Analysis of ‘Salò’

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma) is a 1975 art horror film directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini. The screenplay, written by Sergio Citti and Pasolini, was based on the Marquis de Sade‘s unfinished pornographic novel of the same name (sans Salò, or). Pasolini updated the story, moving it from the Château de Silling in 18th century France to the final years of WWII, in fascist Italy, during the time of the fascist Republic of Salò.

The film stars Paolo Bonacelli (who also played Cassius Chaerea in the Penthouse Caligula film), Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto Paolo Quintavalle, and Aldo Valletti as four wealthy libertines who abduct, sexually abuse, torture, and ultimately murder a group of teenage boys and girls. The cast also includes Caterina Boratto, Elsa De Giorgi, and Hélène Surgère as three middle-aged prostitutes who tell erotic stories to inflame the lust of the libertines and inspire them to acts of depravity.

Salò was and still is controversial for its shocking depiction of sexual violence against the teenaged boys and girls, at least some of whom are believed to have been underage at the time of filming, though they all look as though they could be 18 or 19 years of age. For these reasons, Salò is considered one of the most disturbing films ever made. It has been banned in many countries.

As a gay communist, Pasolini was trying to make some harsh social critiques in the making of this movie, especially as a critique of capitalism and the atrocities of fascism. He was murdered by bitter anti-communists, who allegedly had in their possession stolen rolls of film from the movie, just after its completion. Still, despite the unsettling subject matter of the film (or rather, because of it), Salò has been highly praised by many critics.

Here are some quotes, in English translation:

[first lines: four men, sitting at a table, each sign a booklet] The Duke: Your Excellency.
The Magistrate: Mr. President.
The President: My lord.
The Bishop: All’s good if it’s excessive.

“Dear friends, marrying each other’s daughters will unite our destinies for ever.” –the Duke

“Within a budding grove, the girls think but of love. Hear the radio, drinking tea and to hell with being free. They’ve no idea the bourgeoisie has never hesitated to kill its children.” –the Duke

“Signora Vaccari is sure to soon turn them into first class whores. Nothing is more contagious than evil.” –the Magistrate

“I was nine when my sister took me to Milan to meet Signora Calzetti. She examined me and asked if I wanted to work for her. I said I would, if the pay was good. My first client, a stout man named Vaccari, looked me over carefully. At once, I showed him my pussy, which I thought was very special. He covered his eyes: “Out of the question. I’m not interested in your vagina, cover it up.” He covered me, making me lie down, and said “All these little whores know is to flaunt their vaginas. Now I shall have to recover from that disgusting sight.” –Signora Vaccari

“Homage to the rear temple is often more fervent than the other.” –the President

“On the bridge of Perati, there flies a black flag, the mourning of the Julian regiment that goes to war. On the bridge of Perati, there flies a black flag. The best young men lie under the earth.” –the Duke, singing

“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.” –the Duke

“It is when I see others degraded that I rejoice knowing it is better to be me than the scum of “the people”. Whenever men are equal, without that difference, happiness cannot exist. So you wouldn’t aid the humble, the unhappy. In all the world no voluptuousness flatters the senses more than social privilege.” –the Duke

“I remember I once had a mother too, who aroused similar feelings in me. As soon as I could, I sent her to the next world. I have never known such subtle pleasure as when she closed her eyes for the last time.” –the Duke

The Duke: [Renata is crying] Are you crying for your mama? Come, I’ll console you! Come here to me!
The President: [singing] Come, little darling to your good daddy / He’ll sing you a lullaby
The Duke: Heavens, what an opportunity you offer me. Sra. Maggi’s tale must be acted upon at once.
Female Victim: Sir, Sir. Pity. Respect my grief. I’m suffering so, at my mother’s fate. She died for me and I’ll never see her again.
The Duke: Undress her.
Female Victim: Kill me! At least God, whom I implore, will pity me. Kill me, but don’t dishonour me.
The Duke: This whining’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever heard.

The President: [while eating a meal of faeces] Carlo, do this with your fingers. [the President sticks two fingers in his mouth] And say, “I can’t eat rice with my fingers like this.”
Male Victim: [with fingers in his mouth] I can’t eat rice.
The President: Then eat shit.

“It is not enough to kill the same person over and over again. It is far more recommendable to kill as many beings as possible.” –Signora Castelli

“Idiot, did you really think we would kill you? Don’t you see we want to kill you a thousand times, to the limits of eternity, if eternity could have limits?” –the Bishop

“The principle of all greatness on earth has long been totally bathed in blood. And, my friends, if my memory does not betray me – yes, that’s it: without bloodshed, there is no forgiveness. Without bloodshed. Baudelaire.” –the Magistrate

[last lines: two young male guards are dancing with each other] Guard: What’s your girlfriend’s name?
Guard: Marguerita.

Four wealthy and politically powerful libertines–a duke (Bonacelli), a president (Valletti), a bishop (Cataldi), and a magistrate (Quintavalle)–discuss plans to marry each other’s daughters (without their consent, of course), as well as to abduct youths and maidens to abuse sexually and torture physically and mentally (and even kill some of them) over a period of four months.

These four libertines obviously represent the ruling class, though in the context of late fascist Italy (i.e., Mussolini and Hitler are about to lose the war), we can see their sadism as representing capitalism in crisis (fascism, properly understood, is a kind of hyper-capitalism). When such a crisis occurs, the gentle, smiling face of the liberal is revealed to be a mask covering the scowling face of fascism. Hence, the four men’s cruelty.

The victims, frequently if not always naked, represent the proletariat: exploited, brutalized, vulnerable, humiliated, and lacking the means to live freely. Recall Hamlet’s use of the word naked (‘stripped of all belongings, without means’ [Crystal and Crystal, page 292], as used in Hamlet, Act IV, Scene vii, lines 43-51), to understand the symbolic meaning of the victims’ nakedness.

The studs, or fouteurs (“fuckers”) in Sade’s story (Sade, page 80), as well as the young male collaborators, or guards (dressed in the uniforms of the Decima Flottiglia MAS) represent the police and standing army of the bourgeois state. They are comparable to the militarized police of today. Without them, the four libertines would have no power, and the same, of course, goes for the state.

These young men are all rounded up to work for the four libertines, and only one of them, Ezio, is reluctant to do so. Indeed, when the guards apprehend the libertines’ daughters, all as members of the bourgeoisie who normally would be used to much better treatment (apart from their fathers’ previous rapes of them, as understood in Sade’s novel), Ezio apologizes to the women, saying he must obey orders. If only all of these thugs could understand that some orders shouldn’t be obeyed, such horrors as those seen in this movie wouldn’t happen.

But how does one get through to class collaborators?

Since capitalism is sheer hell for the poor–as I observed in my analysis of American Psycho, another story involving brutal violence inflicted by the rich–it is appropriate that Salò be divided into sections reminding us of Dante‘s Inferno: Anteinferno, Circle of Manias, Circle of Shit, and Circle of Blood. Abandon all hope, ye proletarians who enter here.

None of the four libertines are named, and the studs and collaborators aren’t often called by name. The three middle-aged prostitute storytellers are named, but the piano player isn’t; and of the victims who are named, most have names equal or approximate to those of the actors portraying them, as if naming them was an afterthought by Pasolini. Thus, we aren’t very conscious of the names of many of the characters. This near-anonymity reinforces the sense of emotional distance, the alienation, felt not just between all the characters, but between them and us, the audience.

Indeed, one of the many reasons that this film is so disturbing to viewers, as has been noted by critics, is how we cannot get close to any of the characters, there being too many of them to focus on any; so it is difficult to empathize with, to care for, any of them individually (except for shit-eating, motherless Renata and the daughter who is tripped and raped at dinner, and these are only a few incidents, not plot points drawn out for the full length of the film), and the ability to empathize with individual characters is crucial for grounding in the story, for being able to enjoy it.

We pity the victims in a general sense, we pity them en masse, but we can’t follow any individual character arcs. There is no sense of anyone growing, developing, or changing; it’s just victims entering a sea of trauma and swimming through undifferentiated torment from beginning to end.

We know the victims are doomed, and that their depraved masters are irredeemable. There’s nothing anybody can do to help the victims, so all that there is here is a sadistic stasis throughout. Lasciate ogne speranza,…

In Sade’s novel, the characters are grouped and categorized in a manner almost like taxonomy: the four libertines, the prostitute storytellers, the libertines’ daughters, the huit fouteurs, the four elderly, ugly women, etc. The numbers of characters are often reduced (e.g., four studs instead of eight) in the film, and Sade generally names the characters, but this sense of ‘taxonomy’ is retained in Salò.

This categorizing of characters is significant in terms of the Italian fascist context of the film, since Mussolini wanted his fascist society to be broken up into corporate groups of people according to the functions they were meant to perform in society (syndicates). When Mussolini spoke of “corporatism,” this is what he meant, not the corporatocracy that we see today, the unholy alliance of business corporations with the state, which is really just the logical extreme that capitalism comes to.

The fact that the libertines allow their daughters to be abused and killed doesn’t in any way detract from them also being symbolic of the bourgeoisie. The daughters are every bit as representative of capitalists–that is, the less fortunate ones–as their fathers are. Recall Marx’s words: “One capitalist always strikes down many others.” (Marx, page 929)

Apart from the fact that their fathers’ cruelty to them is a reflection of the patriarchal family, especially cruel in a fascist context, the daughters as victims can be seen as representative of, for example, the Jewish petite bourgeoisie up until the Nazis stripped them of their rights with the Nuremberg Laws. Hence, the daughters being stripped naked and forced to stay naked throughout the four months, humiliated, made to serve everyone’s meals and to endure being spat on by the guards and raped by the studs.

Indeed, the first scene in which the daughters appear as naked waitresses is one that I find to be among the most painful to watch. What we see here is the essence of fascism: the guards and studs, as class collaborators instead of joining in solidarity to overthrow the ruling class, would rather target and bully a select portion of the petite bourgeoisie, symbolized by the daughters.

That poor daughter who is tripped and raped by one of the studs, while the others watch and laugh at her–the bourgeois fathers would rather sing a song together than help the girl. This is the essence of the bourgeois family: being more concerned with maintaining power and prestige than even with helping their own children.

Marx, in The Communist Manifesto, wrote of how there is no meaningful sense of family among the proletariat: “On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeoisie. But this state of things finds its complement in the practical absence of the family among the proletarians, and in public prostitution…Do you charge us [communists] with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.” (II: Proletarians and Communists)

Indeed, with all the teen victims snatched away from their parents (and Renata actually having witnessed the murder of her own mother, who tried to save her), we can see the truth of Marx’s observation. To make matters worse, though, we see this injustice to the family extended to that of the bourgeoisie itself, in the form of the libertines’ abuse of their daughters. The psychopathic and narcissistic libertines have no qualms at all about abusing their own flesh and blood.

The prostitutes, catering on the one hand to libertine lust with their erotic storytelling, and on the other hand being far less vicious to the victims, can be seen to represent the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie. The ruling class maintains its power over us with a kind of one-two punch: the liberal jab, and the conservative right-cross.

When liberals are elected, they give the people the false hope that all will be well with their modest reforms, which don’t really help the people in any meaningful way, but rather exist as concessions that keep us at bay and stave off revolution. Then, when we’re comfortable and complacent, conservatives get elected and create harsher legislation, which we hate but ultimately get used to, so no attempt is ever made, when liberals get reelected, to reverse the hated new laws. One-two punch.

We can see such a situation as symbolized by how, for example, Signora Vaccari holds naked Renata in her arms as a mother would her child. Yet it isn’t long after that that the trembling, traumatized girl is forced into a mock marriage with Sergio during the ceremony of which the Duke fondles a number of the male and female victims; then the boy and girl are pressured to fondle each other, then they are raped by the libertines to stop them from consummating their own ‘marriage.’

Later, at the beginning of the Circle of Blood, the duke, president, and magistrate, all in women’s clothes, growl at the weeping victims, demanding that they smile and laugh during this ‘joyous’ occasion of a mock wedding between the libertine ‘brides’ and the stud grooms. Vaccari and the piano player (played by Sonia Saviange) improvise jokes to make the victims laugh. We all know, however, that this is only a brief respite from the teens’ endless frowning.

Another way that the prostitute storytellers can be seen as symbolic of liberals is in how their lewd stories parody, and thus can represent, our permissive pop culture, with its gratuitous swearing in Hollywood movies and sexually suggestive pop and rock songs. We seem to be liberated with such indulgences, but in our growing poverty, we aren’t.

The scene in which the libertines have the victims, including their daughters, crawl naked on all fours and bark like dogs to be fed is significant. I suspect they have been starved, and the only way they can hope to be fed is to degrade themselves in this way. It makes me think of how capitalists use charity to create the illusion that their philanthropy is generosity rather than just good public relations. Poverty is solved by a socialist reorganizing of society, providing guaranteed housing, healthcare, employment, education, etc., not giving occasional ‘charitable’ dollars to the poor.

When the poor are given alms out of pity, that pity is really condescension coming from the ruling class. And in Salò, when one of the male victims (Lamberto) refuses to be so degraded, the magistrate whips him until he passes out. Later, the magistrate hides nails in some food and feeds it to one of the daughters, who screams in pain on having the nails stab into her mouth. Some charity.

From the Circle of Manias we go to an even more torturous one, the Circle of Shit. It is appropriate that this one be in the middle of the movie, for as film scholar Stephen Barber has observed, Salò is centred around the anus. This is true not only because of the revolting coprophagia that we see, but also in all the sodomy, that is, all the gay sex.

On one level, the coprophagia–at the dinner table in particular–represents our society’s overindulgence in junk food. When you see a fork or a spoon raising a turd from a plate up to one’s ever-so-reluctant mouth, think of a McDonald’s hamburger.

On a deeper level, though–and this is especially evident in the notorious scene in which the Duke defecates on the floor and forces Renata to eat it–the coprophagia can be seen to represent the splitting-off and projection of hated aspects of oneself (understood as internal objects of the negative aspects of one’s parents), to be introjected by others. Melanie Klein observed that a baby, experiencing what she called the paranoid-schizoid position, would engage in projective identification, ejecting unwanted parts of itself and making its mother receive those projections, which in unconscious phantasy often come in the forms of faeces or urine.

Wilfred Bion took Klein’s notion of projective identification further, stating that babies and psychotics use it as a primitive, pre-verbal form of communication. Bion‘s theory of containment is normally applied to a mother’s soothing of her distressed, agitated baby, or to a therapist dealing with a deeply disturbed patient. Negative containment (see Bion, pages 97-99), however, results when a narcissistic or psychopathic parent, or therapist–or in the case of Salò, the four libertines–do the opposite of soothing, worsening the agitation of the baby, patient, or Salò victims, so that the distress changes into a nameless dread.

The container, or receiver of the stressful emotions (the parent or therapist), is given a feminine symbol, implying a yoni; the contained, or projection of those emotions (those of the baby or patient), is given a masculine symbol, implying a phallus. So the process of containment can, in turn, be symbolized by the notion of making love. In Salò, however, the container isn’t symbolized by the yoni, but by the anus.

The soothing of containment as symbolized by lovemaking, therefore, has relevance in Salò only in the context of homosexual sex, hence the homoeroticism in the film shouldn’t be surprising. The only mutually pleasurable sex in this film is between libertines and their willing gay partners (symbolic class collaborators), i.e., the bishop and his stud, and the duke and his catamite (Rino), one of the few boys among the victims who, because of his willing submission, isn’t brutalized. Apart from these oases from abuse (including some lesbian sex among the female victims), there is only rape.

This rape, be it penile/vaginal or anal rape, is all a symbol of the negative containment described above. The libertines, studs, and guards project their viciousness onto their victims, either in the form of rapes, or, using their shit as the contained, they project their cruelty into their victims’ mouths, another container.

The resulting trauma is the victims’ nameless dread. The introjectively identified cruelty is then manifested in the victims when they later betray other victims, or when Umberto, a victim promoted to guard/collaborator to replace Ezio, calls the boy victims “culattoni!” (faggots!)

One doesn’t have to accept Freud‘s theory of anal expulsiveness (i.e., drive theory) to see its symbolic resonance as applied to Salò. Two noteworthy traits associated with anal expulsiveness are cruelty and emotional outbursts, as are seen plentifully among the libertines in this film. Psychopathy, antisocial personality disorder, and narcissism are understood to be caused to a great extent by childhood trauma, which is then projected onto others in the negative container/contained way described above. It’s easy to believe that the four libertines were abused as children, then grew up to be abusers themselves; the same goes for the studs and guards.

At the beginning of the Circle of Blood, we shouldn’t mistake the libertines’ cross-dressing for transgenderism. If anything, their transvestitism and gay marriage to the studs is a fascist mockery of the LGBT community. These are the kind of men who would put muscular transwomen into sporting competitions with cis-women to ensure that the latter lose every time. It’s a typical divide-and-conquer tactic that the ruling class uses to keep the people distracted from revolution.

Fascists and Nazis, of course, have never tolerated the LGBT community. Even Ernst Röhm, the gay leader of the SA, was an exception proving the rule. He was only grudgingly tolerated by Hitler until the Night of the Long Knives, when the Nazis eliminated all of their potential political enemies, using the very politically powerful Röhm’s homosexuality as a rationale to have him killed (apart from an unsubstantiated claim that he was trying to wrest Hitler from power, the so-called “Röhm Putsch”). So when we see any gay sex or cross-dressing among the libertines, none of it should be understood as an affirmation of LGBT rights: it’s just that those four men can do anything they like, because they can, because they have the power.

The mounting suffering of the victims, and their powerlessness, causes their alienation to grow, meaning–apart from the occasional lesbian sex we see–they never feel any sense of solidarity, togetherness, or mutual aid. So when the bishop comes into their sleeping areas and threatens them with punishment for breaking any of their little rules, the victims promptly betray their fellow sufferers so they can save their own skins. This culminates in the betrayal of Ezio, the only guard who obeys the libertines with reluctance.

He is found making love with a black servant girl, offending not only the libertines’ disgust at the sight of penile-vaginal sex (and the implication that the boy and girl are fucking because they love each other, like the husbands and wives they lampoon with their mock marriages), but also arousing their abhorrence of interracial sex. And Ezio’s final offence is his raised fist: the two naked lovers are then shot.

The lovers’ nakedness shows their proletarian identification with the victims. His bold standing there, frontally nude (before four men with lecherous desires for young male bodies) and raising his fist, emphasizes his defiance of their hegemony.

They hesitate before killing him. Is it their lustful reluctance to waste a beautiful body they haven’t taken the opportunity to enjoy? Is it awe at his boldness, when he has absolutely no means to defend himself or fight back (refer above to Hamlet’s use of the word naked)? Is it shock at his unexpected socialist salute, indicating their unwitting employment of one they’d deem a traitor?

The only other reluctant collaborator among them is the piano player, who upon realizing the full extent of her employers’ murderous designs, jumps out of a window and kills herself. Such is the despair that so aggravated a form of right-wing hegemony can arouse in those who love freedom.

Finally, the libertines choose those victims they’ll have murdered, including all their daughters. Wearing blue ribbons around their arms, they await their doom, the daughters sitting in a large bin filled with shit. The daughter who was tripped and raped by the stud at dinner, imitating Christ on the Cross, shouts, “God, God, why have you abandoned us?” When a parent frustrates his or her children (or in this case, abuses them), their oft-used defence mechanism is splitting the parent into absolute good and bad, with a wish to expel the bad parent and keep the good one near; in this case, God as the good father is gone, while the libertines as all-too-bad fathers are all-too-present.

Not only are these victims murdered, they are killed in the most agonizing, sadistic, and drawn-out of ways. The boy Sergio is branded on the nipple. The daughters are raped one last time, one of them killed by hanging. The boy Franco has his tongue cut out. Renata’s breasts are burned, as is a boy’s penis, and a girl is scalped.

The libertines, studs, and guards are the gleefully willing perpetrators, of course, but each libertine goes inside the house to take a turn to watch the murders, which occur outside, from a window, viewing the cruelty through small binoculars. This voyeurism is comparable to our watching of violence in movies and on TV: we’ve seen so much of it that we’re desensitized to it; the voyeurs’ watching of the violence from farther away symbolizes our emotional distance from such violence when we see it on TV and in film.

The two guards we see at the end of the film, two boys dancing to music–can be seen as another fascist mockery of the LGBT community. One of them has a girlfriend named Marguerita–I don’t think he is bisexual.

The horrors seen in this film should be understood as prophetic, a dire warning of a reality that is more and more apparent each coming year. The film’s sadism only symbolizes that reality, but it’s no less of a reality just because of symbolism. Neoliberal capitalism hadn’t yet come into its own as of the mid-Seventies, but Pasolini knew that all of the imperialist ingredients were already on the table. The fascist shit dishes were going to be made and eaten, and quite soon: he could smell them.

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