My review of it written for Hollywood Bitchslap in 2000. One of the first reviews of it on the web, as it happened: First, watch the film. Be prepared; there are few films less pleasant than this. DEFINITELY NSFW.
Pier Paolo Pasolini died, as some directors real and fictional(Kubrick-EYES WIDE SHUT, Richard Mulligan in SOB)are prone to do, after having done the Grand High Art Porno Epic, an odd ambition but one held by many directors--to make an erotic film that is art.
Unlike Kubrick, however, this was no meditation on marriage(and Kubrick's is, oddly affirmative of marriage), but, like EYES WIDE SHUT, is deliberately anti-erotic and analytic. And terrifying.
Pasolini had, up to that point, been known by the affirmative tone of his "Trilogy of Life," film approximations of what he considered their civilizations' most central cultural works, and as a good Marxist chose the most vulgar and funny, and therefore most characteristic of the culture, works of the lower classes, such as THE DECAMERON, CANTERBURY TALES(whose cinematography influenced all medieval films after, starting with THE HOLY GRAIL; one can smell the Middle Ages and all its shit just looking at the film), and ARABIAN NIGHTS(the most beautiful and least "vulgar").
These films are, for all their dramatic and sometimes horrifying moments, are true to their sources in being celebratory of sex and bodies, as affirmative of life itself. One odd thing that does crop up is that when sex occurs, Pasolini reveals he thinks straight folk do it without moving.
In fact, Pasolini developed a loathing of straight people, as political disfavor(Pasolini was quite active as a political speaker, writer and poet--indeed, was better known for his poetry in Italy than his films) and enemies began to make him more fearful, culminating, after the release of SALO, with his assassination by a young man who pretended he had killed him in self-defense when Pasolini came on to him(as Pasolini was, in fact, prone to do), but who in fact was in the pay of anti-communist political enemies of Pasolini. In his "self-defense" against the fearsome short gay director, the fellow found it necessary not only to almost beat his head in, but run over, and back over him twice before driving away, leaving a body with a square valley crushed across the chest, much of Pasolini streaked on the road left and right of said chest. And was believed and received a light sentence.
Given this, it's difficult in retrospect to dismiss SALO merely because it is so horrible, and grisly, and it is. One only needs to see it once per lifetime, but it occupies a place nothing else can, in its flawed, hateful way. Pasolini was particularly radical; he did not want gay rights because he enjoyed the outlaw status of the gay man of the time.
It was mentioned in PASOLINI: REQUIEM that Pasolini meant SALO as an attack, pure and; simple, on heterosexuality, as a negation, indeed, of any affirmation thereof that had popped up in his previous films. Just like the other films, it was an attempt to arrange images and narrative in a manner like poetry, but this time it would be of a much more burnt, dark sort. And when I say "dark," I don't mean like goth. I mean like the apocalypse, because that's what it feels like--apocalypse as enslavement, torture, and death. In a way, the film is a glimpse of hell, but as humans make it on earth.
And it cares not one bit whether you like it or not, which should be respected.
On the surface, it is an adaptation of the only work one needs to read by the Marquis De Sade(because it really is nothing but an endlessly repetitive listing, recapitulation, and reworking of all the ideas he ever had; at some point it's nothing but fragments of lists), THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM. The Marquis wrote this as a final expression of every last bit of hatred against his class as he sat in the Bastille.
De Sade was a slimy individual personally, though did not even a little as much as his works would repute him to have. But his works were not simply meant as something to get himself off--though they did serve that purpose too. They were meant as savage satires of the mores of the dying upper class of France prior to the Revolution. Said satire is clumsily expressed by a writer who had little but bile, but there are nuggets in that bile that let us see the essential inhumanity of what that class had become. (The people he slanders are the same people you see, and loathe, in DANGEROUS LIASONS and RIDICULE, among others)
Many, including Peter Brook, Peter Weiss(MARAT/SADE), Grant Morrison(THE INVISIBLES) and Luis Bunuel(L'AGE D'OR) have quoted and reworked it, seeing in its stark excessiveness--it is the most violent pornographic novel ever written; no one would dare top it--an archetype of the real face of power relations in the world, especially in light of the development of fascism. Like them, Pasolini saw in it a metaphor for the basic nightmarish character of fascism--and in some ways society itself.
The basic story(which created a configuration of characters Genet would later use to death) is this: four aristocrats--a president, a bishop, a banker and a judge("president" is "duke" in De Sade) kidnap a number of innocent adolescents, take them to a remote castle where they are told nobody can hear them or will come to help them, for they are believed dead; that they cannot call upon God for help and will be killed if they do; and that the four of them will do anything they like that is devoid of warmth or love(demonstrations of either of which will result in punishment).
The captives are converted into objects for use, and these four children enjoy watching how their toys can break. And they do, till they kill them, after subjecting them to the most horrifying psychological & physical meat-grinder, culminating in making them betray one another.
Pasolini chooses to set this in Salo, the last fortress of fascist Italy which held out for awhile after the rest of Italy had fallen to the Allies. The events didn't happen, but Pasolini is interested in tying the two together to show what he considered the evil of "normal" culture.
It would be difficult to call this film truly
pornographic; it makes sex look evil and septic. Someone looking for
some SM leather romp will be very surprised. This is the real essence of
De Sade(and a view he was not advocating but describing,
mostly)--people reduced, basically, to pigs for slaughter.
freedom dangled in their face if they eat shit first, only to have it
snatched away right after. All for the pleasure of a bunch of
One can look at one's place in the work world and
wonder how, in principle, the average person's role in life is much
different. Except in the actual things one has to do.
In a world where the Yugoslavian Rape Camps have existed, however, an attack like this on that brutal part of human nature has a valuable place in aesthetic discourse. This is an image of that brutality at the base of everyone--that should be controlled, not indulged, and an image of the toilet/abbatoir the world becomes when our worst selves are unleashed.
And fortunately, nobody has to make it again. It is a pure, unforgettable nightmare, and for all its clumsinesses and heavy-handedness, it fits in the progression of Pasolini's worldview up to that time, as misanthropic and heterophobic as that image is.
But as long as CRUISING is still available on video, I sympathize with any gay filmmaker regardless of the hate level--and it is high in this film. Be warned--it is true to De Sade, including a scene of shit-eating. Remember it's chocolate and it almost might be funny, but I can't watch that part myself. Pasolini's anger either limits or focuses his vision.
This occupies a place that needs filling, but only a very small part one doesn't always want to see, nor should one, necessarily. Nevertheless, worth one look. That part of us should be understood. Unseen it begets monsters, like this film, say...
"Eternity with Beelzebub, and all his hellish instruments of death, will be a picnic compared to five minutes with me and this pencil." - E. Blackadder, 1791 Questionable
words & pictures from John Linton Roberson SUPPORT MY SINFUL WORK AT PATREON!