Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Writer: Pier Paolo Pasolini (based on the Marquis de Sade’s book)
Starring: Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Aldo Valletti, Umberto P. Quintavalle
The narrative of Salò has two primary influences: the Marquis de Sade’s book The 120 Days of Sodom—which also serves as the film’s sub-title—and the Repubblica Sociale Italiana (Italian Social Republic), a fascist puppet-state established by Benito Mussolini in northern Italy in late 1943. It was known as the Republic of Salò after the small town on Lake Garda where Mussolini made his headquarters. In Pasolini’s version of the Republic of Salò, four tyrannical men—known only as the Duke, the Bishop, the Magistrate and the President—use the cover of war to establish a totalitarian commune for the sole purpose of unrestricted sexual exploitation: a community where no sexual covenants exist.
Structurally, Salò is divided into four sections along the lines of the Inferno, the first part of Dante’s poem The Divine Comedy. In the first section, the Ante-Inferno, the tyrants order the abduction of nine young men destined for Salò. Finding the corresponding nine women requires less force; showing the time-honoured trait of sucking up to those in power, no matter how debased, the region’s aristocracy rushes to offer the newly ripened fruit of its farms and villages. An aristocratic lady disrobes a young woman and extols her sexual virtues to the lascivious tyrants. Behind them a doorman stares vacantly, this flagrant abuse of the young woman’s sexual sovereignty not meriting a glance. We are accustomed to scenes of men offering women as sexual playthings, but it should not be forgotten that women themselves have a long history of facilitating the exploitation of their gender—sometimes even their own daughters—in exchange for advancement, usually economic. This is another of the perverse repercussions of sexual shame.
The tyrants assemble their entourage—including the eighteen sex slaves and some retired prostitutes, whose purpose will soon be revealed—into a convoy that passes through the village of Marzabotto, scene of the 1944 Nazi massacre of 770 Italian civilians. Ramming home a political point, at this precise moment Pasolini has one of the young men attempt an escape only to be gunned down by the militia.
The convoy arrives at an isolated mansion that is effectively the Republic of Salò. Here the abductees are told the rules: the prostitutes will recount stories to excite the tyrants who will then order the slaves to enact any sex act they desire. Instant and unconditional obedience is expected; anything less will result in punishment as the tyrants see fit. Furthermore, sex between the abductees is permitted only on the orders of the tyrants. With this, the complete obliteration of the covenants protecting individual sovereignty, Salò moves into the second of its four parts, The Circle of Manias.
A retired prostitute, Signora Vaccari, recalls various fetishes encountered during her career. A woman playing the piano accompanies the storytelling, lending an air of bygone formality to the proceedings. She—and her music—will prove to be the film’s moral weathervane; Pasolini signposts this when one of the tyrants drags a young man away for oral sex and she briefly stops playing. But the crime is too slight, the risk too high, for the pianist to protest and her fingers resume tickling the ivories. The specifics of neither Signora Vaccari’s stories nor the tyrants’ responses need be dwelt upon; suffice to say they involve the ever-increasing subjection of the captives to sexual degradation.
The Circle of Manias contains two notorious sequences, the first involving a wedding between two of Salò’s inmates who are ordered to couple in front of the tyrants. Just as the newlyweds are about to comply, the tyrants assert a sadistic droit de seigneur and rape them both. The second sequence involves the abductees crawling about naked on all fours, behaving like dogs while the retired prostitutes daintily take tea. The sequence ends with a tyrant feeding a woman a bread roll spiked with nails. The outraged responses to violations of accepted behaviour seen in many earlier films are long gone; there is no baying mob to impale the tyrants on handy fence-posts as seen in Last Exit to Brooklyn, no finger-waggling Sister Bridget, no Albert Spica to rain invective and spittle, not even a John Lotter or Tom Nissen to dispense summary justice. Salò is truly the nether regions of hell.
In Salò’s third part, the Circle of Shit, the tyrants’ attention shifts to coprophagia, the consumption of faeces already seen in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Once again it is preceded by enforced nudity and its purpose is to both assert superiority and inflict humiliation. In one of Salò’s most infamous scenes, a tyrant defecates on the floor then orders a woman to eat his deposit; at this point the pianist resolutely refuses to watch. Pasolini makes the same association between food, sex, excretion and, inevitably, death as Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. All of these judgments stem from shame of the body in its most animal aspects. The tyrants of Salò may have rescinded orthodox restraints on sexual behaviour but they are still victim to the underlying neuroses that gave rise to those covenants in the first place—neuroses they increasingly project onto their victims.
Salò meanders from the Circle of Shit into the Circle of Blood. Pasolini’s film arguably has its merits but plotting and narrative pace are not among them. Various abductees are caught having hetero- and homosexual relations (what else to do after a hard day crawling about on all fours eating shit?) and the tyrants punish these and other breaches of the rules. The slaves denounce each other in the same desperate way as Marcello denounced his best friend Italo in The Conformist.
Some are summarily executed; others are sent to the yard for the militia’s sadistic amusement while the tyrants watch through opera glasses. The use of the glasses, which exaggerates the distance—physical and emotional—between them and the abuses they have instigated, is a brilliant device to portray the emotional alienation of the tyrants. In a typically sordid vignette, two militiamen casually chat while availing of a woman, trivialising sexual abuse in the same manner as Alex DeLarge and his droogs during the rape of Mrs Alexander in A Clockwork Orange. Moments later they hang the woman from a gibbet, dispensing sex and death with equal indifference. Pasolini shuts off the screams of the victims (though the pianist’s tinkling still carries softly), creating a myopic, disconnected dystopia where sexual sadism is the norm rather than the exception.
At this point in Salò, with the senseless punishment of the abductees, the pianist finally voices her morality. Realising she is alone in the great hall she abruptly stops playing and rises up a stairwell that might be painted with a mixture of shit and blood. The pianist looks out upon the inhuman scenes unfolding below then jumps from the window to her death, protesting not only against the tyrants’ outrages but her own complicity in the only possible way. The senseless sex and violence continues; inside, two young militiamen dance innocently and talk of girlfriends, physically and emotionally desensitised to the atrocities taking place in the courtyard below. Only the distant drone of Allied bombers, briefly heard during the film, presages the end of the tyrants’ reign.
It is difficult to say exactly what Pasolini intended with Salò, especially given the possibility that the final film was assembled from incomplete footage. Nonetheless, it does illustrate some of the points made in Sexcatraz with crystal clarity.
It is difficult to say exactly what Pasolini intended with Salò, especially given the possibility that the final film was assembled from incomplete footage. Nonetheless, it does illustrate some of the points made in Sexcatraz with crystal clarity. Firstly, it shows that for centuries our covenants have protected the majority of the population from the barbarity seen in Salò. Secondly, it shows how, given an absence of accountability, sexual shame impels the tyrants towards sexual degradation and violence. Underlying this behaviour is a deep-seated rage at the pain of the repressed sexual aspect of the human condition. This rage can be glimpsed in the actions of John Lotter and Tom Nissen in Boys Don’t Cry, Albert Spica in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover and Frank Booth in Blue Velvet.
Salò is a flawed film but it is also an important film and a very brave one: it dares to take some of the most powerful forces operating on our collective psyche—the sexual covenants that defend us from unconstrained sexual behaviour—and tear them to shreds. It has its fans, too: award-winning filmmakers Michael Haneke and Catherine Breillat—both of whose films feature in Sexcatraz—regard it as a masterpiece, while the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival ranked it #46 in their 100 essential films.
A Clockwork Orange and Salò portray scenarios where the restraining influence of sexual covenants has partially or wholly lapsed, leaving victims such as Mrs Alexander in A Clockwork Orange and the abductees in Salò at the whim of sexual predators. From this it is tempting to believe that the stronger our sexual covenants are, the more protection they will offer. The next film shows the cost of such protection.
 Known in Latin as jus primae noctis, the medieval belief in the lord of the manor’s right to take the virginity of his female serfs, usually the night before their wedding. This practice can be traced back to ancient societies where priests or strangers deflowered brides in temples. According to James DeMeo, this was due to “the fear of the vagina and hymenal blood by the common man.”
 This rage has erupted at various times in history, such as the Inquisition of the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, when thousands of women were sexually tortured and killed, and the 1937 Nanking Massacre, when Japanese troops raped an estimated 20,000 women, many then being killed by a bayonet to the vagina.