Criterion Files #17: Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom

Salò’s Unique Problem

My problem coming away from the experience of watching Salò had little to do with whether or not the political and didactic ends of the film were justified by the means of exhibiting sexual abuse, rape, torture, coprophagia, scalping, and eventually murder, but rather in its source material. As stated before, filmic depictions and adaptations of de Sade vary greatly, but the particular appropriation for Salò might be one of the more problematic cases. The essential subversive and transcendent importance of Marquis de Sade, of course, lied in his rampant hedonism that ignored any barrier in its path, including empathy or the regard for the sanctity of innocent human life: nothing was sacred. Through his literature de Sade illuminated how conscience is not intrinsic to human nature, but something imposed upon us by social structures and sexually repressive institutions like class status, the merits of high culture, and, especially, religion.

What Pasolini does with Salò is that he specifically politicizes de Sade in a way most convenient to the ends of a film that, in many aspects, actually contains very little in common with the perspective of de Sade. In a sense, Pasolini bastardizes de Sade. Pasolini, a devout Communist, possessed specific and aggressive political intents in denouncing fascism through Salò (in fact, Salò came out at a unique time in 1970s Italian arthouse cinema in which auteurs revisited their country’s history of fascism not with a return to neo-realism, but with creative and often confrontational interpretations of the era, like Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970) and 1900 (1976), Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties (1975), and Fellini’s Amarcord (1973)).

But by politicizing de Sade, Pasolini also moralizes the originally hedonist intent of the 120 Days of Sodom, as Salò is a film that doubtlessly engages with the fact that we should be ethically denouncing everything the fascists do in the film, which is why the film itself functions as an exercise in torture and endurance. Unlike Pasolini’s film, perspectives of morality (or politics, for that matter) don’t exist in de Sade, and the very significance of the author’s work lies in this fact. Salò, then, rather than adapting de Sade for its own subversive and insightful benefit, actually appropriates the 120 Days of Sodom in the most offensive sense of the term, using it solely for the benefit of the adapting author (Pasolini), not with respect for the intent of the text (de Sade). The fascists in the film occupy the role that de Sade’s vantage point originally played in the novel, so by injecting an element of political activism into this work, Pasolini effectively makes de Sade the real enemy.

I’m still not sure where I situate myself in the debate on whether or not Salò is good or bad art. I’m certain that one day I’ll watch it again, coming away with new means to respond to the film. But of all things I anticipated Salò to be, I never thought I’d come out of it defending the name of the Marquis de Sade.

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Landon is a PhD candidate currently writing a dissertation on rock 'n' roll movies at Indiana University's department of Communication and Culture. He enjoys slow films on the beach.

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