Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom
A film by Pier Paolo Pasolini
"There is nothing either fundamentally good, nor anything fundamentally evil; everything is relative, relative to our point of view. This point once established, it is extremely possible that something, perfectly indifferent in itself, may be indeed distasteful in your eyes, but may be most delicious in mine; and immediately I find it pleasing, immediately I find it amusing, regardless of our inability to agree in assigning a character to it, should I not be a fool to deprive myself of it merely because you condemn it?" –Marquis de Sade, The 120 Days of Sodom
Pasolini was trenchant when discussing Sal�. Below are two pieces in which he introduces and then annotates his film, paying particular attention to its relationship to Sade's novel and to Italian fascism. The first, a 'Foreword', was written in 1974, a few months before filming began. The date of the second is unclear, but appears to have been written later. Both pieces are reproduced from an English-language press book (in the collection of James Ferman) issued, it seems, in Italy to accompany the release of the film. (Both pieces have been lightly edited.) There is no record of any translator in the press book.
This film is a cinematographic transposition of Sade's novel The 120 Days of Sodom. I should like to say that I have been absolutely faithful to the psychology of the characters and their actions, and that I have added nothing of my own. Even the structure of the story line is identical, although obviously it is very synthetised. To make this synthesis I resorted to an idea Sade certainly had in mind - Dante's Inferno. I was thus able to reduce in a Dantesque way certain deeds, certain speeches, certain days from the whole immense catalogue of Sade. There is a kind of 'Anti-Inferno' (the Antechamber of Hell) followed by three infernal 'Circles': 'The Circle of Madness'; 'The Circle of Shit', and 'The Circle of Blood'. Consequently, the Story-Tellers who, in Sade's novel, are four, are three in my film, the fourth having become a virtuoso - she accompanies the tales of the three others on the piano.
Despite my absolute fidelity to Sade's text, I have however introduced an absolutely new element: the action instead of taking place in eighteenth-century France, takes place practically in our own time, in Sal�, around 1944, to be exact.
This means that the entire film with its unheard-of atrocities which are almost unmentionable, is presented as an immense sadistic metaphor of what was the Nazi-Fascist 'dissociation' from its 'crimes against humanity'. Curval, Blangis, Durcet, the Bishop - Sade's characters (who are clearly SS men in civilian dress) behave exactly with their victims as the Nazi-Fascists did with theirs. They considered them as objects and destroyed automatically all possibility of human relationship with them.
This does not mean that I make all that explicit in the film. No, I repeat again, I have not added a single word to what the characters in Sade have to say nor have I added a single detail to the acts they commit. The only points of reference to the 20th century are the way they dress, comport themselves, and the houses in which they live.
Naturally there is some disproportion between the four protagonists of Sade turned into Nazi-Fascists and actual Nazi-Fascists who are historically true. There are differences in psychology and ideology. Differences and also some incoherence. But this accentuates the visionary mood, the unreal nightmare quality of the film. This film is a mad dream, which does not explain what happened in the world during the 40s. A dream which is all the more logical in its whole when it's the least in its details.
Sal� and Sade
Practical reason says that during the Republic of Sal� it would have been particularly easy given the atmosphere to organise, as Sade's protagonists did, a huge orgy in a villa guarded by SS men. Sade says explicitly in a phrase, less famous than so many others, that nothing is more profoundly anarchic than power - any power. To my knowledge there has never been in Europe any power as anarchic as that of the Republic of Sal�: it was the most petty excess functioning as government. What applies to all power was especially clear in this one.
In addition to being anarchic what best characterises power - any power - is its natural capacity to turn human bodies into objects. Nazi-Fascist repression excelled in this.
Another link with Sade's work is the acceptance/non-acceptance of the philosophy and culture of the period. Just as Sade's protagonists accepted the method - at least mental or linguistic - of the philosophy of the Enlightened Age without accepting all the reality which produced it, so do those of the Fascist Republic accept Fascist ideology beyond all reality. Their language is in fact their comportment (exactly like the Sade protagonists) and the language of their comportment obeys rules which are much more complex and profound than those of an ideology. The vocabulary of torture has only a formal relation with the ideological reasons which drive men to torture. Nonetheless with the characters in my film, although what counts is their sub-verbal language, their words also have a great importance. Besides their verbiage is rather wordy. But such wordy verbiage is important in two senses: firstly it is part of the presentation, being a 'text' of Sade's, that is being what the characters think of themselves and what they do; and, secondly, it is part of the ideology of the film, given that the characters who quote anachronistically Klossowsky and Blanchot are also called upon to give the message I have established and organised for this film: anarchy of power, inexistence of history, circularity (non-psychological not even in the psychoanalytic sense) between executioners and victims, an institution anterior to a reality which can only be economic (the rest, that is, the superstructure, being a dream or a nightmare).
Ideology and the meaning of the Film
We should not confuse ideology with message, nor message with meaning. The message belongs in part - that of logic - to ideology, and in the other part - that of irreason - to meaning. The logical message is almost always evil, lying, hypocritical even when very sincere. Who could doubt my sincerity when I say that the message of Sal� is the denunciation of the anarchy of power and the inexistence of history? Nonetheless put this way such a message is evil, lying, hypocritical, that is logical in the sense of that same logic which finds that power is not at all anarchic and which believes that history does exist. The part of the message which belongs to the meaning of the film is immensely more real because it also includes all that the author does not know, that is, the boundlessness of his own social, historical restrictions. But such a message can't be delivered. It can only be left to silence and to the text. What finally now is the meaning of a work? It is its form. The message therefore is formalistic; and precisely for that reason, loaded infinitely with all possible content provided it is coherent - in the structural sense.
Stylistic elements in the film
1. Accumulation of daily characteristics of wealthy bourgeois life, all very proper and correct (double-breasted suits, sequinned, deep cut gowns with dignified white fox furs, polished floors, sedately set tables, collections of paintings, in part those of 'degenerate' artists (some futuristic, some formalistic); ordinary speech, bureaucratic, precise to the point of self caricature.
2. 'Veiled' reconstruction of Nazi ceremonial ways (its nudity, its military simplicity at the same time decadent, its ostentations and icy vitality, its discipline functioning like an artificial harmony between authority and obedience, etc.
3. Obsessive accumulation to the point of excess of sadistic ritualistic and organised deeds; sometimes also given a brutal, spontaneous character.
4. Ironic corrective to all this through a humour which may explode suddenly in details of a sinister and admitted comic nature. Thanks to which suddenly everything vacillates and is presented as not true and not crude, exactly because of the theatrical satanism of self-awareness itself. It is in this sense that the direction will be expressed in the editing. It is there that will be produced the mix between the serious and the impossibility of being serious, between a sinister, bloody Thanatos and curate Bauba (Bauba was a Greek divinity of liberating laughter or better: obscene and liberating laughter).
In every shot it can be said I set myself the problem of driving the spectator to feeling intolerant and immediately afterwards relieving him of that feeling.
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