Directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini.
Starring Paolo Bonacelli, Giorgio Cataldi, Umberto P. Quintavalle and Aldo Valletti.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s final film Salò (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma, 1975) is based on the Marquis de Sade’s novel 120 Days of Sodom. Instead of France, the story is set in the republic of Salò in Fascist Italy towards the end of the Second World War. It features a group of young people being forced to endure a series of ritual (mainly sexual) humiliations at the hands of an oppressive regime. The regime consists of Masters and Storytellers who enact any sexual fantasy at will on these helpless victims. This consists of male and female rape, frequent sexual molestation, excrement eating and torture. If the victims attempt to escape they are killed. The stories told by the Storytellers are deliberately sexually charged and explicit designed to arouse the masters into performing these sadistic sexual acts.
In the film’s opening scenes, the masters choose their victims because of their natural beauty forcing them to strip in front of them so they can stare at their naked bodies and make a selection. The victims are then taken to a mansion where they are told what is going to happen to them. Assembled in a courtyard they are told that they will be treated like animals and used for the sexual pleasure of the masters in the hall of orgies. In the hall of orgies, as the storyteller tells a story a master will rape or molest a male or female victim. Apart from the rape scenes, the film also features heterosexual and homosexual sex. Much of the sex is from the rear. In fact the film leans towards homosexuality as one of the rules of the regime is that consensual heterosexual sex is forbidden. Therefore there are scenes of men kissing and having sex with each other and a scene where the masters cross dress so they can marry other men. The scenes featuring heterosexual sex are decidedly brief in comparison.
The film is also obsessed with bodily functions. A girl is forced to eat the excrement of a master as she annoys him for thinking of her mother. One of the most sickening moments in the film is when a storyteller relays a story about excrement eating which prompts the masters to organise a banquet in which everyone (masters and victims) eat excrement. Also during a story, a master has a girl urinate on him whilst another is content to watch a girl urinate and then urinate in front of her. The film then builds to a grotesquely violent climax in which the victims who have not abided by the rules of the regime are systematically tortured. A guard and a black servant girl are shot for indulging in heterosexual sex. A male victim has his tongue sliced off whilst another has his eye cut out with a knife. A girl victim is raped and then hanged and another has her scalp removed. The masters take turns to administer this sadism and watch each other from a window in the mansion as this takes place in the courtyard.
Salò had originally been submitted to the BBFC by its distributor United Artists in 1976. It was refused a certificate on the grounds of gross indecency which meant that if any part of the film was deemed as indecent the whole film would be rejected. This also meant that under law no artistic defense could be mounted on the film’s behalf.
The then president of the BBFC David Harlech disliked the film but chief censor James Ferman approved of it arguing that it made a strong anti-fascist statement and any censorship would lessen its impact. Ferman was however unable to release it as it became a prosecutable offence to do so. A prosecution case was prepared against the film but was never used. This came after the film was screened as part of a cinema club in 1977 uncertified and uncut at the behest of Ferman but was subsequently seized by police.
Eventually under the Obscene Publications Act the film could be taken as a whole and the charges of indecency dropped, though the film was still liable under the deprave and corrupt test in its uncut form. In an effort to get the film shown, Ferman excised six minutes and inserted an explanatory prologue and this version ran in selected cinemas through the 1970s and 1980s. An uncut version of Salò was later resubmitted to the BBFC by the British Film Institute in the year 2000. This coincided with the BBFC’s new classification guidelines in which it was decided that the film was no longer harmful and was unlikely to deprave and corrupt. The film was then re-released with an 18 certificate that same year and then onto video/DVD in the year 2001.
Despite much strong material, the film does not rejoice in the evil deeds of the masters. The sex scenes are never pornographic and the rape scenes are disturbing in their lack of sensationalism. The atrocities committed by the masters are simply deplorable. They behave as if they are civilized, spouting their fascist ideologies between bouts of rape and torture but are nothing more than sadists. When they force the victims to behave like animals, the film’s message is clear that it really is the masters who are the animals. Salò is still a very strong film which is meant to shock and still does.
Santosh Sandhu graduated with a Masters degree in film from the University of Bedfordshire and wrote the short film ‘The Volunteers’.