Salo

On November 2 1975, Pier Paolo Pasolini died. This essay is a step towards serious philological work on, and restoration of, his films. No one, to my knowledge, has restored the sequences cut by Italian censorship in I racconti di Canterbury (The Canterbury Tales, 1971) and Il fiore delle Mille e una notte (Arabian Nights, 1974). No one has ever tried to establish the integral ‘text’ of Salò (1975). The cinema, it seems, is still considered a lesser art.

To historicize a film like Salò, one needs a different approach, at least partly autobiographical – for anyone who reads the film is obliged to revisit his or her past. I saw it for the first time in a Milanese theater, on the occasion of a re-release (this could have been in 1986) from which a few scenes had been excised (like the masturbation of a puppet – behold what the censors considered dangerous (1)). These scenes were reinserted in the print screened at the Venice retrospective in 1988 and in the current Italian video version (which I have seen two or three times). From that first viewing, I remember how, in the last scene (“What is your girl’s name?” – “Margherita”), the ’30s tune that compels the two young warders to dance caused a reaction, a rhythmic snap of the fingers from one of the spectators. This provoked indignation and repulsion in me for that monster who, evidently, was not in the least bit troubled by the preceding exhibition of horrors, and who still had the strength and will to misunderstand and enjoy that little piece of music.

Today, I think that this monstrous spectator, rather than being indifferent toward the horror, must have identified himself with the four torturers in the film – and I’m disturbed by the idea that someone can like a movie such as Salò. If I feel such horror, that’s clearly because I’m afraid I can also side with these monsters. Which was what Pasolini, with lucid and autodestructive logic, had foreseen and wanted. Salò is a film which one doesn’t see with impunity. And here I recall the third time I saw the film, in the company of two unaware and scarcely prepared friends. At the end they looked at me with incredulity, as if they were about to faint; I was absolutely astonished that a simple movie could have struck them so hard. But in hindsight, it is I who feels like a monster, for having displayed coldness toward this kind of image.

Once, meeting Sergio Citti (the film’s co-scriptwriter), I heard him say how much he wanted to express in Salò hatred for the victims, such was the filmmakers’ wish. Hating the victims, I wrote in occasion of the Venetian retrospective, the tormentors hated the object of their pleasure, and therefore their finiteness (a syllogism that now seems to me vaguely Klossowskian – and I know that Pasolini must have detested Klossowski’s interpretation of De Sade, punctually quoted in the dialogues). (2) Yet the spectator, hating the victims and laughing as the torturer’s macabre plan takes place, in fact must hate him or herself, unequivocally complicit, without an alibi. This wish of the filmmakers is already long gone, and Salò is now a sacred film, in the Latin sense of the term sacer; I do not even have the desire to see it again today, although I possess the videotape. (I would only be tempted once more to decipher, for example, what one victim writes with his finger on the carpet of the room – the image, in close-up, is reversed. I always thought it must be blasphemous, so I worked obscenely with the VCR slow motion and freeze frame. But maybe it’s better that I don’t know). However, it would seem to me to violate the victims, like going to see a snuff movie, thus transgressing the Bazinian dogma of the non-reproducibility of death. But Pasolini, who wanted Salò to be the ‘last movie’ (which is what it became, maybe by chance), a sort of “abjuration” of (the trilogy of) life (in his project Porno-Teo-Kolossal, which he did not manage to realize, the strongest scene, significantly, would have been that of two young people transgressing the prohibition of heterosexual love and then being violated in front of a roaring crowd) didn’t foresee everything. Even if he had a foreboding.

Citti also remarked that the film’s last line, later substituted, must have implied, more or less, that the greatest crime was not that committed by the four torturers, but the subtraction of the sun from everyone’s vision (the ending, as I read now in Serafino Murri’s monograph, posed huge problems for Pasolini). In hindsight, the sense of this line, evangelically scandalous and enigmatic, seems to me, without trying for any great depth, as follows: a film like Salò, so ambiguous and unwatchable, so extreme in representing the violence and the humiliation of human bodies, confusing reality and fiction (I remember distinctly, at 10 years of age – my obsession for Salò began early – reading in a doctor’s waiting room, in an issue of a weekly paper of grand distribution – I think “Gente” or “Oggi”- a hypocritically scandalized report from the set [written after Pasolini had died], where it was hinted that Pasolini had become insane, subjecting the extras to real humiliation and torture) – a film like Salò, I would say, isn’t anything in comparison to what we have seen subsequently. It wasn’t the greatest crime?

After Salò everything became visible. The eye lost its cruelty. Or: since then, there has been no-one like Pasolini who compels spectators to keep their eyes open, as happens to Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (1971). And I’m not referring to the many atrocious films that never made it to theaters but rather fed an underground video business (and nor to snuff, an altogether separate matter), rather to the fabrication of reality which is evident in any Italian television program or newspaper frontpage, by the photos and stills that are habitually used with items of news, that Pasolini wouldn’t have been able to imagine and from which he was saved. The cruelty of Salò, and subsequently of many ridiculous porno-nazi films that took advantage of Salò fame (or of some films of other countries that illustrate their own holocausts, such as rather repulsive Hong Kong movies like Men behind the Sun (Godfrey Ho, 1987) about the criminal experiments of Japanese doctors during the war), .in comparison with any photo-still image in a daily newspaper accompanying an item of news (which in its fabrication of reality is more cruel, alienating and emotionally numbing than anything in Salò) is still a logical, I like to say, a sane cruelty, to which one can still respond with sane emotions..

I don’t get particularly angry about the inclusion (frequent in fanzines and forums dedicated to Euro-horror) of Salò in an analysis of the porno-nazi kind, next to the filthiness of Luigi Batzella, and neither the fact that underground lists of overseas publications speak about phantom versions which contain scenes long fantasised (simple lie, or wicked insert?), like that ill-famed one with the rat sewn in the vagina (which is told within the story of the last female narrator (3)). It troubles me more that Salò ends up in a newspaper kiosk, sold, as happens with videos in Italy, together in a daily (“L’Unità”, ex organ of PCI) or in a weekly (“L’Espresso”, for which Umberto Eco writes), on the same level as an innocent film by Truffaut or a kinky film by Tinto Brass. It troubles me that in the age of satellite TV, it is freely transmitted. Like A Clockwork Orange, Salò is one of those films long resisted on the “little screen”: I always considered it a triumph of cinema, one of its irreducibilities, one proof that the cinema wasn’t made of images solely. Salò is a film that asks one to close the eyes, to not go any more to the cinema, not bear samples and tasting, quotations and montages. (In 1990 the producer appealed to the censorship board, presenting a cut version in order to obtain a lowering of the prohibition excluding audience members under the age of 14. Fortunately, he lost the appeal; we have been spared the obscenity of a Salò for teenagers). On November 2 2000, this television taboo ended; Salò can now be seen on an Italian cable satellite. Uncut? Who knows?

The question of the uncut version of Salò, rats or no rats, is something that goes beyond simple philology. One contemplates it with the same anxiety with which one opens a chamber of horrors. In Italy we fantasize about the sequences the producer might have kept for his own collection. A worrying fact: when the film was presented at the censorship commission three days after Pasolini died, a length of 3297 metres was declared; in reality, the length is 3192 metres. Some Italian reviews of the time speak of a quotation of poetry by Gottfried Benn (in the scene in which Bonacelli drives the victims down the stairs): but this remains only in the German version, and is excised from the usual Italian version and also from the Criterion disc. What else is missing?

Salò is a film upon which there is still much to write and study. The history of its production, for example, cannot be exhausted by the fussy little book written by the well-read Uberto Paolo Quintavalle (Giorni di Sodoma [Days of Sodom], SugarCo, 1976), alias Her Excellency the President of the Appeal Court, which also greatly satisfied my morbid curiosity, revealing what, in reality, troubled (non)actors like Aldo Valletti (an ex-seminarist) and Giorgio Cataldi (a friend of Pasolini’s from borgata [a Roman suburb]), who was dubbed by the director Marco Bellocchio) and the refined poet Giorgio Caproni, who acts alongside esteemed professional performers like Paolo Bonacelli. Another part of the Salò story: the biographies of actors and actresses that momentarily intersect with its horror. How did Pasolini persuade two stars from ’30s cinema, Caterina Boratto (already well used to the part of the maîtresse) and the more sophisticated and well-read Elsa de’ Giorgi, to appear? (As we know, Pasolini had seen Hélène Surgère and Sonia Savange in Paul Vecchiali’s Femmes, femmes [1974], where, too, they perform a musical number). And then, some time ago, backstage fragments were resurrected – where a young actress testifies that Pasolini didn’t let the actors know what he had in mind until the last minute. But she seems very serene, tranquil, without a grudge. (None of the young actors in Salò has become famous. A few have had an obscure career, like the Ethiopian Ines Pelegrini. Or Antineska or Antiniska Nemour, later seen in a handful of soft-porn films, and in one of the less ignoble if equally idiotic nazi-erotic films, Cesare Canevari’s The Last orgy of the Third Reich. Anonymous bodies: a troubling confirmation).

I remember a conversation with Giuseppe Turroni, a critic who died in 1990, in which he told me his interpretation of Salò as a comedy (although not credited, another collaborator on the script was Pupi Avati, then master of grotesque and black humour, today an academic and boring director), seeing clear proof in, for example, the sequence of the contest for the most beautiful ass. Pasolini’s laughter was dark but also colossal, worthy of the Biblical God or a sonnet by Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, happy to send humanity to hell; a divinity that, with laughter, destroys itself and all its creation. And laughter, if one really thinks about it, is one of the fundamental components of this film – all the elements in the intertitling of the various sections, the references to Dante’s circles of Hell. See the idiotic jokes that the torturers tell, the awkward humour of the boyish-warders recruited in the country, the masquerades, the tortures seen like successful practical jokes. A terrible smile, certainly, and ‘second degree’ as well (since one doesn’t laugh at certain of the puns, but at the idiocy of the characters, searching for some kind of distance), which can be analysed (as usual) via Bataille, even if I think it is everything less than nietzschean and ultramystical (according to the thesis that sees in the torturers the anarchy of Power, and therefore the real transgressors.); a laughter which is the opposite of acceptance, of the ‘yes’ at life of Thus spoke Zarathustra which Pasolini would ultimately have considered a blasphemy. It is only under such a pact, and in this key, that I would be able to watch Salò again. A film which, all accounts settled, can and must be seen only once, for the last time, when one still has virginal eyes.

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Translated by Fiona A. Villella and Sam Pupillo

© Alberto Pezzotta, Milan 1994-2000

Additional bibliography

Sanguineti, Tatti (ed.), Italia Taglia, Ancona-Milano, Transeuropa, 1999

Buttafava Giovanni, “Salò o il cinema in forma di rosa”, in Gli occhi del sogno, Biblioteca di Bianco & Nero/Ubulibri, 2000

Endnotes

  1. Salò, rejected in the first instance, obtained the visa of the Italian censorship on December 23 1975. Sequestered on January 13 1976, it was withdrawn on March 5 1977 with the elimination of some scenes (the masturbation of the puppet, sadomasochism.). On May 17 1991, the complete artistic integrity of the film was officially recognised.
  2. Pierre Klossowski, Sade mon prochain (Paris: Editions du Seuill, 1947, 1967). Or for an English text: See Pierre Klossowski, “The Phantasms of Perversion: Sade and Fourier”, Art & Text 18 (July 1985): 22-34.
  3. From the Internet Movie Database: “Reviews from the original theatrical release mention scenes not present in any currently existent cut of the film. One of these is of a young girl stripped nude with hungry rats tied around her genitals; a production photo of this scene serves as the background for one of the menu screens of the Criterion DVD.” I was unable to check the DVD.

About The Author

Alberto Pezzotta writes for Corriere della sera and many Italian film magazines. He has written books on Hong Kong Cinema, Mario Bava, Taxi Driver, and Abel Ferrara. He is based in Milan, Italy.