the marking of time within the film: instead of the ‘realist’ approach of using time and place subtitles, Pasolini chooses to draw upon the canto-divisions of Dante’s Inferno to present the viewer with a series of ‘cycles’. This time could be any previous or impending time.

The opening segment of the film – the antechamber to hell – proceeds immediately into the action of our seeing young people rounded up and herded into makeshift holding centres. There are road blocks, tears and separation and all Pasolini gives us to interpret these opening sequences is a very short scene where a ‘constitution’ is signed in a darkened conference room. Though it is not made explicit it is implied that this is a formal ratification that establishes the Republic of Salo and marks the agreement and collaboration between the Italian Fascist and the Nazis to institute a reign of terror. There is no communicated sense of why the round up is happening and who is doing the rounding up. At first – when bike riders are pursued by cars – there is a hint of gangsterism about the operation – black limo, trench coats, hats, submachine guns – but yet the overall logistics seem to be facilitated by German soldiers [3]. The herding and imprisonment sequences are then followed by a series of selection committees held in requisitioned buildings through which Pasolini first evokes his theme of human commodification: “the reduction of a body to a thing through exploitation” [4]. The selection procedures are ones that look for perfection: a pretty girl with a gap in her teeth is rejected and so this sense of an ‘ideal’ of beauty is also presented as a form of commodification. With these sequences of display, inspection and enforced stripping, which are evocative of slave markets, Pasolini also introduces the prevalent theme of voyeurism as well as that which works with the nuances between ‘reality’ and ‘phantasy’. Furthermore the selection procedure is also drawn by Pasolini as a competition and collusion that is as much about self-protection: those ‘offering’ the slaves act as ‘agents’ and desire the favouritism of those who are doing the selecting. Though initially obscured it becomes clear that the Masters – A Duke, a Bishop, a Magistrate, a Banker – whose power over the others has been ratified by the ‘constitution’ are depicted by Pasolini in such a way as to represent the personified powers of the capitalist state. A move which not only echoes de Sade’s authoritarian figures of Duc, Monsignor, Ambassador and President but which also makes reference to Pasolini’s earlier film, Pigsty. The outcome of these sequences is that eight girls and eight boys are selected and taken to a chateau under armed German guard. On the way one of the captive boys, more fully drawn than the other captives by being talked-of as a ‘red’, tries to escape and is shot on the shale of a riverside. By doing away with this character Pasolini sets the tone for what is to follow: there will not only be a lack of interpretative directives from the director there will be little hope for resistance or revolt.

Once at the chateau the German guards are replaced by Italian blackshirt guards and, in an obvious reference to statecraft, the Masters and their entourage address the Slaves from a balcony. Here the ‘laws’ are laid down and viewers are introduced at the same time as the Slaves to what is going to happen: elaborate stories, rituals, will occur and the Masters can interrupt their unfolding and take their pleasure with any of the Slaves at any time. This scene is jarred by the sudden anger of one of the Masters who, seeing that there are chateau servants in amongst the audience of Slaves, calls out for these servants to be removed. Whilst drawing the audience’s attention to the presence of a black servant, Pasolini, by means of this sudden scene, not only illustrates how the slaves segue into servants segue into workers, he also establishes that the Masters’ are needful that their orgies should not be disturbed by the ‘outside’ world. The film then proceeds into the next circle. The circle of manias. Here the ritualistic nature of events is introduced. Convening daily in the ‘Hall of Orgies’, pornographic stories (based upon those of de Sade) are recited by a Madame to the accompaniment of classical piano music. Each assembly in the Hall is drawn by Pasolini to accentuate its ritualistic and cyclical nature. These take in the Madame’s preparations before the dressing table and feature her very theatrical entrance down a wide staircase [5]. At first there is an element of negotiation in establishing the tenor of the orgies: the Masters’ request more detail from the Madame’s stories in order that the imaginative provocation that she draws is compatible with the anticipated satiation of their desires. But, as the circle of perversions moves into the circle of shit moves into the circle of blood, the storytelling format is used by Pasolini to emphasise the repetitive aspect of the rituals. Just as this device refers to the enaction of desire as a marriage of phantasy and will – the way desire, by means of the stories, is removed from the individual Masters and comes to be at free-play between people within the chateau and thus institutes the imaginary world sought by the Masters – it also hints at the Masters’ impotency and insecurity in that they need these repetitive narrative structures in order to articulate their desires in the first place: lacking imagination they are reliant on the stories to give them their phantasy and provoke their will. In a different direction the storytelling format is a means by which Pasolini can slow the film down and heighten the fearful anticipation of the Slaves and audience whilst emphasising the incremental growth of the Master’s sadism. The slowness also seems to be communicated to us by the camerawork: a preponderance of middle distance framing sets up a kind of objectivity… the audience are witnessing events and are encouraged to ‘think’ with the distance it gives them; a distance which is given further accent by Pasolini’s spartan use of close-up shots and his overall reluctance to use ‘fragments of the body shots’. Furthermore the storytelling format gives us an indication of the possible ‘release’ of the Slaves. Not only is it that the storytelling scenes become almost scenes of calm and relief for the slaves because nothing is actually being done to them – this is tempered as the film proceeds as it becomes apparent that the theme of the stories is a foretaste of what will be done – it is also a matter of the stories eliciting the ‘consent’ of the Slaves in the ‘shared’ phantasy space. The permutability of the Master/Slave relationship would have it that the Masters’ need the Slaves to be participants in the ‘atmosphere’ and this mutual dependence hints at a potential reversal of power. Such a possibility of reversal is seen several times: the teaching of the slaves how to masturbate a penis properly (a mannequin is used to emphasise the ‘thing’ theme); the clumsiness of some of the one-to-one scenes that follow from a Master picking a Slave; the bodily inability to perform when a girl can’t urinate but then when she does the Master is prone and abased beneath a stream of urine; the switch of costumes especially in the final circle where two of the macho Masters dress up as women. Even so, just as the ‘red’ of the film is shot in the first fifteen minutes, Pasolini does not choose to pursue such a reversal as this would undermine his intent to show that an uncontested power can lead to absolutism. Pasolini is thus establishing the chateau as a place where phantasy is attempting to overcome reality, where, to use Freudian terms, it is intended that the pleasure principle outstrip the reality principle. In Salo, then, Pasolini has it that the suspension of permutability and the absence of a resistance that would mark ‘reality’ have been guaranteed by the political ratification of the constitution that institutes the ‘phantasy’ world of the chateau. But,in making their desires enforceable by law, in their reliance upon the Madame’s stories and, crucially,their adherence to the phantasy/reality dichotomy, Pasolini has the Masters’ absolutism show itself as a psychosis where “there is an erasure of desire and a replacement of the latter by pure, dry, abstract intention” [6].

The audience are aware that there will be a cumulative effect during Salo. The film is inexorably moving towards the final circle. The circle of Death. There will be killings. But how does this desire for murder come to the Masters? In a key speech one of the Masters explains that a Slave’s wailing can do nothing but increase his sexual appetite. Such sadism, perhaps interpretable as innately ‘evil’, is explicit throughout the film, but Pasolini, careful not to lend credence to such a metaphysical reading, does hint at how this desire for killing occurs: it is tied to the power that is invested in the Masters; a power that frees them from social restraint. In this way Pasolini’s use, on the soundtrack, of the ominous drone of overhead planes is a means by which he establishes both the ‘situatedness’ of events and hints at the unconscious libidinal motivation of the Masters. Is it this sound that creates an accelerating momentum? The planes are more than likely those of the Allies coming to ‘liberate’ Italy and thus the opportunities that the chateau offers are registered by the Masters as being shortlived. From this it could be that the Masters experience a tension, an anxious panic that spurs their desire to reach the peak of fulfilment. Yet also, the sound of the planes is an indication of the ‘world out there’ and as such it acts as a spur to the Masters’ sadism in that this sadism could be a way that they defensively reinforce their ‘imaginary’ world within the chateau: by reaching the ‘peaks’ of sadistic killing they can blot out the reality of the outside world and by becoming overwhelmed by their desires they can attempt to transcend their reality [7]. Another of Pasolini’s hints as to the reasons behind such sadism could be figured by his depiction of the accumulation of perversions. Except for the focus on the anus and sodomy that predominate in every circle there is no return to specific stories or scenarios. Nothing is enacted twice. Perhaps Pasolini is here hinting at the momentum that is gained through the enactment of a perversion whereby a series of connections occur that seem unstoppable and which seek the thrill of transgressing what has already been established as the norm. This is seen at the mock wedding ceremony when one of the Masters caresses everyone as he moves through the entourage from bride to groom to the armed guards and is also seen in the way that the anal fetish moves into the sexualisation of shit.
However, the final scenes of the torturing to death of some of the Slaves in the courtyard seems to arrive at the same time as the impotence of the Masters becomes more clearly registered. In amongst these scenes there is a sequence in which one of the Masters puts his hand into another’s trousers to feel for arousal and this is further insisted upon when we see one of the Masters in the courtyard whipping, screaming and yelling words that we cannot hear. The latter’s demeanour and posture, the way that he is lashing-out in such a way as not to pay attention to the victim of his lash, takes an explanation of his pleasure away from sadism and towards an indication of its being an expression of implacable frustration: the short-circuiting of phantasy coupled to the replacement of desire with an instinctual and non-conscious reflex? Whilst it has been offered that sadism is co-determined by its victim it is almost as if the scenes of torture that we are presented with are somehow showing us something more primal than sadism: it is the lust for death, a psychosis, which is being simultaneously enacted throughout the culture in the form of war. But the Masters are still in control at the same time that they are out of control. This control has been paramount throughout Salo by means of the storytelling, the laws of the chateau, the rituals of mock marriage and deflowering etc. and it is further communicated by the way that the scenes of torture are concurrently viewed through ‘opera-glasses’ by both the Masters and the audience. This serves many purposes: it reinforces the distance remarked upon earlier in that the viewer is witness to the deliberate distancing which allows for our seeing fully at the same time as enticing us to think about what we see (emphasised by opera-glasses standing in for camera); it emphasises the voyeuristic theme both of the Masters and of ourselves as spectators (hence this makes for very uncomfortable viewing in light of the horror we are ‘witness’ to); and for the Masters it increases the sensation of their being in control and out of control at the same time [8]. This latter point, as exemplified by the Master who throws a ‘tantrum’ while he lashes out, is perhaps the only point in Salo where Pasolini allows for the conscious authority of the Masters to appear weakened. For if it is that the relationship between Masters and Slaves is one that is permutable, then the Masters, as part of their phantasy, have created a situation where they have “done away with this permutability” and doled-out the solidified roles of separable ‘Masters’ and ‘Slaves’. The element of non-conscious, instinctual frustration intensifies this denial of permutability and so, as repression, it intensifies its registration in the unconscious and thus brings emphasis to “the role which the subject does not enact in the acting-out” [10]. Taking this as an insight into Salo’s final circle we see how the Masters, in killing the Slaves, are unconsciously killing themselves.Their being both in and out of control is then a way that this permutability, the mutual dependence, is expressed but denied and this disavowal takes as its tax the slaying of the Slaves. Pasolini’s depiction of the tortures and killing in the final circle is thus perhaps not just simply a depiction of the lengths the Masters would go in order to protect their phantasy of mastery from the incursion of social-reality, but it is a marker of the malfunctioning of their desire and the increasing inadequacy of their powers of phantasising. Their psychosis assures their viewing the slaves as ‘non-desirers’, as people devoid of possibilities for mutual inherence, as subhumans. Being able, with all the power invested in them, to imagine anything, the Masters can imagine only suicide and enact nothing other than death. Their desire, no longer reliant upon the metabolistic play of reality and phantasy, returns to draw upon the asocial instinct from whence it once came.

So far we have concentrated on the Masters, but what of the Slaves? It is no surprise that we have not focussed to closely on the Slaves for Pasolini is intent on studying the regressive, primal power of the Masters and in order to achieve this it is necessary that the ‘closed vessel’ of the chateau and the psychotic actions that occur therein take precedence within the film. An animalistic atmosphere thus permeates Salo and this is heightened by Pasolini’s ‘objective’ depiction of the Slaves. Being the playthings, the tools, of the Masters and with the Masters in control of the chateau, there would be very little space under such a regime for the Slaves to express themselves. Pasolini is thus careful not to elicit our sympathies through characterisation of the Slaves and in this way he dispenses with the accustomed cinematic device of audience identification with a single individual character or with an identifiable spokesperson.This has grave consequences for conventional interpretations of the film in that the Slaves are shown in their suffering, but it is a suffering that is placed within a framework from which sentiment and personalised attachment to character has been removed. Such devices of identification often encumber a more objective filmmaking and so Pasolini’s jettisoning of these has other complex resonances. For one the suffering we are made witness to is not then able to be presented as a metaphysical or religious suffering. This is borne out by the absence of close-ups in Salo, particularly the absence of full screen facial close-ups, in the manner of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan Of Arc, that frame the suffering with an air of explicatory martyrdom. Pasolini could thus be accused of being dispassionate but, as with the shooting of the ‘red’ character, Pasolini is offering instead a means of audience identification with a larger group of characters.That the Slaves that comprise this metaphorical ‘class’ are interchangeable is registered by viewers being unable to single out particular individual Slaves and thus,whilst Pasolini presents the Slaves as the Masters’ see them, he is careful to elicit our sympathies in relation to their powerlessness by simultaneously presenting them as ‘non-object objects’. It is this aspect of Pasolini’s filmmaking skill, his achieving a balance between passionate objectivity and group identification, his merging, in a single frame, of such multiple and divergent points of view, that encourages the viewer to look for ways that the Slaves could alter their situation. Throughout Salo, then, it seems that the Slave’s very absence of will, their slavishness, has the effect of instilling will within the viewer – a will without which the experience of watching Salo would be unbearable. Such a will, concocted from the polysemy, allows the viewer to pick-up on Pasolini’s very subtle articulation of the ‘spaces of freedom’ which the Slaves have open to them. We have already mentioned the potential reversibility of the Master/Slave relationship and Pasolini’s rejection of this option and it follows that the choices open to the Slaves are far from positive. At one extreme there is the choice of suicide and Pasolini depicts this in the first circle where one of the more rebellious girls is discovered with her throat cut. It could be that the suicide option, linked closely in sequence to the ‘red’s’ suicidal bid for freedom is, for Pasolini, see as the more ‘noble’ and preferred option. It is, it seems, preferable to the widespread complicity which is the main way that Pasolini depicts the Slaves ability to negotiate their captivity and wrestle some space. Such complicity is first seen when one of the boy Slaves turns his head to voluntarily kiss one of the Masters and is seen later in the film when one of the male Slaves is filmed making love to a Master. Here it is implied that if the Slaves can voluntarily accede to their debasements they can maybe become indispensable to the Masters and potentially secure themselves from disfigurement and death. This also points, ambiguously, to the role of tenderness in creating some minute spaces of freedom and rebellion, for there are a number of occasions when Pasolini is concerned to create just such an atmosphere amidst the debasement; a temporary equality between Masters and Slaves. Even so, the way that Pasolini depicts the relationships between Slaves, and most particularly, the way he chooses not to include any scenes of solidarity between the Slaves, is just as revealing. What he achieves by this neglect is to depict the way that under a regime of brutality and complete disempowerment it becomes always a matter of each person looking out for themselves: the separation between the Masters and the Slaves is mirrored by the separation of Slave from Slave. This is borne out towards the end of Salo when the Slaves each ‘tell tales’ on each other to save themselves. A sequence which ends in the shooting of a Slave who has been caught making love with the black servant. Though these spaces of tenderness are only minutely drawn it was initially hinted at in one scenario where the Masters watch two Slaves making love and feel the need to interrupt as if they have been agitated by viewing a genuine exchange of tenderness. This tenderness is perhaps made most explicit when the Master is led to discover the Slave and the black servant. It is this scene which ends the chain of betrayals for neither utters a word to save themselves though the Slave offers up a Nazi salute. Is it the profanity of this salute that causes the Slave to be shot? Is it a quick-witted ruse that is equally quickly judged? For what authentic Nazi would sleep with a black servant? Is it rather that this moment of tenderness has escaped the chateau’s rules in that it is an alliance between a slave and a servant? An alliance that is genuinely tender in that it not only marks the end of the sequence of betrayals but eludes the chateau’s self-serving corruption where intercourse is the only form of communication and sexual desire the only form that it is possible for desire to take? As with the killing of the ‘red’ this scene is in the manner of an execution that affords the Master no sexual gratification. Like the sound of the planes it is a further reminder of the ‘outside world’ and carries with it the threat that it is possible for two people to conjoin. Worse, for two races to conjoin. So, the two are executed for the crime of effortlessly transgressing the law of the chateau, for reminding the Master of his own desperately sought and increasingly impotent transgressions. They are shot by the Master in order for him to maintain control for the two have momentarily displayed their subjectivity, their desire, and this exercising of their choice must needsbe eradicated in order to maintain the level of commodification of the Slaves necessary for the fulfilment of the Masters’ phantasies. The ruthless swiftness of the execution, the way Pasolini introduces this sole moment of inter-subjective solidarity and then erases it, is one means by which Pasolini does not trick us into a position where our response becomes over-emotionalised but are offered the position of being conscious of our own emotional responses to what we see.

Along with the Master’s wives, the storytelling Madame and the pianist, the armed guards form the other character ‘block’ of Salo. With the possible exception of the storyteller they are more integral to the film especially as it is their armed presence which prevents the Slaves from escaping. Pasolini’s depiction of the guards comes to function for the viewer as a means of referencing this film towards the concentration camps of World War Two. Of course there is no explicit reference drawn, no narrative positioning of them as concentration camp guards, but their very presence takes the idea of complicity further. Being the hired guards they partake in the ‘scraps from the Masters’ table’: when one of them sodomises a girl Slave in the refectory he is asked, not so much ordered, to also sodomise one of the Masters. So too, the guards become more and more involved in the orgies when they are groped as they guard the wedding ritual. Further groping ensues as does their participation in scenarios that they do not construct themselves but which they participate in as part of the slipstream of the masters’ rituals. The extent of the guards complicity is perhaps only really drawn with any force when, during the final circle when all draws to a head, the pianist stops playing, rises and moves to the window. From there she looks out into the courtyard and then throws herself out of the window. This suicide, the second in Salo, quietly, without any words of protest from the pianist, without any didactic moralism from Pasolini, without even any direct reference to what the pianist sees or what she feels, with no point of view shot, this suicide casts back a shadow over the guards and what they have done in response to the same situation. At one level, the guards being soldiers, know that indiscipline or mutiny or failure to comply with orders – though none are issued to the guards – will end in their own execution. And so too, the pianist knows that any expression of concern or disgust will only be a spur to the Masters to brutalise and sacrifice her. Against the backdrop of the pianist’s suicide, which, like the minuscule spaces of tenderness won by the Slaves, seems to offer, as a negative injunction, the possibility that ‘something’ could be done, the guard’s complicity begins to emerge from the background of the film to the point that it comes to make up the final scene of Salo. Here two guards are listening to the radio whilst the tortures proceed in the courtyard. They talk about their wives and one changes the station with the radio dial. Here a classical piece of music that seemed like the score happening ‘off-stage’ is changed to upbeat music and the two of them dance. Being the last scene into which all that has preceded seems to feed, this scene carries much within it. Firstly, the sudden change of music implies that the guards, being armed, have the power to change the situation within the chateau. They do not the will to change it. In fact the guards (as has been said of concentration camp guards) treat their duty as a sojourn from the tribulations of the front.Their dance at the end, dancing out of the film and returning to normality so to speak, not only jars the viewing and denies resolution, but it brings into relief their acceptance and collusion with what is going on around them at the same time that by drawing on the ‘dance’ motif – la Ronde – much used in Italian cinema [10], Pasolini makes a kind of reference to the way such barbarity goes on and on and is infact upheld by an often unthinking complicity such as that exhibited by the guards. The guards’ sadism is depicted by Pasolini as arising from their lack of intervention and it is as self-serving as that of the Masters even if it is less concerned with inflicting actual bodily harm. The guards, in being able to switch instantly into enjoying themselves as they dance, in being able to so effortlessly forget what is going on in the courtyard, are similarly treating the Slaves as ‘things’ (‘non-desirers’). Such compulsory servitude as that of the Slaves thus comes to resonate with the voluntary servitude of the guards: they are depicted as in ‘possession’ of their own subjectivity and hence their desires, but they have chosen to be subjugated; to become non-conscious and without conscience.
In conclusion it is possible to say that Salo achieves something rare in film. Not only is this an intensely political film that examines the projection of a power that is both destructive and self destructive, it manages to merge what could be seen as transhistorical themes of power (Nero, Inquisition, Concentration Camps) to a depiction of the minutiae of such a power that meets no resistance. This does not only achieve an explicit seguing of the viewer to a sense of history (perhaps achieved by a 40s setting informed by de Sade’s 18th century philosophy) but it also allows for a foregrounding of ‘hidden history’: a concern for the quotidian that seems to be exploring the actual ‘instituting’ and maintenance of a place like Salo. We see how it functions. How it manufactures shit. We see blind fidelity. We see a whimsical law being arbitrarily produced. We see sadism becoming psychosis; see the social become the primal. That Pasolini depicts this barbarism so ‘matter-of factly’ by means of the middle-distance shot; that he avoids sensationalisation by the intensely subtle framing of his moral outrage (more complicated than what we understand as ‘moralism’); that he sidesteps the usual means of cinematic identification and individualisation; and that he draws viewers into the film by playing upon and subverting our fascination with sexuality are just several ways that Salo helps further expand a notion of the political beyond that of parties, the State and workerism. Politics here is intensely linked to the ‘practice of living’ and again, the lack of an overriding moralism of good-v-evil or left-v-right, sees to it that the moralism at work in Salo is unplaceable and, in thereby adding something enigmatic to an already harrowing depiction of regression Pasolini seems, by these means, to be able to evacuate from the film any hint of salaciousness and knee-jerk outrage. As a maverick communist it is perhaps Pasolini’s commitment to social change that provides a bedrock to his being able to present such ‘negative’ images which, in his hands, come to function not so much as ‘positive images’ but as a spur to resistance: the Slaves are so utterly servile and helpless that the viewer, in identifying with their suffering, comes to see not what is actually depicted, but the gaping omission of an enactment of liberation.

But this is not all, for Pasolini, several years after the upheavals of 1968, alerts us to the potential dangers of “taking our desires for reality” whilst pointing towards the difficult terrain of phantasy and its role in modern society. In this way Salo serves as a springboard to a wider discussion that is illustrative of our own complicity in watching the Master’s take their pleasure. For if what occurs before us in Salo falls short of a clinical definition of ‘psychosis’, if psychosis is a means of absolving the problems Pasolini poses by having recourse to a pathology, then what is present and unavoidable is his depiction of desire as a ‘naked desire’, a desire that is ‘absolute’ and which perhaps touches uncomfortably on that similar element of instinctive narcissism that informs each spectator: a denial of the presence of the ‘other’. Salo thus problematises desire by offering us an image of desire which, being figured as an unbridled pleasure principle, escapes the bounds of social responsibility and makes us ask ourselves: ‘desire for what?’, ‘desire to what end?. Pasolini’s depiction of the Masters therefore makes us witness to a desire that can easily be made to conform to the dominant representation of desire as ‘absolute’ as well as to one that is in the thrall of the dominant representations of ‘perversity’. The latter, expressed by Pasolini through means of the religious iconography, marriage rituals, the infantile fascination with shit and the storytelling is a measure of the Masters’ limited powers of phantasising as such representations dictate and lead their desire in a heteronomous direction… towards a pre-established symbolism. The former, seen in terms of the Masters’ sadism and uncontrolled aggressive instincts, is a representation that is instaurated by a belief in the capitalistic notion of freedom that has individualism rather than social responsibility at its core. Thus in the final circle when the Masters torture some of the Slaves to death they are shown as taking a belief in their individualism to such an extreme that it is as if Pasolini is intensifying their personification of capitalism to the point that both it and they can never discover that desire is subject to a social metabolisation: “desire finds its meaning in the desire of the other” [11]. By treating people as ‘things’, by denying the ‘other’ and eliminating difference, the Masters’ individuality becomes as particularised as to be psychotic. From then on they can only hear their desire as a low and threatening rumble that marks their isolation and separation from society.

If earlier Pasolini films like Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights celebrated sexuality then Salo similarly points in the direction of a need for different forms and representations of desire other than those that can be manipulated into figurations of lack, frustration and self-destruction. Thus, in Salo, it is as if Pasolini is issuing a warning against a too enthusiastic and non-reflective embracing of the radical potential of ‘desire’. We need only consider that the Masters’ are shown by Pasolini as having actively ‘instituted’ a form of society that will enable them to enact their ‘desire’ to realise that they have created an asocial utopia that parallels the creation of the Nazi State: a ‘realised nihilism’ that requires complicity and obedience in order to come to life. In other words it is a utopia that can only function by renunciating the desire of the other and, by foregoing the social dimension of desire in this way, it can do nothing but legislate for its own pleasure – psychosis becomes the norm. The Masters have thus created a well-controlled and well-legislated ‘freedom’, a freedom that is capitalistic to the degree that it contains a high ratio of ‘instinctual liberty’.So, just as the absence of resistance in Salo instates a resistance in the viewer, so too this notion of freedom, an heteronomous freedom subject to laws of instinct that encourages an unbounded pleasure, an unreflexive self-centredness, entices the viewer to think about a possible meaning of freedom; one that is autonomous and no longer heavily reliant on prohibition as a defining instance of freedom: “the law prohibits something that is perfectly fictitious in the order of desire or of the instincts, so as to persuade its subjects that they had the intention corresponding to this fiction” [12]. The Masters’ freedom is a freedom to regress to a primal nexus and Pasolini infers that such a gratification of instinct is too often mistaken as libertarian and autonomous when it is actually another facet of the capitalistic representation of desire. What is prohibited, be it aggression or sadism, is not necessarily radical and so, from this, we can infer that there is more to freedom than that which is defined for us as freedom by the law. Salo thus offers the viewer an outlook on culture and civilisation which is not an ‘onward march of progress’ but is rather an ensemble of institutions that are charged not only with keeping the primal in check but which actively draw upon it to maintain the status quo (nazi tribalism). Against such subliminal manipulation of desire and imagination Pasolini offers that culture should be a progressive force that aids in the retranslating a notion of freedom that is autonomous and anti-capitalistic. One that creates new instincts and desires. It is perhaps this avant-gardist facet of Pasolini that means that he offers up an almost situationist loathing of art as a separable and transcendent category of experience and activity. In Salo he has the Masters utter philosophical speeches of justification wherein they invoke the names of Baudelaire and Nietzsche and quote Benn and Proust. In a telling sequence these words become ‘disembodied’ to provide a soundtrack as the camera slowly pans across the modernist canvases of Braque and Leger. We are struck here, as with the references to Opera, classical music and with the use of an Ezra Pound radio address, by Pasolini’s quite flagrant condemnation of the modernist project as one that has abdicated its creative responsibility to become a gloss on society rather than a force that could provoke a revolutionary transformation of society. Again, Pasolini infers the presence of something by overdetermining its absence. In Salo creativity (from the institution of an asocial utopia to the Braque canvas) is not presented as “radical imagination” that can come to stand in for an absence of imagination and can induce a slavish thrall before the institutionally declared masters of poetry, philosophy and art. Is modern art here being figured as a disavowal of social creativity, as a sop to frustrations, as just another commodity that signifies its bearers stature and dispassionate sophistication? If we take heed of the way that Pasolini crafts several obviously ‘aesthetic’ shots and is careful to use symmetry and balance even in the courtyard torture sequences is he not also casting himself in the role of an aesthete while castigating himself for it? Maybe he was aware that his film would be viewed as ‘art’ and he is thus adding these elements of seduction that will make ‘sophistication’ jars against ‘brutism’ and thus shock his audience into an awareness of the uses of such modern art that itself seems cut-off from social concerns? Does he thus distance himself from ‘art’ and stake a claim for creativity to always have in mind its radical trajectory? Through Salo Pasolini seems to suggest that we should not “take our desires for reality”,for these are desires that fall prey to the dominant representations, but that we should create new desires that enable us to “recognise that we are ourselves social and historical subjects with a part to play in a project of transformation”. Where no-one was, there we shall be [13].


(1) Pasolini cited by R.T.Witcombe: The New Italian Cinema, Secker and Warburg, 1982, p125.
(2) ibid, p153.
(3) This gangsterism hints at a Mafia presence and also makes reference to the Mafia’s facilitation of the allied invasion of Italy in 1944. A subject drawn and presented by the political film-maker Francesco Rosi in his movie Lucky Luciano (1975).
(4) Pasolini cited by Alan Young :“Pasolini, Salo, Sade” in Flesh & Blood No.4, 1995. This accentuation of people as things is further articulated by Pasolini by means of his not focussing closely upon any decorative objects within the chateau in the manner of, say, Visconti in films like The Leopard.
(5) The preparations and entrance of the Madame as well as the ornamentation of the Hall and the chateau are played by Pasolini as a direct reference to the rituals of Opera. The Madame is a Diva and the Hall, with its Baroque ambience, is an auditorium. Pasolini’s use of highly symmetrical shots in these sequences further bears this out.
6) Cornelius Castoriadis: World In Fragments,Stanford University Press, 1998, p206. This backs-up Pasolini’s remarks about the commodification of the human and would also resonate with the idea that the Masters are heavily reliant upon having their phantasies laid on for them by the Madame. Castoriadis: “what is specific to psychosis is, if not the suppression, at least the short-circuiting of phantasmic activity. Why? Because the other has been lived either as non-desirer or as a bearer and conveyor of an unbearable desire – namely, for the death of the subject – or of hatred.” A psychosis of power?
(7) That de Sade wrote “120 Days of Sodom” whilst imprisoned may lend this point credence?
(8) Is this what is inferred by the shot where one Master reverses the opera-glasses to see the whole of the courtyard and thereby sees all tortures going on at once? Or is it for this Master an indication of his supreme control?
(9) Cornelius Castoriadis: Crossroads in The Labyrinth, Harvester 1984, p52.
(10) Bertolucci uses this motif in The Conformist (1970). A film which similarly deals with Italy’s Fascist past but which follows the individualistic route of the anti-hero rather than attempt to deal with groups and ‘blocks’ of alliance as Pasolini does.
(11) Jacques Lacan: Ecrits, Tavistock 1977, p58.
(12) Deleuze & Guattari: Anti-Oedipus, Athlone 1984, p115.
(13) Cornelius Castoriadis, ibid, p40.

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  • 1 Gary Simmons // Jan 16, 2012 at 10:48 am

    Your writing on the film Salo is some of the best writing I have encountered on film. This kind of analysis, tinged with a real understanding of all the emotional, psychological and political nuances and complexities of the film made the film much more bearable. Thank you

  • 2 angela // Jul 12, 2012 at 10:54 pm

    It wasn’t a nazi salute that he raises before being shot. It is a raised fist salute… Communist or Socialist. Quite different!

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