Pier Paolo Pasolini is one of the most important directors of the twentieth century: he lived, portrayed and died the political crises that plagued Europe and the world.
SALO is the last film that Pasoloni made. It comes after his social realist films where, as a committed Communist, he tried to make honest works about working class life and celebrated honest sexuality. He had become disillusioned with the project, and the non-responsive of the working class audience. SALO is thus a brutal and bleak critique of the political regimes and social changes he had lived through in Italy. First, and most powerfully, it is a criticism of the extreme corruption and degradation of the Fascist regime. Second, it is a criticism of what came after the war, when Italy "caught up" under Marshall Plan economic aid, creating "Il Boom!" - a society of consumers gorging themselves.
The title of SALO also works on two levels: first as an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade's infamous novel and second as a reference to the small town on Lake Garda whence Mussolini ran the final fascist government of Italy, propped up by Hitler. The movie shows four powerful men representing each type of power: feudal, religious, legal and political, enjoying absolute power at the end of a dying regime. Together with their complicit guards and two old prostitutes, they imprison an equal number of young men and women and subject them to horrific sexual torture. Finally, the prisoners are killed.
The point about Salo is that the sexually explicit material is not there to titillate (as in Sade) but to shock and disturb. And it is not there to shock gratuitously or in a sensationalist manner. It is there for a particular and explicit political purpose: to illustrate the absolutely corruption and complete power of the Fascist regime. Further, Pasolini is making the point that, fundamentally, sexual relations are power relations. He is also expressing a Hobbesian world-view: man is corrupt and, if given the opportunity of absolute power, will descend into violence. Sexual violence is an important part of that. Sex in SALO is used to degrade. It is not erotic. And it is this continuing, bludgeoning, extreme degradation that makes SALO such a bleak, punishing film.
Technically, the film achieves brutality without titillation by framing its scenes as stylised, symmetric tableaux that distance the viewer from the action. Sexual acts are shown in cruel light and filmed without the pleasing soft-focus of typical sex scenes in mainstream movies. The audience POV is often the same as that of the guards or the torturers, making us feel even more uneasy about what we are watching. This is especially true of the final scenes of torture, which we see through the binoculars of the torturers. This has the added benefit of showing the final scenes of murder at a distance, so that we imagine more than we are actually shown.
If the material is shocking, Pasolini has achieved his end. Maybe, he is saying, we should have been more shocked by, and more active in resistance to, the political degradation of Fascism. If he has to resort to sexual torture to shock us, isn't that partly our fault?
The Duke: We Fascists are the only true anarchists, naturally, once we're masters of the state. In fact, the one true anarchy is that of power.
SALO opened in 1976 and immediately encountered difficulties with the censors because of its sadistic and sexually explicit material. In 2000 the British Film Institute instigated a screening and debate about the film, resulting in the the release of a BFI DVD. This includes the film, uncut, and a supplemental disk replete with fascinating documentaries about Pasolini, the film, and the censor's response to it.