On the surface, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò seems like it requires some unpacking, at least for those of us without graduate degrees. Relocating the Marquis de Sade’s depraved novel The 120 Days of Sodom to Mussolini’s northern Italy in 1943, it name-drops Nietzsche, Proust, Ezra Pound, and others as it systematically humiliates and tortures a group of eighteen captive adolescents. But Salò’s goal is not opaque intellectualism for its own sake. Its poetic and literary references, juxtaposed with the WWII setting and Sade’s nihilism, are transparent condemnations of fascism, capitalism, and the apparent inevitability of power structures to be ultimately oppressive and cruel. While Salò’s graphic depictions of all manner of sadism may seem to oversell this point, they are belied by the film’s indifferent tone, and this cognitive dissonance is the source of its power.
Even when Salò’s penultimate scene veers towards sympathizing with its victims, it is encoded with irony. Perhaps the only scene to incorporate non-diegetic music, it pairs “Veris leta facies,” a solemn movement from Carl Orff’s cantata Carmina Burana, with the height of the violence, which is viewed voyeuristically through binoculars. For a moment, the film finally seems to be worn down by its own brutality, rendering its most horrific images with desperate sadness. But lyrically, “Veris leta facies” is a celebration of spring’s rebirth, and the moment ends unceremoniously with a turn of the radio dial.
This is a nasty piece of filmmaking, to be sure, but its thorough joylessness prevents it from joining the ranks of exploitation. Despite its rampant nudity and sex, it makes no attempt at titillation. Instead, it puts a cold eye on those enjoying power and those despairing in powerlessness. Its pessimism may not be noble, but for Pasolini, who was ejected from the Communist Party for being gay and was murdered shortly before Salò premiered, it’s probably pretty honest.