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Film Essays

Sadism and Indifference: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò

“Art is anything you can get away with.” This phrase, first said by Marshall McLuhan and made famous by Andy Warhol, sets forth a fundamental truth: At the very core of any great work of art, there must be something about the piece that is shocking. While many films may shock in particularly violent and abhorrent ways, such as the sadomasochistic relationship between Dorothy Vallens and Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, the films usually are situated in locations or genres that allow for audience identification. However, a film like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, confronts the audience with a harsh and repulsive cinematic landscape that defies identification. The acts depicted in the film are so violent and revolting that the audience is left with no place of familiarity in which to situate its confused viewpoint.

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom was Pasolini’s final film, a grim magnum opus that takes the viewer through a Dantean journey of a man made hell. As the title implies, Salò is based on the book 120 Days of Sodom by the Marquis de Sade. Pasolini moves the setting from France to the province of Salò in Italy during the final days of Mussolini’s fascist regime. In the film, a group of high-ranking fascist libertines abduct a group of youths, both male and female, and take them to a villa in the countryside. Sealed off from the outside world, the fascists hire a group of prostitutes to recant their sexual exploits while the officers rape the youths, force them to literally eat shit, and finally kill them in a playground of medieval tortures. The scenes of torture and rape are explicitly depicted; however, the most obscene aspect of the film is the callousness of the torturers and the passivity of those being tortured. While the youths do occasionally exhibit rebellious actions against their captors, the majority do exactly as they are told.

The Villa

It’s relatively easy to believe that we could be meant to identify with the youths. When presented with a situation of life or absolute obedience, we would probably obey, even if obeying meant death. After all, in every totalitarian regime, there is always the response of, “We were just doing as we were told.” Pasolini breaks apart this excuse by demonstrating how blind obedience will eventually lead to destruction. Beyond mere obedience, there are often scenes where the youths seem to enjoy their ordeals. For example, in one scene the youths are lead into a hall like dogs, and fed scraps of food. One of the officers puts nails in a piece of bread, and calls a girl over. She looks excited and eager to feed from his hand, until she bites down on the nails.

Dog Girl

Even more, there is a scene where one of the youths kisses one of the officers, and is surprisingly affectionate and tender. To say that the youths are entirely victims would be incorrect, because on some level they are allowing themselves to be controlled.

Preparing to Kiss

Identifying with the fascists and other perpetrators of these atrocities is not as simple. Throughout the film, the viewer is presented the scenes from a removed spectator’s viewpoint. This removed vantage point is shattered, however, in the film’s final sequence, which is comprised of a medieval torture sequence where the disobedient youths are tortured and killed. The torture area takes place in the yard of the villa, and is observed by those not participating from the windows by binoculars. As the scene begins, we first see the fascist watching the scene outside, however, the camera switches to the fascists point of view. At this point the viewer realizes that we are not only supposed to identify with the youths, but with the fascists as well—through the viewing of the atrocities, we are perpetuating them.

Looking through binoculars

Our crisis of identification has been forcibly solved.

What we see through said binoculars

The result of this realization is shown through the seemingly uninvolved piano-playing prostitute, who played music while the others told the tales of the exploits. Throughout the film, she had appeared detached from the others in control, exhibiting discomfort in many instances. As the final torture scene commences she walks to an open window. Upon viewing the scene of suffering, she jumps from the window to her death. The prostitute’s suicide and the torture and killing of the youths make it clear that the only way to exit from a system of systematic violence and dehumanization is through death.

Two men Waltzing

Pasolini’s message is bleak and completely devoid of hope. Salò serves as a warning to anyone who either advocates for, or allows for fascism to flourish. By changing the setting of de Sade’s work, Pasolini gives a specific historical example, but by having the actions take place in an isolated area, seemingly outside of time or place, his message is universal. As the film ends, we watch two young officers dance a waltz while the youths are tortured outside, and the film fades to black. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes says: “What the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.” The waltz seems to last forever after the end of the film, endlessly repeating, a dire warning of the dangers of sadism and indifference.

By Theo Estes   2/3/11

For more on disturbing films:
Leg Braces and Rape Scenes: An Attempted Apologia for Disturbing Imagery
The Beggar of Pain Speaks to Him: The Lopsided Critique of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist



7 thoughts on “Sadism and Indifference: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò

  1. This essay called to mind the devastating quote by Elie Wiesel: “Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil.” And, as passive voyeurs watching the torture through the looking glasses, we can claim zero responsibility for the resulting evil.

    Posted by Ellen Mrja | February 5, 2011, 1:57 am


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