Salò, or the 120 days of Sodom (1975) was the last film Pier Paolo Pasolini ever made and the first Pasolini film I ever saw.
I approached Salò several years ago in almost total ignorance, having read no reviews or criticism of it. What impressions do I have of that first encounter with the film as ‘shock of the new’, to borrow a phrase from Robert Hughes?
Sodomy and politics
One can wait for a filmmaker’s vision to showcase for us an imagined relation between sodomy and power. Or one can leave it to a country like Malaysia to provide us with a real version of it.
In Salò, a number of youth are rounded up and confined to a villa in the town of Salò, the capital of Mussolini’s republic, during the final days (1944-45) leading up to the definitive downfall of the Fascist regime. There, these young men and women are subject to humiliation and torture at the hands of four Fascists—a magistrate, a bishop, a banker, and a duke—each one representative of the powerful institutions of society.
In this closed setting, sodomy is not just an expression of the perversions of the four Fascists, but it becomes the tool of control, degradation, harm and punishment itself. In one scene, a young man and woman—after being coerced into a ritualized, makeshift marriage staged by the Fascists—are forced to consummate their union in the presence of the four men. As the newly weds are lying naked on the floor, locked in an embrace, just as the groom makes a move to conjoin with his consort, the men shout out from behind “No! That flower is reserved for us!” and two of them rush up to the couple to separate them. One Fascist covers the woman, and the other her ‘husband’. A third, the magistrate, approaches the Fascist over the woman from behind, lowers the former’s trousers, then his own, enters him and begins thrusting. Nowhere in Shakespeare’s Othello does a beast like this with three backs appear.
Later in the film, the Duke will say that the “sodomitic gesture” is the “most absolute” in that in it the human species sees its own mortality; it is also the “most ambiguous” in that it accepts social norms with the aim of transgressing them and, finally, it is the most scandalous because even though it simulates the act of procreation, it also totally derides it.
The film ends with two young soldiers dancing together, locked in a waltz, to the sound of music coming from a radio while outside we do not hear the screams emanating from their peers upon whom carnage is being executed.
“What is the name of your girlfriend?” one of the dancers asks.
“Margherita,” the other says.
How will people read this ending? As privileging the heterosexual union and relegating the homosexual one to that of transgression and scandal? Women as the spring of life since the margherita is the flower of Spring?
In Malaysia, too, sodomy was used as a tool by the State but for completely different aims. Not men in power practicing sodomy as a form of abuse to subdue and punish youth, but men in power using sodomy to annihilate the political career of one their opponents—former Deputy Prime Minister and opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim.
No matter the speculation about whether Anwar did or did not sodomise first his driver in 1993 and then an aide in 2008, and no matter the overturning of the first sodomy conviction due to unreliable and inconclusive evidence, the fact remains that Anwar—also a former finance minister—has been sentenced more times and for more years on charges of sodomy than on corruption, even though he has served years in prison also on a corruption conviction.
Secondly, Malaysia has admitted to the whole world that not only is sodomy part of politics but that to prosecute Anwar, the country has to depend on the remnants of British colonial-era laws that criminalized sodomy and were integrated into the current Malaysian penal code; not Shariah law. In fact, Anwar Ibrahim had requested for a Shariah court to investigate the allegations of his accuser, the aide, knowing that in Islam for the accusation of sodomy to be binding, four male eyewitnesses have to be present when the sodomy was committed. No such four witnesses were produced during the trials, though. Where were the four Fascists when you needed them?
During one of the banquets, a soldier trips a naked waitress as she walks by and she falls, the dishes of food she is carrying crashing to the ground. The soldier approaches her from behind and we see him unzipping his trousers and placing his hand inside the fly. The shadow on the wall suggests an erect penis being withdrawn. The next scene frames the waitress on her knees with the soldier behind her, an anguished scream leaving her throat as he makes the first thrust. Although it is not clearly stated or shown, one cannot discount from the piercing scream that she is being sodomised for the first time. When the Fascists are examining their captives at the start of the film and telling them what they are going to do to them, they use the word ‘sverginare’ or ‘to deflower’ also to mean sodomise for the first time.
It has to be said, though, that there is no screaming from the males when they are being sodomised.
Early in the film, the four fascists assemble on a balcony and the magistrate reads out to the prisoners gathered on the lawn below the new rules they will have to abide by, and the punishments they will receive in case of violation. At some point, servants appear from round the corner and the magistrate shouts out to banish them, sending a soldier armed with a rifle to chase them away. In a split second, the soldier makes eye contact with a servant girl of African origin, probably from one of the former Italian colonies.
Sexual relations between prisoners are forbidden, and punishable with the amputation of a limb. When the Fascists are tipped off by one of the female prisoners (who was caught in bed with another woman) that the soldier is making love to the African servant, the Fascists storm in on the couple and catch them in flagrante delicto. Rising to his feet, the soldier heroically raises his left arm with fist tightly clenched—a classic communist, Partisan gesture—just before the four Fascists shoot him to death on the spot. His lover, the African servant, meets the same fate.
How might one read this allegorically? That communism and socialism might be dead, but even harder to kill are the ugly truths of capitalism, postcolonialism and migration that continue to make themselves seen and heard in the deafening hum of the crossfire?
The Mediterranean diet
The virtues of Italian cuisine have been sung far and wide, across oceans. So it is quite ironic that an Italian like Pasolini would imagine a banquet in which the specialty of the day is shit. Human excrement as first course, second course and dessert. Indeed, Pasolini shows many of the youthful first-timers gagging as they taste their first spoonful. But then he also shows the adults tucking in to shit as though it were tiramisù. People can get used to consuming anything, even shit.
If, according to the General in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch “they’ll go back to dividing everything up among the priests, the gringos and the rich, and nothing for the poor, naturally, because they’ve always been so fucked up that the day that shit is worth money, poor people will be born without an asshole…”, shit in Salò is given value. It becomes the source of capital. The young men and women are supposed to give all their shit to their masters, keeping nothing for themselves. The labour force is producing goods the workers themselves do not want to consume but are forced to because there is nothing else. This kind of system can only generate a perpetual recycling of shit production and shit consumption and implode on itself. It is no accident that the coprophagous scenes in Salò appear in the section titled Circle of Shit.
The best youth
The young men and women—even though some of them still wash their asses like the good boys and girls their parents raised them to be—snitch on each other to ingratiate themselves with the Fascists in order to save their skins. The victims are as corrupted as the adults around them. Yet, the youth are not spared from the worst end.
And sometimes it isn’t even clear whether collaboration is due to fear or willing participation. When the Duke orders one of the female victims to stride over him and pee on his face, she says she is not able to not because she is horrified and humiliated by the idea but simply because she has no urge to pee. When the urge finally does come, her face almost shows relief as his shows pleasure in receiving the shower.
In commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s death, a restored version of Salò, or the 120 days of Sodom will be released in sixty-five cinemas across Italy as well as in DVD format. Viewers of the film today, when they see a bunch of powerful men enjoying themselves with women, might draw associations to the parties Silvio Berlusconi hosted in his villas. Others might think of all the horrible stories about boys being raped by US soldiers in Abu Ghraib. Or about how women are treated by the Islamic State. Some might recall the brutal Circeo massacre that happened on 29 September 1975, just over a month before Pasolini was to be bludgeoned to death on November 2 in Lido di Ostia. Two teenagers, Rosaria Lopez and Donatella Colasanti, were beaten and raped in a beach villa in Circeo by three men in their twenties. Donatella survived to tell the tale as she faked death while she was loaded, along with Rosaria’s corpse, into the trunk of a Fiat.
As far as I know, Salò has not been scheduled for public screening in Kuala Lumpur.