“Perhaps the most successful representation of physical cruelty in the history of cinema.”
– Gilbert Adair, 1979 1

In a lengthy letter to the Director of Public Prosecutions, James Ferman, the then Chief Examiner of the British Board of Film Censors, remarked that Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom, 1975) was “one of the most disturbing ever seen by the board.” 2 Salò is disturbing for its systematic display of obscenity, which would usually be sufficient reason to consider it as an example of alternative cinema from the perspective of its reception (official and non-official), limited accessibility for several years, and consumption – by either the cinephiliac following of the film or its more recent canonization via forums, fan communities, and Top Tens on the Internet. 3 However, the fact that this is a Pasolini film causes a unique short circuit. Salò is an example of alternative cinema but one can hardly put the label of exploitation on it; and Pasolini is of course a major example of the inconvenient intellectual, usually considered an auteur, but one can hardly keep Salò constrained within the boundaries of auteur cinema. It is precisely this short circuit that makes Pasolini’s last cinematic work even more interesting and worthy of further investigation.

Rather than proposing a personal reading of Salò, I will suggest a number of different approaches to understanding the film, as well as trying to highlight the limitations of some common readings of it. I will begin by mentioning critical approaches that are influenced by Michel Foucault’s body of works in their reliance on what Pasolini himself defined as a look at “what the power does to the human body.” 4), Disc 2.] After highlighting the shortcomings of more traditional psychoanalytical approaches to the sadism portrayed in Salò, I will then move on to thus far rather unexplored territories, at least with regards to Pasolini and Salò – namely, porn studies, Gilles Deleuze’s theory of masochism in film viewing, and cognitivist approaches, by tapping into a few key notions as put forth by a number of scholars, in particular Torben K. Grodal and Murray Smith. In so doing I will raise more questions than I will provide answers. In particular, my focus is less on the themes of Salò or its ideological implications than on issues arising from the mechanisms of the viewers’ engagement and emotional reactions as activated by such a challenging film.

Power, Control and Sadism: Foucault and Psychoanalysis

Common readings of Salò aptly view Pasolini’s film as an allegory of consumer culture in terms of political subversion. Paraphrasing Pasolini, David Forgacs views this allegory as a staging of “the manipulation of the human body in consumer society.” 5 Pasolini’s view of consumerism was already well known from his Scritti corsari 6, as well as interviews and numerous articles. He considered consumer society as the first right-wing revolution, one that brought development without progress; a society led by false values through the creation of false desires to give people only the illusion of freedom, tolerance and transgression. It produced a “culture of sameness” in the anxiety to consume. Within this perspective, Salò was Pasolini’s violent response to the disillusionment that followed his Trilogy of Life. 7

Pasolini Salò

Pasolini on the set of Salò. From Gideon Bachmann, Open your eyes!, in Pier Paolo Pasolini, Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom (BFI, 2008 [DVD]), Disc 2.

When putting the sadism portrayed in Salò in relation to discourses of political and economic power and control over the body, a common interpretive trend subscribes to theoretical strands in line with Michel Foucault. Salò does indeed look like the mise en scène of what Foucault calls the scopic regime of control of the panoptic gaze in modern societies, which is based simultaneously on both vision and self-observation, on both looking and being looked at. This scopic regime turns the subjects under surveillance into parts of the very mechanism of surveillance and punishment. Power and discipline (enforced on the bodies of the victims) are therefore both external and interiorized.

The nexus punishment/bodily enforcement/victim constitutes the basic structure of sadism. For Sigmund Freud, sadism originates in the Oedipal trauma and is genitally organized in the desire to dominate the other. In no way the sadistic hero solicits the pleasure of the victim; instead, it forces them into compliance with power. Thematically, this appears to fit Salò perfectly whereas, in fact, it does not; it is only useful to define the sadistic characters and practices per se. However, it does not reveal anything specific about the viewer’s engagement. At the time when Salò was released, Freud’s (and Jacques Lacan’s) subject-formation theories, combined with Louis Althusser’s take on ideology, were key to psychoanalytical readings of the cinematic apparatus and to the development of theories of film viewing, according to which the sadistic voyeurism of classical mise en scène guides the masculine controlling gaze of the viewer on the female object on the screen. Laura Mulvey notably elaborated a politics of identity through structures of desire and pleasure (or displeasure) around the central issue of identification (both primary and secondary), as theorised by Christian Metz. 8 A psychoanalytical approach to Salò becomes problematic precisely when it comes to the usability of notions such as desire and pleasure, mainly because of the film’s uncompromising challenge to mechanisms of identification as traditionally interpreted.

There has been general agreement in highlighting a detachedness that would make Salò visually anti-erotic and anti-pornographic. Both David Forgacs and director Bernardo Bertolucci contend that this excessive distance deliberately makes the film too disturbing to be pleasurable and to allow for any identification on the side of the viewer, pace Mulvey. 9 I argue that Salò is not detached at all; instead, it replaces pleasure with shock by activating modes of the viewer’s engagement through narrative and visuals that are, at least originally, specific to pornography, and by subsequently reversing them in meaning and function.

Pornography, pleasure and shock

In Pornography, Ethnography and the Discourses of Power, Christian Hansen, Catherine Needhan and Bill Nichols point out how viewers of pornographic films are engaged through a narrative structure that resembles that of the musical genre: sparse narrative action frequently broken by descriptive moments of erotic contemplation of the sexual events. Each of these contemplative moments is a self-contained narrative “open only to repetition” in a sort of ritualised redundancy. 10

In Sade’s novel we find an incredibly timetabled ritualized daily routine. As often noted, Sade’s novel revolves around the continuous repetition of the number 4. Apart from the minutely detailed physical and psychological traits of all characters and of the interiors of the retreat, the lengthy Introduction of The 120 Days of Sodom serves to set up this scheme: four libertines (Durcet, the Bishop, Curval and Blangis), four daughters, four procuresses, four pimps, four parties in four houses at four remote locations of Paris, four storytellers (Mme Duclos, Mme Champville, Mme Martaine and Mme Desgranges), four servants, eight “fuckers” (two groups of four), and 16 (four times four) young girls and boys. The actual plot of the novel takes off after the Introduction and is structured in four Parts, each one corresponding to one month – from November to February – for a total of 120 days (see Table 1 below). Each month, one of the libertines is invested with that month’s stewardship, with one of the four storytellers in charge of telling a total of 150 “passions” (as Sade calls their sexual practices), sorted by type of passion per month, in order to arouse the excitement of the others. 11

No. 4 pattern

(characters, locations, rules)





Mme DuclosMme ChampvilleMme MartaineMme Desgranges
150 passions

(ordinary deviations)

150 passions


150 passions

(criminal vs. Nature and religion)

150 passions


Table 1 – Structure of Sade’s novel based on the number 4 pattern

Pasolini’s adaptation takes up the same pattern, as exemplified from the very beginning in the opening credits that introduce the characters in groups: four masters, four storytellers, 16 (four times four) victims (eight males and eight females); the eight fuckers have become four militia and four collaborators; and finally we have four daughters, and – the only exception to the rule – five servants (playing a much more minor role than in the novel). Furthermore, the overall structure of the film features a four-act structure, thus seemingly confirming the number four pattern. Of course, Pasolini had to necessarily work within the time constraints of a feature film: whereas the novel has an Introduction plus four Parts, the film has a setup plus only three parts, which Pasolini names loosely after Dante’s Inferno circles – namely, Ante Inferno, Circle of Mania, Circle of Shit, Circle of Blood. Each circle corresponds to one or more days instead of one month 12; there is no particular master in charge of any one of them; there still is a subdivision of the role of the storytellers, but only three of them actually tell stories, one per circle, while the fourth provides the musical accompaniment, for a total of nine tales of obscene sexual practices following a 4+4+1 pattern (see Table 2 below).




Plot setup

Day 1Day 2Day 3
Masters (all)Masters (all)Masters (all)
Signora VaccariSignora MaggiSignora Castelli
4 tales4 tales1 tale

Table 2 – Structure of Pasolini’s film based on the number 4 pattern

Nonetheless, when analysing the inner structure of the Circles observe an almost perfect symmetry based on constant repetition. The recurrent tales of the storytellers that confine the obscenity to the aural sphere are regularly interrupted by self-contained units where the contemplation of depravation becomes visual. In each circle we have a wedding, a banquet, ritualized punishment and humiliation, and a brief interlude when the masters enjoy pseudo-philosophical conversations. The Ante Inferno plays the same function as the novel’s Introduction in establishing the overall dramatic situation. Moreover, it seems to rely on typical plot devices: a setup (the agreement), the chasing and the forced recruitment of the collaborationists, the selection of the victims, the killing of a rebel on the convoy’s way to Marzabotto. However, on entering the first circle the narrative stops being powered by a plot and becomes something else. As soon as the characters are trapped within the interior space of the villa, the three Circles stand out as an almost self-contained unit, separate from the Introduction/Ante Inferno. In short, after the Ante Inferno has carried out its main function there is no longer any real plot development. As a consequence, the narrative of the remaining three parts of the film does not advance by an alternation of repetition and resolution moves, as in traditional storylines, simply because there are no resolution moves. This means that each of the three main parts has an inner structure of its own based only on the sort of ritualised redundancy mentioned earlier, until everything escalates in the last Circle.

Hansen, Needhan and Nichols describe the “ideal scene” of a typical porn movie. It starts with regular establishing shots that lead the viewer into the scene, and then mainly relies on the use of close-ups and extreme close-ups to “increase our sense of knowledge and access, to make explicit what otherwise one should infer.” 13 In a typical feature film – certainly one of the 1970s – one would find a very limited number of close-ups, usually associated to the emotional peaks in a given sequence. In Salò there are 323 close-ups making up 40% of the total number of shots. Another quite telling quantitative parameter is the motif of nudity: out of a total of 808 shots, 131 feature naked characters. When we turn this absolute value into relative terms based on screen time, naked characters are clearly visible and prominent on the screen for about one quarter of the film, and in any case are present in almost every scene in the three Circles. Hansen, Needhan and Nichols also highlight the use of continuity editing: in the case of Salò this applies to the frequent long takes and sequence shots, mostly in the scenes with the storytellers’ tales. The continuity is then often broken by switching to close-ups. This approach to scene coverage in the staging of the events may not be typical of mainstream films, but the constant repetition of this pattern in Salò – i.e. long takes followed by a large number of close-ups, mostly with naked characters – is typical of pornography.

It is true though that Hansen, Needhan and Nichols’s is a very generic description that calls for more accuracy. Salò is about sadism, and therefore one must consider not just pornography in general, but the specific subgenre of S&M porn. After all, sadistic pornography is the perfect representation of Freudian positions, one that emphasizes the pleasure and control of the sadist torturer over an unwilling victim. Linda Williams distinguishes between three categories of S&M porn based on how the body of the characters is affected and represented. All three are of interest in the case of Salò. “Amateur S&M” is the most extreme type with dominators torturing their victims with a whole range of paraphernalia: minimal or continuity editing ensures that our attention lingers on the prolonged suffering and emotions of the victim, while neither a dramatic nor a sexual climax is usually reached. The overall effect, to use André Bazin’s terminology, is a reality effect. The “sadie-max” adds drama and excitement through exaggeration, such as giant penises or extreme torture instruments, in order to enhance the physical pain being inflicted; this category clearly applies to the final segment of Salò. The third type is “aesthetic S&M”: often drawing inspiration from literary sources (and Sade is a favourite, of course), it can deploy complex narratives and, Williams argues, purport a representation of “violence as art.” 14

Pasolini Salò

One of the victims gets tortured in the final sequence of Salò (Pasolini, 1975).

Salò broadly fits into Williams’s categorisation. However, thus far all this only refers to what is on the screen. More relevant to a cognitivist perspective is a definition of pornography that considers how the sexually explicit materials are designed primarily to produce sexual arousal in the viewer. A conservative approach defines pornographic content in terms of obscenity, as something bad for the viewer. Leaving the ethical diatribe aside, if we apply these categories to Salò and consider that the obscene content consists of sexual acts that humiliate and degrade the body and dignity of a human being, is all this still pleasurable? Or rather, is the sexually explicit material depicted in Pasolini’s film obscene? In his on-set diary, Gideon Bachmann listed the sodomies, that is to say the perverted practices portrayed in Salò: masturbation, rape, anal activities, coprophagy, pissing, bondage, paedophilia, incest, a bit of necrophilia too. To which even more violent, sadistic acts (directly or indirectly associated to sexually explicit content) must be added: garrotting, whipping, shooting, hanging, scalping, disfiguration, amputations, branding. 15 Sodomies apart, if one considers all the supposedly pornographic materials in the film, both aural and visual, they add up to about half the screen time. The answer seems obvious then: it is obscene material.

Cognitivist Approaches (via Deleuze)

Both Foucault and Deleuze provide a political reading of sexuality and the body through a systematic deconstruction of inherent power relationships. Yet, as opposed to Foucault, Deleuze has written extensively on cinema. 16 (London: Athlone Press 1986) and Cinema 2: The Time-Image [1985] (London: Athlone Press 1989). Incidentally, but not less importantly, in other works like Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia [1972] (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1983), which Deleuze co-wrote with Felix Guattari.] Deleuze considers the cinematic image the most philosophically rich instance of the inseparability of body, matter, temporality and consciousness. In relation to Salò Deleuze’s analysis of the body as the site of discourses, images and intensities, rather than a sexed material entity appears to become paramount. In Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Deleuze juxtaposes Pasolini’s Teorema (Theorem, 1968) and Salò as examples of a cinema of cruelty as expounded by Antonin Artaud. In Salò the “unbearable corporeal figures are strictly subordinated to the progress of a demonstration.” 17 However, Deleuze counters the notion of male scopic pleasure centred around control, simply because the viewer does not control the flux of images on the screen. The viewer receives the images: therefore, the viewer’s pleasure, if any, involves submission. Scholars like David N. Rodowick, Gaylyn Studlar and Linda Williams have shown – via Deleuze – how passive pleasure in film viewing is instead masochistic, at least when films that do not elicit identification with active goal-oriented heroes are concerned. In Salò, Deleuze argues, the image is carried to such extremes that push the viewer to “substitute the formal linkages of thought for sensory-motor representative.” 18 This helps to shift the reading of Salò towards cognitivist approaches.

Torben Grodal distinguishes between three different modes in which the viewers can engage with the actions shown on the screen, based primarily on whether their attention is directed toward well-defined goals. In mainstream films we mainly experience goal-oriented actions. Grodal calls this “telic mode” as opposed to the “paratelic mode”, where actions occur apparently without explicit goals. One might argue that the masters’ actions in Salò are indeed driven by a very specific goal. On the one hand this argument poses issues of alignment and allegiance to which I will return shortly. However, partially in response to this, the narrative purpose of the telic mode is to arouse excitation, reach a peak (which Grodal calls “tensity”) and then reduce such excitation by means of a discharging event. This notion of “discharge” derives from Grodal’s modelisation of the film-viewing experience as a downstream mental flow process with bodily reactions as sounding boards. In fact, it is not that alien to Freud’s own discharge theory. The lack of discharge, Freud tells us, if reiterated, becomes the cause of affective disorders. If, in a film, prolonged blockages prevent discharge and the subsequent excitation reduction, the level of excitation oversaturates resulting in unpleasant reactions from the viewer. When this happens Grodal’s third mode occurs: that is, the “autonomic mode”. In the autonomic mode the characters are victims of forces of which they are unable to affect the outcome in any way. 19

In masochistic pornography the pleasure of the masochist victim comes from being willingly dominated by another person in a sexually charged scenario. In Salò the victims are neither willing to be such, nor do they take any pleasure (apart from a couple among them). But from a masochistic viewer’s position, with Salò we are willingly in the receiving position of a sexually charged scenario. This is a typical instance of the autonomic mode that elicits extreme emotive qualities. In particular, Grodal teaches us, the vividness and the salience (or magnitude) of the emotion triggered are stronger when related to situations and issues of survival, power and sexuality because they activate particularly meaningful perceptual mental schemata and cognitive qualia. These are meaningful because they pertain to the affective-motivational frame, especially when we process and evaluate actions associated to the ability to feel pleasure or pain, eating, excreting and, in Salò’s case, even coprophagy, copulating, or life threatening situations. 20

I have compared Salò to S&M porn but, via Grodal and also via Noël Carroll, we can find parallels in processes of viewer engagement as developed with horror films. 21 Horror often shows purely negative antagonists (the prototypical monsters) and passive-defensive protagonists (thus seen as victims): a straight analogy can be made with the monstrous Masters and the hapless victims in Salò. None of them pursues clear-cut goals, the only immediate goal of the victims being to oppose tense resistance to an evil force that, by contrast, elicits strong autonomic reactions and therefore negative affects. In more extreme horrors subgenres, such as the splatter film and, more recently, torture porn 22, the violent actions inflicted on the victims are so appalling that it is impossible for the viewers not to distance themselves from full empathic identification with both the negative and the positive characters. A lack of emotional dissociation would lessen the negative affect of the experience. Surely we can make a similar case for Salò – although this would appear to confirm that sense of almost necessary detachedness mentioned earlier. Pasolini systematically employs emotion-activators (or markers) that are so extreme in order to rhetorically amplify certain formal strategies so as to activate “emotion scripts” that add urgency to the gathering of further narrative cues. Based on the repetitive pattern analysed, at each new narrative iteration in the Circles, the viewer is urged to seek cues to confirm given expectancies and predispositions. Greg M. Smith proposes a mood-cue approach, where moods stand for our internal states as elicited by the viewing of a film. Moods have inertia, that is, once a certain predisposition is created and given expectancies triggered, they tend to last until the same stimuli are present. They can be even reinforced by coordinate bursts of emotion markers. 23 Once the patterns described above are established, Salò is entirely dependent on such repeated bursts: its perfectly calculated structure, the insistence on the paraphilias, the use of formal devices that are typical of pornography, the recurrent patterns of deceit and punishment, of betrayal and retaliation, and the constant repetition of a pattern of mise-en-scene that alternates long takes and close-ups, all assemble into cohesive, albeit displacing emotional scenarios. Returning to Williams, she argues that extreme S&M practices are “perverse” not because of the kind of violence enacted or endured, but because such practices become “a vehicle for other things”: Salò features all these “other things” – that is, “the staging of dramas of suspense, supplication and abandon” with the notable exception of any relief. 24

With regards to the issue of perversity Murray Smith distinguishes two types: a first order perversity, occurring when taking direct pleasure from morally or socially proscribed actions because driven by impulses and desires; and a second order perversity whereby the associated pleasure originates in the very act of transgression itself. This is the case, for instance, in Decadentism, a movement that sees beauty in acts of violence and depravity. Among others, Smith gives the example of Flaming Creatures, a controversial 1963 experimental film by Jack Smith. 25 However, those were examples of a countercultural attitude whose purpose was to flout moralism. In Salò we have neither this attitude nor any rebellion. It is therefore necessary to recall one last distinction made by Murray between the notions of alignment and allegiance, which is a more precise way of assessing the viewers’ engagement than just the broad notion of identification. 26 Alignment is determined by the textual structures, that is by the arrangement of narrative information that gives us access to the actions, thoughts and feelings of the characters. Despite what one might think, Salò constantly switches our alignment from the Masters to their victims and vice versa. Allegiance has to do with the moral evaluations that follow our emotional responses. Such evaluations are not limited to a simple juxtaposition between sympathy and antipathy; they can be contradictory or even cause ironic detachment, as suggested by Forgacs and Bertolucci. Salò even manages to evade what Murray defines as “perverse” allegiance, which occurs when we feel sympathy for despicable characters with undesirable traits. 27 Sade clearly elicits this type of allegiance: that is, taking pleasure in what causes suffering (first order perversity) because it is transgressive (second order perversity). The problem with Salò lies in the fact that it eliminates any possibility of a second order perversity because it short-circuits the transgression (second order) of the morally proscribed into the new normative (first order), thus making it impossible to pledge any allegiance (albeit perverse).



  1. Gilbert Adair, Monthly Film Bulletin 48 (September 1979).
  2. Ferman’s letter, dated June 6, 1979, is reproduced in the booklet that accompanies the BFI’s 2008 remastered HD DVD release of Pasolini’s film (pp. 30-35). It must be acknowledged, though, that Ferman wrote the letter in defence of Salò on the eve of its possible prosecution on a charge of statutory obscenity, which he deemed “wrong in law” and “a serious error in policy”.
  3. For the defining elements of alternative cinema and cult films, see: Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik, “Making Sense of Extreme Confusion: European Exploitation and Underground Cinema”, in Idem. (eds.), Alternative Europe: Eurotrash and Exploitation Cinema Since 1945 (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2004), pp. 1-18; Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik, “Editorial Introduction: What Is Cult Film?”, in Idem. (eds), The Cult Film Reader (Maidenhead and New York: Open University Press, 2008), pp. 1-12.
  4. Pier Paolo Pasolini, interviewed in the featurette by Nigel Algar, Salò: Fade to Black (Film Four, 2001), in Pier Paolo Pasolini, Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom (BFI 2008 [DVD
  5. David Forgacs interviewed in Algar, Salò: Fade to Black, op. cit.
  6. First published by Garzanti (Milan) in 1975, several editions of this collection of essays exist from various publishers. Unfortunately, to date, only some of these essays are available in English, having been published in the recent anthology In Danger, ed. Jack Hirschman (San Francisco: City Lights Publisher, 2010).
  7. The “Trilogy of Life” included: Il Decameron (The Decameron, 1971), I racconti di Canterbury (The Canterbury Tales, 1972) and Il fiore delle mille e una notte (Arabian Nights, 1974).
  8. See the seminal article by Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen 16.3 (Autumn 1975), pp. 6-18.
  9. David Forgacs and Bernardo Bertolucci interviewed in Algar, Salò: Fade to Black, op. cit.
  10. See Christian Hansen, Catherine Needhan and Bill Nichols, “Skin Flicks: Pornography, Ethnography, and the Discourse of Power”, Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture 11.2 (Spring-Summer 1989), pp. 65-79.
  11. The story of Salò is an adaptation of the infamous novel The 120 Days of Sodom of which, as we know, Sade managed to complete only the First Part of the four he had outlined. However, the film version is not set in late 18th century France or, rather, in the secluded Swiss location of the novel, but in the Italy of 1944-45, in the Republic of Salò, as announced in the first establishing shot. Here, four rich, powerful and evil fascist Masters enclose a group of young girls and boys in an inaccessible villa and, with the help of a bunch of soldiers and collaborationists, subject them to the most sadistic and violent sexual perversion and tortures.
  12. As a matter of fact, this is not so clear in the film.
  13. Hansen, Needhan and Nichols, op. cit., p. 67.
  14. See Linda Williams, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989). In particular, chapter 7 “Power, Pleasure, and Perversion: Sadomasochistic Film Pornography”, pp. 184-228.
  15. See Gideon Bachmann, “Pasolini and the Marquis de Sade”, Sight and Sound 45.1 (Winter 1975), pp. 50-54.
  16. Specifically, in his two volumes Cinema 1: The Movement-Image [1983
  17. Deleuze, The Time-Image, op. cit., p. 168.
  18. Ibid.
  19. See Torben K. Grodal, “Emotions, Cognitions, and Narrative Patterns in Film”, in Carl Plantinga and Greg M. Smith (eds.), Passionate Views: Film, Cognition, and Emotion (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press), pp. 127-145.
  20. Ibid., p. 131
  21. Although one could make a case for some recent films by Michael Haneke as well.
  22. See Chapter 3 in Greg M. Smith, Film Structure and the Emotion System (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2003).
  23. See Williams, op. cit.
  24. See Murray Smith, “Gangsters, Cannibals, Aesthetes, or Apparently Perverse Allegiances”, in Plantinga and Smith, op. cit., pp. 217-238.
  25. These were first included in a broader theory of viewer engagement in: Murray Smith, Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1995).
  26. Murray Smith, “Gangsters, Cannibals, Aesthetes, or Apparently Perverse Allegiances”, op. cit. Clearly, this type of allegiance is perverse inasmuch it deflects from what would constitute a normative reaction to these characters’ actions, that is revulsion or condemnation.