I’m very bitter about what’s going on in my homecountry since that clown of Mr Berlusconi came back in power. In politically desperate situations I usually take refuge in reading political essays, but yesterday night I started thinking about Pier Paolo Pasolini's film Salo or the 120 days of Sodom (1975).
The film takes place in 1944 in the Salo Republic. Here four dignitaries representing the aristocratic, ecclesiastical, judicial and economic powers, round up in a villa near Marzabotto sixteen young men and women, either sons and daughters of partisans or partisans themselves. In the villa there are also four middle-aged women, three of them recount arousing stories, whilst the fourth accompanies them on the piano. For 120 days the dignitaries subject the youth to horrific tortures, atrocious physical and psychological violence and sadistic ordeals.
The controversial film is loosely based on the book by the Marquis de Sade, transposed to the fascist Salo Republic that Mussolini established in the north of Italy after being deposed in Rome by the king and Marshal Pietro Badoglio. The structure of the film also resembles the division into circles of Dante’s Inferno.
According to Pasolini, the film was an attack to the political and intellectual world, a message to denounce the “anarchy of the power”, an exploration of how power reacted when it was disassociated from humanity and when it transformed humanity into an object, while sex in the movie is a metaphor for the relationship between those who are in power and those who are subjected to it.
Conceived as the first film from the “trilogy of death”, after the writer and director completed the “trilogy of life” made up by The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nights, three hymns to eroticism, sexual freedom and joy, Salò was in fact the last film Pasolini ever shot.
In 1975 Pasolini was found dead near a seaplane base in Ostia. Conspiracy theories about his death abound: there are those who say Pasolini went to Ostia that night to meet somebody who was supposed to give him back some film reels of Salo that had been stolen. Others say that behind Pasolini’s assassination there is a political crime, he had indeed started writing the unfinished novel Petrolio (Oil) that would have featured the history of ENI, the Italian state oil company, about which he might have acquired some secret information.
Deemed obscene and shocking, X-rated, censored and banned, Salo is the manifesto with which Pasolini declared a final war to the indifference of the modern world. In the film Pasolini uses the rich furnishings, the art deco inspired interiors of the villa (one of the torturers even sits on a Charles Rennie Mackintosh chair towards the end of the film) and the elegant costumes worn by the fascist torturers and by the three female narrators, as symbols of the power of the ruling classes.
The naked victims are for example juxtaposed in the film to the three women, who are pompously dressed. Their dresses were designed by Danilo Donati and made in Italy by the Farani tailoring house. The three dresses followed the fashion of the '40s and they were used by Pasolini to symbolise the perversions of wealth and power.
Signora Vaccari (Hélène Surgère) tells the most perverted stories from her life and wears a white satin and tulle dress with an ample skirt and exaggerated puffed sleeves. The dress is decorated with black and white sequinned flowers and leaves; Signora Maggi (Elsa De Giorgi) celebrates sodomisation in a black lame dress, a bolero jacket and a cape, an ensemble that calls to mind the costumes worn by Hollywood divas. In the circle of blood, Signora Castelli (Caterina Boratto) tells very violent stories while wearing a rather conservative ivory evening dress and matching jacket in sequinned damasked satin. The grand costumes contrast with the the three women's extremely disturbing tales.
The film is a scream against consumer society, social and cultural homologation and obedience to a pre-constituted order. In a world in which people’s consciences and souls are constantly manipulated by the fake and alienating powers of capitalism and power, Pasolini's Salo still offers a contemporary message to those brave enough to listen.